Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Public Relations The Key to the 2004 Election?

I've been invited to be interviewed on a local talk radio program next week on how PR and Marketing will impact the Presidential election this year.

I decided to put together some thinking points that might me focus my thoughts before this interview.

Here goes:

I've got two items in my blog column now on the truly odd presidential campaign we've got going on right now.

One deals with pro-active PR in business and politics (and makes a case for Kerry releasing information that he's stonewalling on and getting any pain behind him - as President Bush eventually did with his National Guard records).

The other deals with the eerie parallels between the elections of 1864 and 2004.

Beyond that, I have been closely examining and exploring the fact that, unprecedented in recent memory, the two election campaigns seem to be almost totally decoupled. By that I mean that Bush is running on (and against) his record, while Kerry is running on (and against) his apparent lack of public awareness and personal trust.

Completely against character for a political campaign (that almost always pits one candidate against the other), Kerry (or Bush) can go up or down in the polls without impacting the other candidate's numbers.

I don't want to over-use the word "unprecedented," but that's exactly what's going on. The two candidates seem to be running very separate and independent-of-the-other campaigns - each trying to win his own campaign, pretty much regardless of what the other campaign does.

This decoupling of campaigns has never happened before, but it does make for an interesting and quirky campaign - especially from a PR and marketing communications point of view.

What that means is this: PR and marketing communications will be more important than ever before. As each side struggles to motivate their base, they realize how important it will be to get their base fired up and eager to turn out and vote. To do that, they've got to employ really savvy public relations efforts to reach and motivate their bases without offending the volatile middle.

Yet, even as they try to motivate their own bases, they can't pander to moderate voters without risking the wrath of those base groups of passionate liberal or conservative voters. Bush found this out the hard way when he proposed to grant virtual amnesty to 8 million illegal aliens, and faced a harsh conservative backlash. Kerry is just starting to see this same factor at work as he begins to feel the feminist backlash from his comment last weekend that "life begins at conception."

This need to placate and motivate the base - this "passionate base" factor - will tend to keep the two campaigns decoupled. Each will face a real risk if they take their own base for granted and "run for the middle," which is the usual SOP in presidential campaigns.

Perhaps almost alone among those who've worked politics (and I've done so, professionally, since 1976) and who are handicapping the race, I do not believe this will be close. I have no solid idea who'll win (at this point, a strong case can be made for either one), but I do not believe it will be close. I think the popular vote will split by at least 5 percentage points, and the electoral collage will probably have an even larger split.

And oddly, the factors that will ultimately decide the split are almost out of the hands of the two candidates to influence.

For two years, the Democrats counted on the economy to be Bush 43's undoing, just as a weak economy in 1991-2 torpedoed the second term hopes of Bush 41. However, since the first of this year, that hope has all but evaporated. Even strong Democratic power-brokers see the economy as a default-win for Bush.

As an aside, this makes the choice of Edwards "interesting" - his one-note primary campaign was all about his vision of the "two Americas" - yet the economic numbers suggest that we're moving rapidly toward a single, prosperous America.

Dealing with desired perception (two Americas) versus the apparent fiscal reality of huge economic growth and big gains in jobs will be an important PR challenge for the Democrats - one that is possible, but not easy.

As what is basically a PR issue, I think it remains to be seen if the richest man who's ever run on a major-party ticket for President, along with a self-made multi-millionaire, will be able to pull off a campaign as champions of a downtrodden underclass (and also if that matters, since the small underclass we do have seldom votes in serious numbers). Yet if they want to run and win on the economy, they will have to convince voters that the economy is not as strong as the numbers suggest - and that they, as two very wealthy white men, can impact the economy for those truly in the underclass.

Frankly, there aren't enough votes in that issue - not anymore - to carry the Democrats to victory. And in spite of their rhetoric this week, Kerry and Edwards know that.

So the issues that remain are Iraq and terrorism. And here the Democrats have a real problem - or, perhaps, a series of problems:

1. Both Senators voted for the war resolution in late 2002 (though both later voted against funding the war's reconstruction). They clearly are not solid anti-war candidates, even though much of their base is passionately anti-war.

2. The Kerry position is to "stay the course" in Iraq - a position not all that different from that of President Bush. That creates further problems with the K/E base, though not with the mainstream, which embraces the Kerry/Bush "stay the course" policy. For now.

3. Edwards' lack of any military service tends to neutralize (at least a bit) Kerry's personal war record (which is also tainted, at least electorally, by his later strong anti-war position in the early 70s). It entirely negates Cheney's willingness to embrace a series of draft deferments in the 60s.

4. The K/E ticket has yet to offer a distinct alternative to the Iraq status quo, even as the Democratic Party moves ever closer (at least in it's base) toward a firm anti-war position. This is where this year's election gets so eerily similar to that of 1864 (see my blog here on those eerie similarities).

What the Democrats' election bottom line amounts to, though it may seem crass to say so, is this: If Iraq simmers down, if Saddam is tried and convicted, and if terrorists in Iraq can't totally disrupt what we're trying to do in pacifying the country, this Iraq issue will go, by default, to Bush. However, if there is a serious Iraq melt-down (another scandal akin to the prison scandal, or a major terrorist success in Iraq), Bush's Iraq policy will be discredited and the issue will go to K/E by default.

That means one of the two major Democratic issues left on the table is totally out of the hands of Kerry and Edwards - and almost as completely out of the hands of Bush. Since neither one of them can really impact what will evolve in Iraq, both must turn to narrow-market PR tactics and techniques to keep their base pumped up ... just in case.

Then there is the domestic terror issue.

Oddly, my read (from a PR position) is that if the terrorists pull off a domestic attack in the U.S. close to the election (as they did in Spain), the public will turn TOWARD the Administration, rather than rejecting Bush for failing to stop the terrorists. Again, the issue really is out of the control of the Democrats, or the Republicans - so both keep running their separate, decoupled campaigns aimed at energizing their bases, while they cross their fingers and wait for the world to deliver the events that will decide the election.

I guess the PR/Marketing bottom line for election 2004 is this - given two largely similar (in the polls) candidates with largely similar fund-raising war chests, the Administration will win as long as the status quo keeps tracking forward, with a strong economy and fewer problems in Iraq. Add to that the wild-card - a pro-administration bump that a late-season domestic terror attack could provide - and Bush is on track for re-election, regardless of current polling numbers.

On the other hand, if the economy even hints that it might quiver, K/E will be helped, significantly. Just a slight drop and the Democrats will move heaven and earth to resurrect the economy as a deal-breaker issue for Bush. It could happen, and Kerry is sure to be prepared, just in case.

In the same way, if Iraq's current slow progress goes retrograde, K/E will be helped - and although they have no positions strongly at odds with Bush, they will benefit if Iraq goes backwards toward chaos.

In two plausible scenarios (neither of which Kerry can influence), the current Bush momentum could shift to Kerry in the blink of an eye. Either of these will almost certainly give the K/E campaign the boost they need to take the White House.

In addition, if the terrorists are unable to stage a late-term domestic attack - if there is no wildcard of a terrorist "October Surprise," then K/E will be helped, but not as obviously. Strange as it may seem, if terrorists are deterred, that will not help Bush.

No matter which way it comes out, though, I do not think the election will be close. And as decoupled as these two campaigns seem to be (and, I think, they will be likely to remain), the final outcome is really outside the control of either candidate.

So - helpless to impact the issues that will really make a difference in this election - and knowing that the middle will be up for grabs right up to election day, each candidate will continue to try to aggressively motivate their own base of support to turn out.

The side with the stronger, more motivated base (which is a huge PR and marketing issue - one that at this point could go either way) is the one that, all things being equal, will win.

About Ned Barnett:

Ned Barnett, the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications (, is a 32-year veteran of high-stakes crisis-management public relations, and is a frequent “source” for print and broadcast journalists. Barnett has advised many corporate and personal clients on effective crisis relations – often stopping a crisis in its tracks, even before it gets started.

As a political consultant and speechwriter, Barnett has worked for candidates and officials from both parties, as well as for public interest advocacy groups in areas involving the economy, the environment and healthcare. As a historian, Barnett is widely published in military history magazines, and has appeared a number of times on the History Channel, discussing military technology.

Barnett has taught PR at two state universities, and has written nine published books on public relations, marketing and advertising. He’s earned PRSA’s coveted Silver Anvil, two ADDYs and four consecutive MacEacherns; in 1978, he was the youngest (to that time) person to earn accreditation from PRSA, and in 1984, he became the first person to earn a Fellowship in PR from the American Hospital Association. But mostly, Barnett provides PR counsel to a range of corporations, authors and advocacy groups.

© 2004 – Ned Barnett
Barnett Marketing Communications