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Focussing on the US presidential election

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 22 June 2016 00:00


The adage ‘money talks’ holds true in the 2016 campaign too with the estimated turnover to be almost 10 billion dollars by the end of the campaign. Apparently the 2012 campaign cost eight billion dollars whilst the 2008 campaign cost the United States $ 4.5 billion dollars which was an increase of 64% against the 2004 presidential election where $ 2.7 billion was spent.

Even though some argue that it is an ultimate indignity to the democratic process to market a candidate to high office spending such a colossal amount of money, from a business point of view what marketing does is to give a consumer an option for a more informed decision and in this respect the techniques of marketing that were used to create awareness of what brand Clinton or Trump could offer to the people of the United States was very important especially due to the changing dynamics of the country.


Elections 2016 4545

The latest CNN poll say that Clinton has 49% support to Trump’s 37%, with Libertarian Gary Johnson at 9%, according to the poll of 750 likely voters. The poll was conducted Friday through Monday and released Tuesday evening, meaning many of those polled were surveyed before the Orlando terrorist attack. Particularly damaging for Trump: 55% of those surveyed said they would never vote for him, compared to 43% who said they’d never back Clinton. Which is interesting.


Moody’s was right in 2012

My mind goes back to the CNN polls very close to the elections in 2012. Brand Romney, the contender to Obama, had an amazing track record. Trailblazing to be honest with a strong pedigree where both parents have run for governorship, educated at Stanford and Harvard, turned around the Salt Lake City Olympics and was a successful governor cum businessman. His big promise was “I can turn around the US economy”. The only weakness to my mind was that he was a typical American and that he could not engage the changing demographics of the country.

The Moody’s famous analytical model for predicting the outcome of the past US elections and he came out good again in predicting a Obama win. I guess the world will have to wait till October this year to determine if the prediction is Clinton or Trump. The model was developed by a Yale economist called Ray Fair in 1978; the underlying thesis in his work is that the key attribute influencing a voter in the US are the changes in economic conditions especially in the months closer to the elections.2

The model proved accurate in predicting not only the election results that year but also the number of electoral votes received by the winner – Obama. However, in the year 2012 the attributes like the recession and the spiralling unemployment rates added pressure to the model but strangely his model once again predicted right that year.

As per Moody’s, Virginia, Ohio and Florida was to be the key swing states to deciding the outcome. Assuming that the policies remained the same in the last four months Moody’s predicted brand Obama will receive 303 electoral college votes which is 33 above the 270 required for one to be in the hot seat of the world. Moody’s was spot on post the delayed results in Florida where Obama secured 1% extra votes to Romney. I guess we must watch the Moody analysis in 2016.


Issues of modelling behaviour

Whilst commending Moody’s for predicting consumer behaviour so finitely, we must note that any simulated business model has its own limitations and margins of error. For instance, even though Moody’s model has a good track record the fact of the matter is that it did not take into account any changing attributes like the war against ISIS, natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy which actually influenced voters towards Obama in 2012.

The model also does not take into account the impact on a voter of aspects like charisma which are the personal qualities of a candidate but I guess it gives a marketer a dip stick on what the result looks like of a marketing campaign.


How Obama won in 2012

If we go back to Obama as a brand, way back in 2008 the promise ‘hope and change’ was faced with retaliation due to the global economic down turn but in 2012 the macro environment was a little bit more stable with unemployment number in the US actually improving at the run up to the elections. However the tipping point was how Obama strategically orchestrated his brand to the changing landscape of America:

1. 19% of the voters were youth and 70% voted for Obama: A very interesting insight was that Obama as a brand is simply more likeable than the Romney package. Even with the employment number under attack at around eight per cent, youngsters between 19-29 years believed in the Obama brand rather than in Romney. This group, between 18-29 years and estimated to be worth a 44 million votes, actually tipped the scale on Election Day. The profile of this group is Whites – 61%, Hispanics – 17%, Blacks – 15% and Asians – 4%. Qualitative research says that this group celebrates not what is right but, what is wrong in society which adds to the complexity to a presidential hopeful.

The use of social networking platforms like Facebook, YouTube, My Space, together with the text messaging campaign backed by the personal call that the Obama team really had an impact on this segment. Latest reports say that the hits from the websites garnered a lot of support that increased the brand engagement significantly with brand. The launch video on YouTube and linkage to Facebook created hype among the youth that built a relationship with this audience and it was beautifully sustained by the Obama team.

The ability for a group of voters to get together and support Obama like the ‘Florida Women for Obama’ were novel techniques used to garner social mobility and localises the campaign. To be honest I personally like the new look website of brand Obama which sure garnered the power of people in a depressed economy.

2. 10% of the voters were Hispanic and 62% of them voted for Obama: This was a new demographic landscape change that was emerging in America that both candidates focused on. Romney was smart by asking his son who speaks fluent Spanish to engage this target group. But the reality was that brand Obama was trusted more, as he was not a typical American and that he was clear on the immigration bill with action he took in the last four years. President Obama was a master craftsmen in my view as he identified this target group four years back and catered to their need.

3. Hurricane Sandy: This was a turning point of the race to the White House as God gave Obama an opportunity to reach a target group who may have not heard him on mass media or viral media. The orchestrated response gave brand Obama an opportunity to show how strongly he could mobilise people and attend to the needs of the people in time of disaster. Apparently this created a push to the swing state voters to trust the brand. So it is fair to say that God wanted Obama to win too.

4. Automobile rescue: The master crafter realised that United States though being very uncompetitive to the global automobile dynamics, was the hallmark of the American culture. Separately, the industry also was situated in markets where brand Obama was up against some strong competitor activity. The rescue garnered support of the total industry to Obama which also tilted in favour on 8 November 2012, especially in the key state of Ohio.

5: The white vote dropped from 74% to 72%: Another change that was worth picking up was the white votes losing two percentage points at elections. This is very important for the 2016 elections and what strategies are required to continue this democratic run for the third term.


Final positioning

The icing on the cake was acceptance speech and the brilliant positioning of brand Obama to focus on an attribute that was not in the game for the White House. He focused the key message to be the family and his love for his wife Michelle that was on every front page of almost every page globally. This included the Daily News in Sri Lanka. This took away the attributes that the brand focused on to the voter and made America come together. It was marketing at its best to my mind.


Implication to Sri Lanka 

In a world where best practice does not hold ground, all are asking what the next best practice is. In a world where companies are running experiments on what will work rather than just solving problems, it was interesting to watch from a marketing perspective how the tools of marketing were used for politics. But a point to remember is that unless the product is authentic and right, even the best marketing campaign cannot get a voter to vote. Let’s see which brand scores best in 2016 – Clinton or Trump.

(The author is an award winning marketer and business personality and sits on many Government and private sector boards of directors. He can be contacted on rohantha.athukorala1@gmail.com. The thoughts expressed are strictly his personal views and not the views of the organisations he serves in Sri Lanka or globally.)

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