GET YOUR POPCORN READY
COMMENTARY BY JOHN BRABENDER
November 6, 2018
It's the final day of the mid-term elections, which means we are only a day away from the beginning of the 2020 Presidential campaign. Specifically, the Democrat race to take on President Trump.
Seem too early? Not at all. In fact, the candidates have quietly been putting their campaigns together for months. Most are finalizing plans for their launch. With the initial debate less than six months away, it's game time.
What's going to make the Democrat nomination so interesting is the inexperience of the candidates on a national playing field. I think it's safe to say we've already seen that with Elizabeth Warren's unfortunate strategy to have her DNA testing publicly released. And Senator Gillibrand's promise to serve her entire six year term if re-elected during a recent debate was an egregious unforced error. There will be more early mistakes by more candidates. It's to be expected.
So where do the candidates stand today? Who has the early advantage? What should they consider as they move forward? Here are some initial thoughts.
Go Big, And You Probably Go Home.
When it comes to what type of campaign organization to build, candidates have two main choices, large and bureaucratic, like a large company; or lean and disruptive, like a startup. For many decades the assumption was “the bigger the better,” believing that a large campaign would be perceived as having momentum and inevitability. “Get on the moving train, or you will be left behind.” Not anymore. In recent years, there’s been a significant shift towards smaller, more nimble, and less cash-burning campaign organizations. A few examples of candidates who painfully ignored this streamlined approach, and ramped up too big too soon are Rudy Giuliani, Scott Walker, and Tim Pawlenty. Smart campaigns no longer equate size with success.
Hire The Best Consultants, Twice.
Most of the candidates have previously run for office, so they are likely to already have a cadre of trusted advisors. There’s one significant caveat, and that is political consultants aren’t typically the most loyal group. Some will stealth-like be looking for a better financed or more viable client. There have already been published reports that a few of Bernie Sanders’s previous consultants are in discussions with new campaigns. You can expect the candidate/consultant shuffle game to continue for a while.
What makes the early consultant sign-up process more complicated and more critical is that each campaign will actually need two separate consultant teams. One for the official campaign, and one for a favorable Super PAC. With as many as 20 credible candidates entering the race, there will more demand than usual for Presidential quality campaign consultants, resulting in some campaigns being forced to hire media consultants and pollsters without the appropriate experience and credentials. Campaigns must move quickly to secure the best talent, and then decide where to place them, on the campaign side or the Super PAC side.
The campaigns are also likely to be meeting with a wide number of digital, data modeling, and segmentation experts that are critical for today’s modern campaigns. Everyone will be looking for the new, and the one firm that has concocted the “secret sauce” for winning. This will lead some campaigns to be seduced to spend way too much way too early. There is certainly great value in hiring the best firms in these areas, but it’s a mistake to bet the ranch on it.
The other high priority will be finding talented operatives in early states, especially Iowa and New Hampshire. A few of the campaigns can reasonably plan to be there much further down the schedule, and therefore hire consultants in a multitude of the states. But that will be the exception. And again, demand will exceed supply. You can be sure that many of the most competent operatives have already been locked down with favorable contracts. Late entrants and perceived second tier candidates will face difficulties finding quality people, and be forced to overpay for second rate talent.
Need To Decide Now Where You Can Effectively Play.
Running for President is a combination of building up your national brand while running multiple statewide Governor campaigns. It’s also about managing momentum. If you can’t win an early race, your support starts to evaporate pretty quickly. So campaigns are going to have to start deciding whether or not they are going to try and compete everywhere, or whether or not they remain focused on finding a win. Any win. As Jon Huntsman learned, coming in third gets you a “ticket to ride” home.
The other lesson of Presidential politics is the golden rule, he or she with the gold can make their own rules. And in this case that means early advertising. According to the most recent filings, Senator Warren has over $15 million in the bank. Senator Gillibrand over $10 million while Senator Kamila Harris has less than $2 million. Spending early lets you increase name ID, take ownership of issues, attract followers, and move up in the polls, which leads to more donors. But there is also a huge risk if you spend too early and see no real movement. That may mean game, set, match for that candidate.
You can also expect to see the fake-out ad. An ad release, with no real money behind it, with the hope of getting significant press. Michael Avenatti has already been up with a quasi-Presidential ad which is certainly generating some press, but is so poorly done I don’t see how it helps his brand.
With all this stated, Iowa, get your TV remote controls ready. You’re about to be under siege.
Find A Message You Can Own.
Primary voters have a tendency to be heavily dominated by the ideological ends of the spectrum. So you can expect there to be a preponderance of left-leaning message competition. This was highlighted by Senator Booker being the first to announce support for looking at the impeachment of Judge Kavanaugh while Senator Harris released a tax plan that only cuts taxes for the lowest brackets. The paradox that these candidates will face is what plays well in partisan primaries and caucuses, can be harmful with a general election audience. Few if any of the candidates will have the luxury of worrying about that at this stage, so you can expect a lot of liberal “one-up-manship” right out of the gate.
The other challenge will be determining what you can actually own. With as many as 20 possible candidates, and each having limited share of voice, owning anything will be remarkably challenging. Some will try to focus heavily on a single issue, such as immigration, healthcare, entitlements, and criminal justice reform. Others will want to prove they are the greatest threat to President Trump’s re-election chances, and will spend most of their time trying to prove electability. Some will instead focus on wooing specific target audiences, such as younger voters, women and Hispanics.
The candidates also need to evaluate the number of participants who will be competing for the very same space. In 2016, Bernie Sanders had the progressive far left all to himself. Not this time. If you go back to the 2008 Republican primary for President, John McCain was able to win primaries in states like South Carolina only because Mike Huckabee was splitting too many votes with fellow southern conservative Fred Thompson. Owning real estate in Presidential primaries races can be very difficult.
Cable News Appearances Are Important.
For the score of candidates, getting yourself routinely placed on cable news will be critical. It will also be one of the most challenging tactics if you’re not one of the top candidates. Make no doubt about it, there is a TV news class system and providing equal time has never been a priority. The candidates that are the more attractive to the cable networks, specifically big names and controversial guests, will get the most on-air time. Bernie is always a good interview as is Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker. Senator Amy Klobuchar, on the other hand, is so damn nice, she has trouble making news, and can’t bump ratings. As a result stations are less anxious for her to appear. And don’t be surprised to see some of the Democrat candidates making appearances on Fox News. Why? Because if they get into a big enough fight with a host, it will result in online fundraising gold.
Debates Are Likely To Be Unfair, And Won With Soundbites, Not Brilliance.
In the 2012 Republican primary election, the debates were critical for candidates that started out trailing well behind. Just ask Rick Santorum who went on to win 11 primary and caucus states. The debates in 2016, however, resulted in a nightmare scenario for candidates not deemed top tier by an imperfect criteria. They were relegated to an earlier debate, not in prime time, and much lower ratings. Despite just being a few points behind in the national polls from the so-called front-runners, it was virtually impossible to gain traction once assigned to the warm-up show. Senator Linsey Graham learned this despite some strong performances. The moral of the story? Assuming the debate format will follow the 2016 precedent, for the majority of the candidates it will be more important to make it to the prime time debate slot rather than perform well. And this will be decided by poll numbers mostly driven by name ID.
I can assure you campaigns are aware of this now. And some will have to seriously consider investing in early media to drive up their name ID, and poll numbers to ensure participation in the upper tier debate.
Another challenge is how to win a debate. A solid performance rarely moves numbers. You need to have a repeatable moment, repeated in the post-debate analysis, repeated on the news for the next 24 hours, and shared repeatedly organically. These moments will likely be created by an unusually testy exchange with another participant, a rather effective or memorable hurl in the direction of the Republican President, or a massive mistake. The correct answer, by the way, was the Department of Energy.
Money Isn’t The Only Currency That Will Matter.
Some candidates are already starting with a big fundraising advantage. They fall into four categories. Federal candidates with large existing bank accounts, who can move their funds directly into a Presidential account. Any self-funder who can simply write a massive check. Any candidate who happens to have a mega-donor or two who can financially populate a Super PAC with an abundance of funds. And any candidate that can that can excite the online donor pool like Beto O’Rouke has done in the U.S. Senate race in Texas.
In today’s campaigns there is also a second form of currency that should also be included when measuring the financial horserace, specifically, the quantity and engagement intensity of supporters known as small dollar donors, followers, and connections. The leaders are pretty clear. If she were to decide to run, Oprah would be in a different world, amassing more followers than the rest of the candidates combined. Between Twitter and Facebook, Sanders has over 10 million followers. Cory Booker has quietly built up an impressive mass of followers. Cuomo, on the other hand, has built almost nothing.
Getting To First Base In The Dating Game.
The other activity that has been underway for a significant length of time, but will now move into hyper gear, is the romancing of gatekeepers, bundlers, king and queen makers, and celebrity stars. And for a couple of reasons, this will be a longer than normal dating period. First, there are so many candidates it will take a while for the process to complete, no speed dating here. And second, there is such collective distain for President Trump by these left-leaning influencers that they will want to ensure they don’t commit to the wrong suiter too soon. Plus, everyone, even billionaires and Hollywood celebrities like to be romanced.
If I were to offer some advice to the candidates it’s this...don’t ask for what you really want on the first date. Most make the unforced error of asking for a long term commitment to the campaign too soon. This audience likes to be wooed over and over again, but they don’t want to feel they have a dollar sign tattooed on their forehead. In fact, many of them believe their strategic counsel is the greatest value they offer. This is likely to be untrue, but wise candidates will listen first, and ask second.
John Brabender is Chief Strategic and Creative Officer at BrabenderCox,
a National Republican Media and Message Consulting Firm.