Happy Super Tuesday Eve!
When I first came to DC, my employer at the time had a list of "lessons learned" from Senator Phil Gramm's presidential campaign on the wall. I wish I kept a copy of it.
So, here are some thoughts for 2020 presidential aspirants, based on the lessons learned, re-learned, and forgotten thus far in the 2016 election cycle.
1. Define your opponents early and vigorously. While the media historically serves a larger role here, I don't believe I have witnessed a presidential candidate as good as Donald Trump when it comes to establishing narrative frames for his opponents, with his re-positioning of Jeb! being Trump's crowning achievement in this regard (to date). Governor Bush never recovered from the low energy tag and the characterization helped expedite the collapse of a candidacy that 1) never quite found its voice and 2) was fundamentally out of step with the resurgent populism that pervades the national mood. Note: Jeb should have recalled how effectively Rove et. al. were in defining Senator Kerry in 2004...when his own brother was up for re-election. Remember swift-boating? It went right to Kerry's perceived strength and deflated it. Apparently Jeb forgot that lesson from 12 short years ago.
2. Exploit social media to its fullest Again, Trump might be sui generis within the political realm given his decades-long fame/infamy in our popular culture and his understanding of how to create (and dominate) news in these early days of the 21st Century. Future candidates should nonetheless peruse his tweets very, very carefully to see how he was able to shape conversations over the course of days, weeks, and months. This lesson applies regardless of the milieu, Facebook, Twitter, or DodgeWaffle - whatever social media outlets exist in 2020.
3. Don't hesitate when it comes to going on the offense. You can't hang back and let your opponents define you, and when you attack when it is too late, it comes across as flailing from a position of weakness. In short, don't be afraid to go "comparative" early...as long as doing so is in your best strategic interest and it doesn't subvert the candidate's brand.
4. Establish your brand early. To that point, you can't undergo a character transformation mid-way through a campaign. Kasich came close though, he went from quirky, quick-tempered policy wonk to folksy, can-do Midwestern Huggin' Gov in what seemed like a fairly rapid metamorphosis. It may not take him to March 16, but it allows him to occupy a distinct, and distinguishable, position in the present GOP field.
5. Be prepare to be flexible when it comes to strategy and tactics. Not to pile on Jeb, but his by-the-book campaign was far too by-the-book. They failed to adapt to meet the needs of the present environment, choosing instead to ignore the Trump ascendancy until it was far too late. The summer poll numbers were more than sufficient to warrant a more aggressive posture toward Mr. Trump but the Bush team was too focused on running a playbook for a completely different ballgame.
6. The culture is inseparable from the political. There is a book concept in here somewhere. In a pop culture world obsessed with louder, vacuous and/or one-note, but media savvy individuals... is it any surprise that such figures are faring well in the US electorally? I am not suggesting that 2020 presidential candidates should start appearing on as many reality shows as possible between now and November '20, but they need to think about the larger cultural background and factor that into their planning accordingly.
7. Don't over staff. Walker. Bush. Just so much money wasted that could have been spent on voter contact. No need for dozens of policy advisors, it's a political campaign and not a think tank.
8. Don't inflate your own expectations. Come on Senator Rubio. The "3-2-1" approach set yourself up for failure right from the outset of the primary season. It is one of the reasons why he has not emerged as the main alternative to Trump (that and his disastrous debate meltdown, which reminded me of Muskie's crying (melting snow?!) moment...something that was so memorable and so damaging that it will not be soon forgotten).
9. Make it about "the people." This is why Senator Sander's ads have been better than Senator Clinton's. His paid communications tend to be more "us"-focused while Senator Clinton still spends too much time talking about how unique her candidacy is. His are more dialogue driven while hers tend to be more monologue-oriented, and people like being talked with, not at. I am perhaps over-stating the case for illustration purposes, but go ahead, compare the ads. Remove the specific candidate and ask, which make me feel more of a sense of belonging? Which are motivating? Would Clinton be faring better if she ran Sanders-style ads? Would Sanders be performing worse if he was running Clinton-style ads? Something to ponder.
Feel free to save this and post it on your fridge. The magnet can hold it for four years.
Stay tuned, as more will follow.