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This blog offers an international look at the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Indeed, campaigners worldwide are fascinated with American election campaigns. We observe relentless paid television advertising, straight-forward attack spots, sophisticated targeting and record-breaking fundraising. One cannot – and should not – simply copy paste American campaign techniques. However, campaigners out there in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia can get a lot of inspiration and specific takeaways from the most professional campaign in the world. This is the purpose of this blog.

Analysis of the 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign

Barak Obama will remain at the White House for four more years. His victory (303 electoral votes and 50% of the popular vote) represents to me a triumph of his campaign strategy over economic circumstances. According to the website realclearpolitics, a solid majority of 54% of Americans think that the country goes into the wrong direction, the unemployment rate stagnates at a high 7.9% and the president’s record of achievement is considered to be controversial by many voters. As I write in my new book, this provides a fertile ground for a challenger candidate. So, how did Obama pull off his victory?

I always encourage people to understand and plan an election campaign as a series of strategic decisions. Obama has made these decisions in an analytically very smart way and then implemented them with discipline. This was - just like in 2008 - the key to his success. It was a win on message, strategy, targeting, getting out the vote and discipline.

One of the most important strategic decisions was to invest millions of U.S. dollars into TV spots attacking Mitt Romney as early as last spring. I like to call this strategy the ruthless counter-offensive and it has helped many vulnerable incumbents in their respective re-election bids before. Negative ads might be unpopular with journalists, but if they are professionally executed, credible, well documented and adapted to the local political culture, they often have the desired effect with voters. Advertising is an unwelcomed guest and that’s why it works. In these ads, Romney was portrayed as a cold-hearted capitalist who amassed a fortune by outsourcing jobs to foreign countries. The fact that Obama has achieved better results in those swing states where the ads were aired compared to the rest of the country, is the best proof for the effectiveness of this campaign. This being said, it was also Romney’s mistake to let the summer pass by without defining himself in a positive way. This might sound obvious now, but many politicians are often hesitant to spend early in a campaign because they wrongly assume that the effect of early spending will be forgotten come Election Day. One can always raise more money in a campaign, but it’s impossible to recover lost time.

A second important strategic decision was made by Obama himself at the very beginning of his first term when he decided to save the U.S. auto industry. This proved to be a valuable asset for him three years later, especially in the swing-state of Ohio. In synch with this decision, the Obama campaign invested an unprecedented amount of money, time, personnel, advertising and infrastructure into Ohio. This decision was not without risk, because despite being a swing state, Ohio still traditionally leans Republican. As Ronald Brownstein noted, only four democratic presidential candidates since 1924 have achieved better results there then their respective national average of votes. But the investment payed off and Obama had built himself a protective wall which turned out difficult to crack. Altogether, there couldn’t be a bigger difference between Romney and Obama when it comes to discipline regarding their respective targeting strategy. Each campaign has to reach a decision on how much resources it invests into mobilising and how much it invests into convincing. The Obama campaign decided early on to invest considerably into micro-targeting. In that sense, the Obama campaign brought to new levels what George W. Bush started in 2004, building up an impressive wealth of data about their own voters. The Romney campaign, on the other hand, seemed to be hesitating about their targeting up until the last minute. The decision to invest millions into Pennsylvania during the last week of the campaign is symptomatic for this.

During the 90 minutes of the first TV-debate in Denver, Mitt Romney was an excellent candidate. For the rest of his campaign, however, he was probably the worst Republican presidential candidate of the past 36 years when it comes to campaign skills. They ran a defensive campaign, mainly banking on the self-destruction of the vulnerable incumbent. Such a strategy is almost always doomed to fail. I am further amazed how politically unprepared Romney approached this campaign. After all, he had been planning to run for President for at least six years and more likely for much of his adult life. Issues such as his secret tax returns or his past at Bain Capital were already raised during past campaigns and should have been pre-empted.

After finally having fought his way through a remarkably weak field of candidates in the primaries, Romney continued for months to run a primary campaign. In that sense, his choosing of Paul Ryan as a running mate can only be seen as a gift to the conservative base. I would have assumed that the Republican base in on board anyway, even for the sole reason of getting rid of Barack Hussein Obama. But candidates often make the mistake of leading a campaign that makes their own team happy instead of the target audience needed to win. What would have happened if Romney had picked a woman? It probably would have helped him closing the gender-gap. According to CNN’s exit-polls, 55% of all women voted for Obama whereas only 44% cast their ballot for Romney (Romney won the male vote with 52% over Obama’s 45%).

As I write in my book about challenger campaigns, it’s not enough to just talk about change and the economy. A challenger needs a coherent plan with a series of strategic measures and PR events in order to communicate that plan to swing voters. Romney’s “economic plan” is actually rather a list of goals than a credible and appealing plan. The tragedy of the race is that Romney’s background as a man from business and a governor from a traditionally Democratic state would have made him a pretty good messenger for such a strategy. 

Finally, there is one central thing that the Obama campaign understood better than the Romney campaign in their basic assumptions shaping the race: The demography of the United States is rapidly changing. This was the first election in the history of the USA where 10% of the voters were Latinos. A stunning 71% of them voted for Obama. As James Carville pointed out on election night, the Republican Party has now lost the popular vote in five out of the past six presidential elections (1992, 1996, 2000, 2008 and 2012). The GOP will have to find ways to manoeuvre itself out of the ideological corner similar to the way European Social Democrats did during the 1990is.

How Sandy will influence the last few days of the election

Hurricane Sandy has not only had a devastating effect on the US-east coast, but also caused quite some stir in the presidential race. Yesterday, as many as four journalists from a variety of radio stations and newspapers wanted me to comment on the effect Sandy is going to have on the election on November 6. If one candidate will be able to profit from the situation it is, in my opinion, Barak Obama.

In a situation like this, it is clear, what the president has to do: He has to quit campaigning – no matter how close the election is – and switch into crisis mode. He has to grant access to emergency funds and support and cooperate fully with the local authorities. He has to show genuine sympathy for the affected people and mark presence at the site of the catastrophe. If a president does all this (and does it well), a disaster like hurricane Sandy, despite its tragedy, is very likely to help a great deal rather than hurt him and his bid for re-election.

Remember for example the 2002 elections in Germany. Gerhard Schröder, incumbent chancellor at the time, was dragging behind in polls and only few effectively believed in his re-election. When floods of unprecedented magnitude caused destruction and devastation in Eastern Germany, Schröder effectively staged himself as “chancellor in rubber boots” and got to show the voters that he was, indeed fit to deal with any crisis at hand – and got re-elected.

On the other hand, there was President George W. Bush and his mishandling of hurricane Katrina in 2005. Bush’s administration was completely taken by surprise by the events unfolding after the storm hit the Golf Coast and while the people there where struggling to hold on to life and possessions, the president himself was on vacation. It was only a few days later, before Bush chose to actually interrupt his holiday and react to the catastrophe by conducting a flight over the destroyed areas. Many thought afterwards that this response was not sufficient.

At the moment, Obama clearly follows the example of Gerhard Schröder. Through his actions he even managed to gain enthusiastic praise by republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. On top of that, Sandy effectively shifts the focus away from the economy which is not something Romney is not happy about. Finally, decency calls for Romney to also quit campaigning for a few days and soften his tone considerably. While Obama gets to show himself as the leader of the nation, Romney has to keep a low profile in the most crucial days before the election. Romney has already once made the mistake of appearing to try and play politics when the nation was mourning the loss of lives in Libya – this is something that is incredibly unpopular with swing voters.

I imagine that, as a result of his behaviour in dealing with the hurricane, Obama will erase Romney’s slight momentary lead in the national polls. It also strikes me as likely that Obama will further improve his standing in the swing states where he already is the frontrunner, even though by a razor thin margin. When it comes to the swing states every single vote counts at this moment!

Joe Biden vs. Paul Ryan: Analysis of the vice presidential debate

After his strong appearance in the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney sailed on his momentum throughout the week. According to the last polls, he managed to gain the lead in a few of the national as well as some state-wide polls in swing states. With the vice presidential debate as the next big event on this year’s election-calendar, it was up to Vice President Joe Biden to make up for lost ground and halt Romney’s momentum. For Ryan on the other hand, yesterday’s debate marked the biggest event of his political career and a unique opportunity to introduce himself on the national stage. Much was at stake for both combatants and they were sure to fight fiercely. And so they did from the beginning, talking over each other and interrupting while the other was speaking.

While the vice-presidential debates win quite some attention, they have less of an impact on the election than the presidential debates do. Strategically speaking, the debate is not really about Biden and Ryan, but about Obama and Romney. The job is to defend the number one and to attack the number one of the other ticket.

Most voters have made up their minds and only a few percentage of the electorate remains undecided. In such a situation, the main goal is to excite the base. After observing both Ryan as well as Biden, I think that both have done that quite effectively. The Republicans are glad that Ryan took an unapologetic stand on classical GOP issues such as tax cuts or abortion. Democrats on the other hand were happy to see Biden accusing Ryan for the Republican plan of privatizing health care or attacking him on the 47%-Comment made by Romney.

Analysis of the first presidential debate: 1:0 for Romney

Mitt Romney has won the first debate. On that, I agree with the first round of the so-called instant polls and the opinion of various pundits. 

In my blog yesterday, I discussed the necessity for Romney to change the dynamics of his campaign by being aggressive and going on the offense. And he pulled it off. Romney was better prepared, appeared more confident and seemed to enjoy himself up on the podium. In fact, he was even able to show a human side by interacting with the moderator, being humorous and using several personal stories to make his case. Clearly, the strategic decision to invest several days of Romney’s precious time into debate preparation has paid off. The President, on the other hand, gave a tired and weary impression. He didn’t capitalize on several of Romney’s weaknesses such as the comment about the 47% or his background as an investment banker. The reason for this is probably that he didn’t want to give Romney a chance to rebut the attacks directly. 

Then again, topic-wise this was the most challenging debate for Obama. The economy is indeed not going well in the USA and it is happening on Obama’s watch. The duel on October 16 will be held in a “town hall” format where the questions for the candidates come from the audience and Obama can benefit from his likeability and his street credibility. The last debate finally will cover foreign politics. While this is not an easy topic for Obama either, it’s still friendlier terrain than jobs and the economy.

I suspect Obama’s small lead in national polls to disappear over the next few days. Then, it will probably remain a very close race up until Election Day. By the way, with 20 million tweets, last night’s debate is the most tweeted about event in U.S. election campaign history.

Debate preview: Form and substance will decide on win or lose

Tomorrow, the first presidential debate will be held at the University of Denver in the swing state of Colorado. This is an important rendez-vous between the candidates and the voters. Last election, around 50 million Americans tuned in to watch one of the debates. In addition to that, the debates usually dominate the news cycle for the next few days. Every critical word and every blunder will be repeated over and over again in newspapers and on television. Voters like debates because it’s a rare opportunity to see the two candidates next to each, which allows direct comparison. After all, election campaigns are about showing contrast. If there is no difference between candidate A and candidate B, why bother to vote?

With this being said, it is of no surprise that Obama and Romney take debate preparation very seriously. Gone are the days when Richard Nixon entered a debate tired from a day of campaigning and completely unprepared, and lost to John F. Kennedy. Nowadays, both candidates invest several days of precious time into training, where a party colleague is usually playing the opponent. Both campaigns usually build the entire podium exactly as it will be in reality in order to get used to the setting. 

I am convinced that in the end, both form and substance decide on who wins or loses. A candidate has to be very careful what he says, but he also has to consider how he says it. Incidents like when George H. W. Bush kept checking his watch in 1992 do not leave a good impression with the public. As another example, Al Gore came across as arrogant in 2000. 

As part of the debate preparation, it is important for each campaign to come up with a strategy what it wants to achieve with the debate. With Mitt Romney lagging behind in the polls, nationwide and in most important swing states, it is clear that he will have to take an offensive stand in the debate. He has to shake things up and change the dynamics of the campaign. Obama, on the other hand, can concentrate for a good part on avoiding major mistakes and selling his record. 

In the last few days, both campaigns have also been busy playing the “expectations game” praising the abilities of the opposite candidate. By doing this, the campaigns try to lower the expectations for the performance of their candidate. This way, it is easier for the candidate to exceed expectations and it’s more likely that he will be declared the winner of the debate. It was the team of George W. Bush in 2000 which started this. After days of downplaying expectations, it was already considered a victory that Bush simply survived the debate against Al Gore. In this year’s race, both campaigns remember that lesson. Indeed, one hears Obama’s people calling Romney “quick, polished and ready to punch against the president” and Romney describing Obama as a “uniquely gifted speaker”. 

All things considered, evidence shows that challenger candidates usually have a slight advantage over the incumbent in the first debate because they are being taken more serious by the public than ever before. It remains to be seen whether Romney will be able to benefit fully from this advantage. I think that debates are actually better suited to show that a candidate is knowledgeable and ready for the job. But that’s not really Romney’s problem. It is much harder to use debates to make a candidate more likeable, which is what Romney urgently needs to achieve among other things. 

When it’s all said and done, one should not over-estimate the debates either. After all, it is back in 1980 – more than 30 years ago – when a debate has arguably changed the outcome of the election. Most of time, the debates solidify what voters think and feel about the candidates already.

“Don’t interrupt when your opponent self-destructs”

A very famous and often cited rationale of political campaigning states: “Don’t interrupt when your opponent self-destructs”. While it is said that emperor Napoleon coined this phrase centuries ago, it lost none of its validity up until today and political strategists like James Carville still make a point of living by this timeless rule.  
While usually there is a lot of disagreement amongst the political community on various issues, the press and commentators of all colours certainly agree on this these days: Things don’t and didn’t go well for the Romney Campaign for quite a while now. Whether it was Romney’s unfortunate appearance on his overseas trip to Great Britain and the Middle East, his hasty and inapt response to the attack on the US embassy in Libya, the infamous 47%-comment or the uncalled for release of his tax record this weekend: Until today, the republican bid for the presidency has in fact travelled a bumpy road. In my book “How to overcome the power of incumbency in election campaigns”, I define the concept of challenger quality. I use six characteristics and talents that make up campaign skills for a candidate. He has to be popular and charismatic; he has to have good speaking skills, the ability to communicate over mass media and the ability to stay on message. Finally, he needs good managerial skills as campaigns are often chaotic and only the top guy can – and has to – establish discipline. It is safe to say, that Mitt Romney hardly excels in any of these areas. Or as the Republican strategist Ed Rogers puts it: “Not much is required of Governor Romney on this. He has to be poised. He has to be sure-footed. He has to be precise. He was none of those”.

But not only the candidate’s performance leaves a lot to be desired. The Republican Party and its functionaries certainly have their share in the “self-destruction” of Romney’s Campaign, too. More and more prominent Republicans, amongst them famously Peggy Noonan, start to distance themselves from Mitt Romney. In addition to that, many of the party’s candidates for senate this fall start to worry about the negative influence Romney’s behaviour might have on their chances to get elected. Thommy G. Thompson, the Republican candidate for Senate in Wisconsin, for example, stated on TV: “If your standard-bearer for the presidency is not doing well, it’s going to reflect on the down ballot”. Also, many associated with the Republican Party start to voice loud and public critics on Romney’s failure to take command of any battleground states yet and call for a “campaign shake-up”. According to the New York Times, Romney responded to these demands in a chivalrous but not so smart way by reminding the public once more of his weaknesses and saying: “I’ve got a very effective campaign. It’s doing a very good job. But not everything I say is elegant”. Finally things got so far, that Romney’s wife, Anne, felt the need put a foot down in defence of her husband and said somewhat desperately on a campaign stop in Des Moines: “Stop it. This is hard. You want to try it?”. 

Now, with all the talk about what has gone wrong in “Camp-Romney”, one might easily lose sight of the Obama Campaign and its reactions to all these events. Do they live by the rationale stated above and refrain from “interrupting the opponent’s self-destruction”? 
A good example for proving the point that they indeed do obey this rule is the dynamics that came into play after Romney’s remark on the Middle East on September 11. The only reaction the Obama Campaign showed as an immediate result of Mitt Romney’s imprudent statement was a brief declaration by spokesman Ben LaBolt saying that they were “shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack." Nothing more was said on the matter, especially not from Barack Obama himself who abstained from commenting the subject completely. He smartly preferred to uphold a statesman-like appearance, seemingly superior to political games and mud wrestling. Mitt Romney on the other hand rushed to hold a press conference with the good intention to justify his remarks and the actual effect of making everything worse. Not only was Romney now accused of playing politics with the death of four US citizens, but foreign policy suddenly became an general election issue (on this subject, see also my entry of September 12). Of course the press gladly and to some extent gleefully took up Romney’s own lacking record in the field of foreign policy and couldn’t publish enough polls showing how the electorate actually trusts Obama incomparably more than Romney when it comes to foreign politics. 
Observing the activities of the Obama campaign, we can see that they do many things just right and really do make the best out of Romney’s failures. They comment briefly and sharply and then leave Romney struggling to make amends for his own missteps –usually making things worse. Also, they make a point of never letting Obama do the “dirty work”. Whenever the Obama campaign launches a counter-attack on Romney, they either use surrogates like Vice President Biden or high ranking campaign officials like Ben LaBolt, Jim Messina or David Axelrod. 

Romney might still be convinced that he doesn’t need a campaign-turnaround. I am convinced of the opposite. He is running behind in a setting that actually still strongly favours the challenger. He needs to shake things up in order to change the dynamics of the campaign. I think it was a Republican strategist who recently said that in a presidential campaign, there are ten important moments. I’d say that about 7 of these are over by now. This leaves Romney three.