Friday, May 23, 2008

Big Picture vs Little Picture

Patrick Ruffini argues somewhat persuasively that "Unifying Narratives Work. Microtrends Fail."

As evidence of this, Ruffini points to how Hillary Clinton's strategy (run by Microtrends author Mark Penn) has failed while Obama's grand narrative of hope and change is winning.

I think Clinton's problems are a little more complicated than this, but I agree with the underlying premise that micro-targeting is not a sufficient strategy. (But I wouldn't want to overplay how Obama's substance-free macro campaign is doing since he and Clinton have almost evenly divided the Democrat electorate.)

In January of this year I attended a presentation given by some PAGOP operatives on campaign strategy and tactics. A large amount of time and money has been sunk into micro-targeting strategies, and it is clear that the Party folks are relying on their database to win. I later wrote this to my county chairperson in part of an email exchange (emphasis added):
I've read about the VoterVault-style voter profile databases and I recognize how remarkable the database is, but some of the questions at the session revealed that the party might be relying on voter targeting too much. Some of our losses in 2006 were unnecessary. The Melissa Hart loss came out of left field and never should have been allowed to happen. Since 2002 the party has also failed to recruit a good candidate to run against Tim Holden, who I think could be beaten by a strong candidate. Finding strong candidates is one of the primary functions of a party.

The shorter argument against over-reliance on VoterVault and turnout efforts is that they empirically haven't gotten the job done. We lost statewide in 2004 and very badly in 2006.
Ruffini only confirms something I think many of us know intuitively. Microtargeting is a tactic, not a strategy, and certainly not a brand-building activity. You miss the forest focusing on the trees. It doesn't matter how many personal relationships you forge at the local Applebee's or mega-church if you have no compelling narrative to sell them.

As for the "Contract With America"-sized agenda, Ruffini offers:

We’ll be discussing more of what these agenda items might be over at The Next Right (check this out - Joe), but I imagine it would be things on this scale:

  • A total ban on earmarks
  • Let the half of Federal workers due to retire in the next few years retire – and don’t replace them
  • Personal Social Security accounts
  • A 50% cut in farm subsidies (yeah, good luck on that after this week)
  • McCain’s idea of replacing supplementing the UN with a league of democracies
That's a good starting point on our way towards GOP-Premium Roast. But perhaps more importantly, an agenda like this helps define the debate. Make Obama defend the size of the bureaucracy. Make him explain why we're stuck with Social Security's abysmal return on "investment" that still seems to be bankrupting the nation.

Oooh. Don't want to touch the "third rail"? Tough. I want to have the debate. I want to see the socialists defend this monstrosity. We aren't going to out-democrat the Democrats, so why try? Bush's Medicare-Part-D program is probably the biggest expansion of the American welfare state ever, and the primary complaint from Democrats was that it didn't do enough! If we can't win a debate on our own terms then America was doomed to catastrophic error anyway. Debating on our own terms is the best case scenario.

The original Contract defined the agenda by promoting common-sense initiatives that drove the Left looney. This can be done again.


Giacomo said...

Great advice. I hope somebody with pull listens. I keep getting RNC/McCain/Congressional requests for $$, and I'd like to help, but right now they seem rather directionless. They need to identify items that all conservative-leaning and reasonable moderate voters can support - like that ban on earmarks - and push them to the top of the agenda.

By the way, nice blog - added you to mine a while ago. I've been AWOL from mine for a few months due to an work, work and more work, but I still cruise around and read now and then.

Repack Rider said...

The original Contract defined the agenda by promoting common-sense initiatives that drove the Left looney.

And then the newly elected congress failed to deliver on them, exposing it for the empty public relations gesture it was, and eventually forcing serial adulterer Gingrich to resign his post so he could marry his (most recent) mistress.

Thanks for reminding me.

Sockless Joe said...

The Contract was a promise to VOTE on those issues, and as I recall they did vote on those issues, passing a few, but a lot died in the Senate not the House.

The bigger point was that voters wanted most of what was in the Contract, and it defined the debate about domestic policy for some time after 1994.

And going forward, what else can we do but learn from the successes and failures of the past?