Energized by the momentum of resounding GOP victories in Virginia and New Jersey, Republican candidates are lining up in throngs to run for offices across the country in 2010. Having worked with multiple Virginia Republican campaigns in 2009, we offer two insights that could prove invaluable for Republican candidates, party chiefs, and operatives in 2010:
In a center-right electorate, the center is holding — to the right.
One year ago, the independent voters of America put President Obama in the White House and delivered Congress overwhelmingly to the Democrats. But oh, how times have changed.
As renowned political pollsters Scott Rasmussen and Douglas E. Schoen asserted in their Wall Street Journal-Opinion Journal article, “Obama Is Losing Independent Voters,” it’s these very same folks — independents — who are now telling the President to govern “in a more fiscally conservative, bipartisan manner.” Whether or not the past election cycle was truly a referendum on President Obama himself, it’s clear that Americans, particularly independent voters, are growing restless with the Administration’s statist policies (e.g., Obamacare, cap-and-trade, corporate bailouts, etc.).
Given the continuing dismal state of the economy, Virginia Governor-elect Bob McDonnell’s chosen path to victory holds great promise for GOP candidates in 2010. Dubbed the “McDonnell Strategy” by Politico‘s Jonathan Martin in his recent piece, “GOP eyes McDonnell Strategy,” 2010 Republican candidates would be wise to “run on economic policy, downplay divisive cultural issues, present an upbeat tone, target independent voters and focus on Democratic-controlled Washington — all without attacking President Barack Obama personally.”
So, how does a 2010 GOP campaign actually translate this “McDonnell Strategy” into a meaningful plan? The obvious first step is to address the important local issues of the district and determine which national themes can be localized. The even more important second step is to tell voters what you specifically plan to do for them. As the voters in 2009 demonstrated, they are very aware of the problems. What they desperately want are leaders who are really listening and who are willing to offer solutions — not just slogans — that make sense. This need to communicate with voters brings us to our second point.
Social media matters.
Matt Drudge may regularly trumpet the continuing circulation and audience declines of traditional media, but he won’t be covering your campaign unless you do something scandalous. With thousands of offices up and down the ticket on ballots across the county in 2010, unless you are running in the top-line race in your state (e.g., Governor or Senator or maybe Congressman), you are going to have a difficult time attracting media coverage and getting your message out to voters through traditional news channels.
If you’re lucky, you have a hometown paper that still sends a reporter to political events. Most candidates, however, will end up emailing press releases to a drop box at a paper that no longer even has a reporter to cover your county, much less your campaign. Fortuitously, there is a political blogger network (in a very loose sense of network) that is growing to fill this gap left by the decline of traditional media. The trick for campaigns — large and small — is to figure out how to connect effectively with this proto-network of bloggers.
These bloggers are just one aspect of the larger network of online activity that is often referred to as “social media.” Email, web2.0, video, social networking, micro-blogging, social bookmarking — all are different aspects of a larger approach to distributing information and encouraging activity. The common thread woven throughout these concepts is the distributed self-service nature of the various activities.
Traditional media relied on the paid efforts of gatekeepers (reporters, editors, producers, etc.) whom campaigns could easily identify (even if they were not always receptive to your message) to reach specific audiences. In the social media environment, the audiences are fractured, transient and often desiring of being active participants in the communication process. The campaign that can apply a sustained effort to harnessing these participants will have a significant advantage over opponents who stick with a more passive approach designed for a bygone era.
It would be too easy to dismiss social media and digital campaigning as the province of well-funded top-of-the-ticket campaigns like those contesting the recent Virginia Governor’s election.
The truth is: effort, creativity and focus are better indicators of success in this realm than dollars invested in technology. Done properly and consistently, social media can provide campaigns up and down the ticket with three significant payoffs — Money (online fundraising), Messaging and (voter) Mobilization. At best, a campaign that ignores social media or takes half-hearted attempts is leaving lots of opportunities unrealized. At worst, ceding the social media field to an opponent (even an under-funded third-party candidate) could leave a campaign vulnerable to all manner of unanswered attacks.
Both the message and the medium are in play for 2010. For the future of our country, we hope that Republican candidates can master both.