A theory on the Obama campaign’s messaging problems
I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had lately in which some politico or another wants to talk about how the Obama campaign can’t seem to get its “messaging” together. As it happens, I am perhaps the very worst person in the world to have such a conversation with, because I don’t believe marginal changes in messaging have much effect on voters. But let me put aside my role as a pedantic buzzkill for a moment and propose a theory.
As best I can tell, the idea that the Obama campaign is having trouble with its messaging in a broad way — as opposed to in a narrow way, i.e, Obama blowing up his campaign’s message by misspeaking at a news conference — is mostly built around the difficulty the campaign has had attacking Romney’s time at Bain Capital. This difficulty has mostly taken the form of media frenzies over Democrats like Bill Clinton, Cory Booker and Steve Rattner saying they’re not comfortable with the Obama campaign’s approach. Rather than being able to talk about Bain Capital, the Obama campaign has thus had to spend time talking about whether they can talk about Bain Capital. That’s not a very good message.
But it’s not as if the Obama campaign is pulling this message out of thin air. As Sasha Issenberg has detailed in “The Death of the Hunch,” they have what’s undoubtedly the most sophisticated analytics operation of any presidential campaign in history.
The Obama campaign’s “experiment-informed programs”—known as EIP in the lefty tactical circles where they’ve become the vogue in recent years—are designed to track the impact of campaign messages as voters process them in the real world, instead of relying solely on artificial environments like focus groups and surveys. The method combines the two most exciting developments in electioneering practice over the last decade: the use of randomized, controlled experiments able to isolate cause and effect in political activity and the microtargeting statistical models that can calculate the probability a voter will hold a particular view based on hundreds of variables.
Obama’s campaign has already begun rolling out messages to small test audiences. Analysts then rely on an extensive, ongoing microtargeting operation to discern which slivers of the electorate are most responsive, and to which messages. This cycle of trial and error offers empirically minded electioneers an upgrade over the current régime of approaching voters based on hunches.
The Obama campaign’s message is coming from these experiments testing what voters want. And, judging from the approach the Obama campaign has taken, these voters want a pretty blunt attack on Bain Capital. The Obama campaign has been trying to give it to them.
The problem that I don’t think the Obama campaign anticipated, or has even really known how to deal with, is that the message voters want is not the message political elites want. Top Democrats, who have friends and funders in the private-equity community, need to defend their allies. Pundits and reporters know people in these worlds, pride themselves on being above superficial populism, and so tend to bristle at ads featuring laid-off workers who blame Bain. And then there’s Wall Street itself, which is plugged into the media, has a lot of money, and thus can make its voice hard. That’s the thing about hitting the powerful. The powerful can hit back.
The Obama campaign’s messaging might be what voters wanted to hear. In fact, given the campaign’s reliance on hard data, it’s almost surely what voters want to hear. But the Obama campaign wasn’t running experiments on how an elite backlash would change voter opinions . And now what voters are getting — at least if they’re tuned into political media — is an argument between the Obama campaign and those elites, which is not something they’re interested in hearing.
Hence Obama’s big speech Thursday, which is meant to reboot the messaging. And which, to get back to my role as a pedantic buzzkill on these matters, probably won’t matter very much, just as I’m not sure that the problems the Obama campaign has had getting their message out in the last few weeks have mattered very much. The jobs numbers, on the other hand, mattered quite a lot, both in throwing the Obama campaign off their favored message, which is that the economy is recovering, and in allowing Mitt Romney to resuscitate his favored message, which is that it isn’t.
As I wrote in Wonkbook Thursday, the actual condition of the country will trump “messaging” every time.