In Politics & PR, Perception Is Reality
Last night more main characters were eliminated than an episode of “Game of Thrones.” Marco Rubio finished third and gave a victory speech. Hillary Clinton declared victory when no one knew if she had won or not.
An election season unlike any other is providing daily lessons in PR, spin and shaping a narrative. Since 1960, PR is what wins elections.
The 1960 presidential debate, the first televised debate in history, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon changed the world. Radio listeners declared Nixon the winner. Television viewers almost unanimously declared Kennedy the winner. It was Kennedy’s body language and demeanor that connected with voters.
Perception Is Reality
From that moment, image has been everything. Issues matter, but many voters base many of their decisions on trust, confidence and feel. Ask the average voter, and they won’t know the details of Ben Carson’s economic plan or Hillary Clinton’s health care plan. What they can tell you is how they feel about each candidate.
From 1960 to 2015, Americans looked for candidates that felt “presidential.” What does that mean?
We valued candidates with experience, that made very few mistakes, that said the right thing. If they made mistakes or were politically incorrect, we disqualified their chances.
With such a narrow view of what a president can and should be, politicians became predictable and boring. They didn’t speak out or take chances because they wanted to be electable. Slowly, over decades, voters became less and less able to connect with politicians.
Surveys have found that as few as 13 percent of people trust politicians. And remember, we choose a president based on trust.
The past seven years of inactivity or intransigence, between the legislative and executive branch has forced voters to reassess their views.
In 2016, throw everything you thought you knew about politics and politicians out the window.
An eccentric billionaire with no political experience is a front-runner. A young congressman with controversial views, who Iowa Governor Terry Branstad said “must be defeated,” is a front-runner. A 74-year-old political veteran, who doesn’t shy away from socialism, has the youth vote and is a front-runner.
Could Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders have been president before 2016? Now, they are front-runners.
Just like 1960, this election will forever change the election process.
Voters want access, partly due to technology and partly due to political gridlock.
Social media gives us more access than ever to candidates. Because of that, we no longer look at candidates on a surface level. We want, demand, them to share as much as they can with us. That is the single biggest change in our election process. We want candidates to keep it 100. Voters are more likely to forgive mistakes if that candidate is transparent.
Controversy has swirled around Trump, yet his poll numbers have increased. How is that possible?
All of the successful candidates this election cycle are using social media and transparency to connect with voters. What’s becoming increasingly true with companies has become true in politics. People connect with people, not brands.
This election will be won on social media. Three months ago, no one gave Sanders a chance. Republican candidates mentioned finding someone to beat Clinton in debates as if her victory was a foregone conclusion.
Then Sanders slowly started connecting better with voters than Clinton. He started raising just as much money as Clinton. He started to receive powerful endorsements just like Clinton.
How is he doing it? Social media. He has made his platform simple to understand. He has mobilized, encouraged a base of supporters to rally for him. But all of that is possible because he is simply connecting better one-on-one than Clinton is right now.
The Sanders campaign has more passion. Now, that doesn’t mean he is going to win. It’s still an uphill climb. But the fact that it is even possible, shows that the Sanders campaign better understands what Americans want right now than the Clinton campaign.
Here is the most striking stat that shows Sanders understands today’s communication style:
Iowa Voters Under 30: 84 percent Sanders, 14 percent Clinton
Cruz-ing to Victory
Going into the Iowa Caucus, Trump led the national polls. Trump led on social media as well until he decided to skip the last debate.
Projections said that the higher the turnout in Iowa, the better Trump’s chances would be. Those projections were wrong. It was a record turnout, but voters chose Cruz. Why? Cruz focused more on mobilizing voters via social media.
Yesterday, CNN Reporter Chris Moody tweeted that Carson won’t go directly to New Hampshire or South Carolina to campaign, instead opting to head home to Florida and Washington D.C. for the National Prayer Breakfast.
The Cruz campaign picked up on this immediately. Iowa Rep. Steve King, a Cruz supporter, tweeted, “Carson looks like he is out. Iowans need to know before they vote. Most will go to Cruz, I hope.”
Carson’s campaign is angry, accusing the Cruz campaign of sabotage and alleging they told voters he had dropped out of the race. I’ll let you decide what’s fair and isn’t fair, but the fact that we are even talking about that shows the power of social media.
PR Lessons Learned
As we look to New Hampshire a week from today, the spin cycle is on heavy. This is where public relations still makes its mark in helping to shape the narrative.
Rubio was expected to finish third in Iowa. He finished third but with a slightly higher percentage than expected. His “victory” speech was the first speech of the night. He went on ten minutes before the 11 p.m. news and didn’t have to compete for attention. He got out front with his message and used it to create momentum in New Hampshire.
His campaign, this week, will look to convince Jeb Bush supporters that Bush is no longer viable after receiving only 2.8 percent of the vote in Iowa. If Rubio convinces people only three candidates are viable now, Rubio can take the support of Kasich, Bush and possibly Carson.
However, he should be careful about seeking the support of the Republican establishment because it’s being shown with Cruz and Trump that voters aren’t seeking the status quo.
Chris Christie finished tenth in Iowa with 1.8 percent, but he’s polling much better in New Hampshire. Christie wasn’t in Iowa yesterday. He was already in New Hampshire talking about what he can do there. Best case scenario, he can use a strong finish to carry momentum into South Carolina.
History Is Written By Victors
History repeats itself. In 1992, Bill Clinton prematurely announced he had won New Hampshire after a tough January and was declared the “Comeback kid.” Paul Tsongas won. Didn’t matter. Do you remember Paul Tsongas? Exactly.
Hillary in similar fashion prematurely declared she had won Iowa. If you count super delegates, she won even if Sanders won the popular vote in Iowa. So at least there was a safety net, but it does show how powerful creating the narrative first can be. That’s why she rushed to speak before Sanders and even spoke during Cruz’s campaign — which is an unwritten rule in politics.
Only, there are no rules this election season. As I said before, throw out what you know about politics. We can learn from history but chances are, history will not repeat itself in 2016. The more daring, more controversial candidate may actually win.
And someday we may look back on 2016, much like 1960, as a year that changed both politics and PR forever.
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