McAuliffe Poised To Win An Election Where Many Prefer “None Of The Above”
The 2013 election for Virginia’s next governor is still a couple of weeks away. Tonight (October 24th) is the final debate. But I will say clearly what I’ve been saying to friends since the summer: Ken Cuccinelli stands no chance of becoming governor of Virginia. And the reason is simple: marketing and messaging.
At their core, political campaigns are one giant product or service roll-out to the general public. Only instead of an upgraded iPhone, a new flat screen TV or another celebrity clothing line or set of basketball sneakers, the campaign is rolling out a person: smiles, warts and all.
The campaign’s job is to present a candidate and set of ideas that can meet the real challenges facing voters. What’s more, candidates need to appeal on a personal and human level to people. To this end, even candidates with personal flaws (Bill Clinton 1992) or candidates with views on social issues that are at odds with a majority of voters (Peter Blute in Massachusetts 1992, 1994) can emerge victorious in elections provided that they meet the needs of the voters and resonate with them in a positive and reassuring way.
Ken Cuccinelli has many good ideas for Virginia. In terms of economic policy and actual management of the state government, I believe Cuccinelli has far more experience than Terry McAuliffe and understands the states internal politics and bureaucracy. And though the Northern Virginia Technology Council’s (NVTC) political endorsement in and of itself does not validate Cuccinelli’s ideas over Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s, the behind-the-scenes stories of both candidate presentations to the NVTC PAC does highlight a common narrative that has existed throughout the campaign.
Wonky And Intelligent VS Superficial And Uninformed
According to insiders and members of the NVTC TechPAC, Cuccinelli was considered “wonky” and intelligent, offering detailed responses to questions and possessing a great deal of command and charm. He understood business, state government and had good fiscal priorities. McAuliffe was uninformed, superficial and unimpressive.
The one big challenge facing Cuccinelli, and the reason many suspected the NVTC TechPAC delayed announcing his endorsement (an act that set off a flurry of political maneuvering on both sides and much media attention), was the scope of his social views and the effectiveness of the McAuliffe campaign to brand Cuccinelli as an extremist who was going to ban abortion for rape victims, make divorce harder for women and make it a crime for people to speak languages other than English while at work (Click to see McAuliffe ad on divorce)
Throughout the election, the above descriptions of both candidates have been common themes. The Richmond Times-Dispatch recently called McAuliffe’s knowledge of state government “laughable” and cautioned that he was not in line with “Virginia’s history of fiscal restraint.”
Likewise, the newspaper could not support Cuccinelli, citing that he pursued a “divisive agenda with a stridency that was unbecoming in an attorney general and would be unbecoming in a governor.”
Nevertheless, to many Republicans in the political world, the negative reviews coming from McAuliffe’s performance at the NVTC PAC event in early September and later NVTC’s delayed endorsement of Cuccinelli caused quite a stir. Some saw it as Cuccinelli’s break-out moment. Conservative online media suggested McAuliffe had peaked too soon and that his support was soft. Cuccinelli was primed to over-take McAuliffe and win the election.
However, though Cuccinelli had the lead in the early part of the spring and summer with independent voters, it was not statistically enough of a lead given the changing dynamics of Virginia’s electorate. And the opportunity that many saw in September for Cuccinelli to rebound never materialized and was never going to materialize. In truth, the election has been over since late July, early August.
For many of the same reasons why the Richmond-Times Dispatch could not “in good conscience endorse a candidate for governor,” voters have struggled to connect with either candidate. Essentially, the marketing of both men and the timing of such marketing has been the defining factor of the campaign. It is in marketing and messaging that we can see why Cuccinelli was destined to lose the Virginia governor’s race. It also serves as a strong lesson for candidates seeking elected office in Virginia and other states in the future.
The Context Of Negative Ads Set The Tone For McAuliffe
The Washington Post has been keeping track of advertising spend in the Virginia governor’s race, and the numbers have been interesting. In the most recent data (10/22/2013), you can see that the total advertising spend for McAuliffe has been higher (by approximately $4 million) than Cuccinelli’s campaign and more negative (70% to 51%). That is a significant spread.
The data from the prior week was different. The tone of advertising was a little more negative for McAuliffe (71%), while the negative tone of Cuccinelli’s ads was slightly less at 49%. In the weeks before that data was released and throughout much of the summer, McAuliffe was hitting 77% negativity on his ads. The other factor has been the volume of advertising. In just the last week, McAuliffe has run 2,871 ads throughout Virginia, while Cuccinelli’s campaign has run 1,356 – a 2 to 1 advantage. Since the media blitz for McAuliffe began in the spring and summer of this year, the Democrat’s campaign has outspent Cuccinelli by large margins in Northern Virginia and other key state demographics, including Richmond and military-centric areas like Hampton Roads and Norfolk.
However, it is not just the volume and tone of the ads that is important here. It’s the context of the messaging that is critical, as well as the response (or lack there of) from Cuccinelli.
Branded An Extremist: How Poor Marketing, Social Issues And An Unwillingness To Pivot Killed Cuccinelli’s Candidacy
Once you have been branded an extremist or are perceived to be in decline, it is very difficult to recover. Images are powerful, and perceptions are hard to change. I see this with companies all the time. I remember Geoff Livingston talking about AOL and its acquisition of the Huffington Post saying that the company’s rebranding needed to include a name change. I thought he was right, because just the name “AOL” conjures up memories of their dial-up legacy. To AOL’s credit, they are pivoting (changing towards a new market objective), but it may not be enough of a pivot to be successful.
Microsoft has gone through a period of image decline in recent years. How are they trying to rebrand and change their market perception after their latest OS did not win over the public? By focusing on mobile. Mobile is a tough arena to win in, because mobile has become synonymous with techy, cool and new. If Microsoft can pivot successfully into mobile – they can create a new image for their company based around the perception everyone has of a mobile company.
Those are examples of companies and their branding. It’s easy to think about brands in terms of companies or products, but we forget the same rules about image and perception are true about people and campaigns.
Take for example NFL quarterback Michael Vick, who has been in the league a few years since his release from prison following a dog fighting conviction. Vick still ranks as the most disliked NFL player. Yet, Vick has done nothing objectionable in the past few years and by most accounts has emerged as a strong team leader on the Eagles.
This brings us to Ken Cuccinelli.
I am sure the Cuccinelli campaign is filled with smart people – seasoned political experts, grassroots coordinators, media buyers and savvy operatives. However, before you begin any marketing campaign (in business or in politics) you need to take full stock of two things: who is your target audience and what are you all about. Then you have to ask yourself how those two things meet together.
Even before the race for governor fully got underway, with Lt Governor Bill Bolling dropping out of the primary, many had assessed that Cuccinelli was a highly divisive candidate that could have trouble gaining traction state-wide. That’s two important factors that the campaign and the candidate needed to address first: 1) Cuccinelli being seen as divisive and 2) Voters not finding him appealing.
From the moment he was the Virginia GOP’s nominee, McAuliffe campaign’s strategy became clear. They were going to seize on Cuccinelli’s reputation as a crusader for what they would declare as far-right causes and his own personal crusades, and show him as being out-of-touch with everyday Virginians. Cuccinelli was going to be portrayed as not focused on the right issues and someone a majority of voters could not relate to on a personal level. And this was largely going to happen on television – starting in the spring and running into the summer and early fall. Cuccinelli’s campaign needed to pivot, but they did not. The results are speaking for themselves.
Realistically… What Choices Did Cuccinelli Have?
For starters, both Cuccinelli and his campaign should have recognized what McAuliffe’s campaign tactics were going to be. They needed to pivot from being seen as a crusader for a right-wing ideology or his own personal social causes. A difficult task, to be sure, but not impossible. Ideally, such pivoting should have taken place before Cuccinelli even sought the Republican nomination. Hindsight being what it is, there was still an opportunity to change the focus of the campaign when it became clear what the Democrats were going to do. In short, Cuccinelli needed to be more personable and less objectionable and controversial.
Secondly, Cuccinelli needed to get out in front of his challenges and shift the focus of the campaign towards a core set of issues that people could hone-in on. Instead, he embraced his own radicalism and focused on attacking McAuliffe on a failed green car company for several weeks in the summer. Unfortunately, the combination of the two forces ended up negating any benefit for Cuccinelli. People saw the radicalism as a negative against Cuccinelli, while at the same time, found McAuliffe’s business dealings troubling.
In short, the use of negative ads clearly helped keep Cuccinelli close in the polls during the summer and up among independents (though not up enough). But his continued crusading – including the failed sodomy case and his association with Senator Ted Cruz who was seen by many as an architect of the government shut-down – detracted voters and only supported the McAuliffe narrative. This was especially damaging, because once the seeds were planted by the McAuliffe campaign – voters in Northern Virginia and other parts of the state were already tainted.
Lastly, Cuccinelli had no real strong positive narrative with swing voters in Northern Virginia, which is essential to election success. There was no good messaging for Cuccinelli (or not enough) in Northern Virginia. What’s more, while the shut-down distracted many voters from the campaign, Cuccinelli’s own ambivalence about whether or not he would have comprised to get the government open was widely panned by voters and pundits alike. Even the NVTC TechPAC endorsement in mid-September, which could have been a momentum booster to the campaign, was undercapitalized. The campaign had narrowed its appeal to a such a small group that they have consistently been out-fundraised by McAuliffe and the Democrats.
Some Of The Ads That Really Killed Cuccinelli
Cuccinelli wants to prevent Moms from getting out of bad marriages. The context of this ad has hit a cord with women and many other voters across the state. It strikes to the McAuliffe campaign’s theme of showing Cuccinelli as being focused on his own pursuits and not those of voters.
Cuccinelli is against the pill. The context of this ad also resonated with women, a majority of whom use the pill for birth control. The theme again is how Cuccinelli is focused on his own agenda and wants to interfere in people’s private lives.
Cuccinelli insists that McAuliffe profited off the deaths of people in an insurance scam. The truth was that McAuliffe had nothing to do with the scam. The ad has been seen as a desperate gamble that has hurt Cuccinelli’s reputation.
McAuliffe responded to the above ad with an ad of its own that hit Cuccinelli
The other ad, which I could not find the video for, centered around Cuccinelli’s proposal in 2008 that would allow a boss to fire employees who do not speak English at work. The proposal was widely considered mean-spirited, though Cuccinelli defended the idea by saying he was trying to protect employers and reduce unemployment filings.
Final Words On The Campaign
Overall, this election was decided in the spring and summer of 2013 because of two vital factors:
1) The McAuliffe narrative was designed to use his opponent’s negatives against him, and plant the seed in the minds of voters that Cuccinelli was not appealing on a personal level. If a majority did not relate to Cuccinelli on a personal level, they would find it hard to vote for him.
2) Cuccinelli’s inability to pivot from his previous actions and reputation. It was clear how his past would be used against him, but instead of attempting to eliminate a negative quality – he embraced it. What’s more, the failure to have some personas of Virginia voters and what they wanted spelled doom for the campaign from the very beginning.
Tonight may be the final debate, and voting takes place in about two weeks. But this election has been over for much longer than that.