T H E H U F F I N G T O N P O S T
Guest Column: Rules Democrats Should Use To Take Back Congress
I wrote in my book How Democrats Can Take Back Congress that Democratic candidates should utilize the creativity of advertising professionals to come up with snappy campaign slogans: “Hire some ad-men and ad-women who do that sort of thing for a living. There’s a lot of Madison Avenue talent just waiting to be tapped for this mission.”
Well, it seems one of them isn’t sitting around waiting to be tapped, but is trying to educate candidates on his own initiative.
Since I was on vacation last week, I am happy to turn over this week’s column to a Madison Avenue ad-man who must remain unidentified. He has chosen to remain anonymous (due to his Republican clientele), but he has written a powerful political blueprint that I believe deserves a wider audience. He previously posted this piece as a comment on other Huffington Post blogs, but it’s well worth a fresh look, even if you have read it before.
He posts here under the user name “CotyJarret,” to give him what credit he is professionally able to acknowledge.
His goal is simple: get Democrats to use some marketing smarts and discipline. Democratic candidates need to forcefully get back in the game—after being out-marketed, out-sloganed, out-anticipated, and flat out out-gunned by Karl Rove for the past six years.
Here is his list of rules, in the form of an open letter to all Democratic congressional candidates (and their campaign managers) this fall:
THE RULES OF PERCEPTION
John Kerry went to Vietnam, saved a man’s life and was wounded. Somehow, the voters perceived of John Kerry as a coward who never served his country and would not be tough enough as our commander-in-chief. George W. Bush avoided Vietnam and failed to fulfill his National Guard obligation. Somehow, the people of this country perceived of George W. Bush as a heroic military man and a courageous commander-in-chief.
This is called MANAGING PERCEPTION. Not just managing the perception people have of YOUR guy, but more importantly, managing the perception people have of the OTHER guy! In 2004, more people perceived that Kerry was bad and Bush was good. Just enough people for Bush to win the election.
Which brings us to a cold hard fact: if the Democrats want to take back Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008, they must become as good as Karl Rove at managing perception. The good news is, it’s not some trick only Karl Rove knows the secret to. Managing perception is not even all that difficult once you know the rules.
Pick ONE INDIVIDUAL to head up your election team and give this person TOTAL AUTHORITY to manage all advertising messages and perception issues. Whatever he or she says—goes! And no more discussion.
There were 29 people in charge of Kerry, including Kerry himself. The public heard 29 different viewpoints. The Republicans had one person in charge: Rove. The public heard one viewpoint: Rove’s. Americans are used to single-minded powerful selling messages, and they like a single-minded powerful point-of-view.
Choose the roughest, toughest person who has ever created wildly successful advertising and PR campaigns. Make damned sure this person is a real marketer, doesn’t take any guff from anybody and is NOT a political stooge. Make sure ALL money flows to this one person and all spending is coordinated through this person. (Strong hint: if the DNC drafted Donnie Deutsch, they’d take it all.)
Learn how to disseminate simple catchphrases the mainstream media can use. Like Rove when he invented “cut and run”—which Fox and the mainstream media lapped up like a thirsty dog. You need to do this with the same dexterity and speed. You will never exceed Rove in this, but you can do AS WELL as he does, which would basically neutralize his effectiveness in the media.
Just watch Fox News (Official News Channel of the successful invasion of Iraq and media/PR representative for the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth). You may hate them, but they’re incredibly effective at spreading the Rovian catchphrase of the day and using it to rally the faithful, while keeping GOP politicians in lockstep and on message!
You do not have a media outlet like Fox, so you must work twice as hard to get the mainstream media to carry your message to ALL voters. Importantly, do not believe the mainstream media is for you and against Republicans. They’re not. If you somehow think they’ll help you win an election, you’ve already lost.
When the other side hands you a bone, do not bury the bone! USE IT! The best way to negatively affect the perception of the other side is to use their own bone against them!
“I voted for it before I voted against it” was a bone Karl Rove shook in our face the entire campaign. It perfectly defined Kerry as a “flip-flopper.” When Bush said, “I don’t think much about Bin Laden,” Kerry should have said, “Bin Laden murdered three thousand Americans and you promised you’d kill him! Why didn’t you, you flip-flopping coward?”
Cheer up. You missed your chance, but there’ll be more. Rudy blamed the grunts for missing that weapons cache. Ask the Mayor why he’s not supporting the troops!
Understand that you are dealing with a target audience that doesn’t care enough, or simply refuses to devote the time to learn the real facts regarding the real issues. Instead, their perception has BECOME the facts!
The target audience fervently believed Saddam Hussein WAS behind the 9/11 attacks and there WERE weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Just as they believe today that the second in command of Al Qaeda has been killed or captured at least a dozen times—AND they’ve conveniently forgotten that Osama Bin Laden is not only still alive, but happily and calmly planning future attacks against our country.
Do not try to change this reality. Work with it. The perception you create IS the reality! Take heart! If they perceive something despite obvious evidence to the contrary, you will be able to make them perceive any number of things! Including your point of view! Rove knows this and uses it—you must too!
Stop playing by “Marquess of Queensberry” rules. Before you get punched, you punch. Hard. Whenever possible, you punch below the belt. And most importantly, even after they are down, you keep punching.
George Bush. Cocaine. Alcohol. The National Guard. Deserter. With 40 days to go before the election, there should have been 40 awful revelations about George Bush—one each day, each worse than the one before it.
Stop being a candy-ass. If you start lamenting, “I’m becoming just like THEM,” you have just guaranteed their victory. They currently OWN the playing field. You either play by their rules or YOU ARE GOING TO LOSE. Your job is to punch hard and neutralize their negative attacks by being just as nasty. IF you make it back into office, THEN you can start working to reform how people get elected. For now, you must get mean!
NO MORE NUANCE. The target not only fails to understand even the most obvious nuance, they actually HATE the idea there should be nuance at all (it even sounds French!). Nuance = bad. Black and white = good!
“A marriage is a sacred union between a man and a woman” — George Bush.
“I’m personally against gay marriage, but I feel the states should decide.” — John Kerry (too nuanced by half!)
Come off your high horse and forget that issues really DO demand nuance, at least until the election is over. Until November, pick a side on each issue and make sure your target audience understands CLEARLY what that side is. And relax! The only people you'll sound like a simpleton to are already voting for you anyway.
Choose ONE VERY CLEAR LABEL for your candidate and NEVER let go of it. Keep hitting it hard until everyone in America knows it is EXACTLY what your candidate stands for.
George Bush was the “unwavering commander-in-chief who won the war on terror.” John Kerry was ____________. Whatever he was wasn’t as bad as you think, but we’re still not able to fill in that blank.
Think of a one-word label that your target can quickly grasp. “America, I am the Jobs President!” Don't worry about which label is best. Just choose one and let that be the centerpiece. All other things the candidate talks about should grow out of this one strong position. And remember—no matter how Rove tries to re-define you (and he will, constantly)—make sure this one label sticks to you like glue!
Devote a tremendous amount of time and spend a huge portion of your campaign money finding, recruiting, training and firing up VOLUNTEERS. As odd as it may sound, if you spend $100 million on TV, you MUST spend $200 million creating a massive, incredibly well-coordinated volunteer effort.
Karl Rove used pinpoint research to find and motivate volunteers who went where no campaign had gone before—into parts of Florida where alligators were more likely to vote than people. In Ohio, Rove’s volunteers dragged Republicans out of their corporate meetings to make sure they voted! It’s why he won and you lost.
Your volunteers MUST BE A MEMBER OF YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE. You need to find volunteers who attend the same church, go to the same stores and like and dislike the same things your target audience does! Remember, you cannot spend TOO MUCH money or do TOO MUCH demographic homework and research making this happen! Just so you know, Republicans do NOT own a patent on this type of research!
Do not give Karl Rove any help whatsoever. In other words, do not start with a candidate who puts you in a twenty-foot ditch that Rove will never let you fight your way out of. Make damned sure your candidate has the gumption to come out swinging and immediately counter-punch every Swift Boat move Rove tries.
This is no walk in the park, but it is not impossible. Remember, George W. Bush did not have to defeat John Kerry. With Rove calling all the shots, John Kerry defeated John Kerry.
Work hard against the nomination of anybody who cannot remain strong and stay firm on base issues while tacking to the center in a convincing, spirited way.
Bill Richardson. Mark Warner. And yeah, Al Gore!
Stop trying to be ATTAP, or “All Things To All People.” You will fail. There is no way in this great country of ours that you will ever be more than 65% of things to 55% of the people. That’s your goal, by the way. You reach it and you own Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008.
Karl Rove didn’t bother with liberals or most Democrats. He went after his base and the squishy center and didn’t waste any time or money on anybody else. He also didn’t care what anybody else thought of him or his candidate.
By all means, rally your base. Then go figure out what you can actually say to the squishy center and spend MOST of your time and money winning them over. And for heaven’s sake, don’t worry about what dyed-in-the-wool Republicans think about what you’re saying. They’re not voting for you anyway.
Start today. Not later today. NOW! Start figuring out now where you're going to find your own Karl Rove and then get this person started. Any time you waste is going to make it tougher for you to win in 2006 and 2008.
By the time the Democrats got around to throwing a few punches in 2004, they were defensive punches, and way too late. Today, right now, Karl Rove has already picked his candidate and crafted a strategy he is confident will whomp your stupid Democratic butt. And make no mistake about it: he has ALREADY dug up tons of dirt on the 20 people YOU are most likely to nominate.
Don’t put off your homework for tomorrow morning. Collect data on whoever they might nominate. Spend some time NOW figuring out how to effectively deal with anybody and everybody they might nominate.
Keep a copy of these rules by your pillow and read them every night. When you wake up, make damned sure you follow them every day. If you adhere to these rules, you are going to NEUTRALIZE Rove by making this Rove Versus Rove. That might sound horrible and off-putting, but what it actually means is that the race will NOT come down to perception, but instead, level the playing field, so you might actually have a chance to win!
Copyright © 2006, The Huffington Post
By Chris Weigant and the Huffington Post’s CotyJarret