Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Novick Brand

Former Democratic US Senate candidate Steve Novick commented today on the nexus of money and marketing in political campaigns.

I’m still not sure what “branding” is, but I do know that it matters. According to The Oregonian, my campaign for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in Oregon—although ultimately unsuccessful—was good at it...

Now, again, we lost, so apparently branding isn’t everything. But I think it’s fair to say that we did better than expected. As a first-time candidate running against the speaker of the State House, I was outspent by roughly 2-to-1, and lost 45 percent to 42 percent. Compared to other recent “progressive underdog vs. moneyed establishment candidate” Northwest races, that’s not bad...

We ran a campaign that did about as well as it could among newspaper readers and people who were just really ready for something different. What we failed to do was let issue-oriented voters know how much I cared about the issues that matter to them.

So the bottom line is: Branding matters. Humor helps. Not every consumer responds to the same message.

And money matters too.

[Read the entire article...]

“Now, again, we lost” [Steve Novick]

I wouldn't equate losing the campaign with having a losing campaign strategy.

In many ways (save for the most significant - the outcome) the US Senate primary in Oregon echoed the race for the Democratic nomination for President. Cue Senator Clinton. She was the Chosen One, beginning the primary season as her party's presumptive nominee. She had the early institutional support which also came with an steady stream of campaign contributions. But her problem throughout the race was her brand. “Buy me. Trusted and True.” Even if the consumer bought into the pitch, they weren't necessarily inclined to buy the product. The will of the people having been essentially thwarted since the 2000 election and with “war on war” fatigue setting in, the voters were content to keep their eyes wide in the face of the Hillary Express and despite the early and omni-presence of Clinton 2.0 along side the original version.

And along came Obama. Something different.

In the OR-Sen race, there was no challenger to Goliath. “If I ran” became “Why I'm running.” In Steve Novick we had a candidate offering something very different. It was a winning brand for Obama and it should have worked for Novick. So what went wrong?

With many dissimilarities to be sure, the Merkley/Novick race nevertheless offered Oregonians a portrait in miniature of the Clinton/Obama match. But Novick didn't set out to challenge a presumptive nominee. Instead, such a one was chosen by Chuck Schumer after Novick began his campaign. Speaker Merkley was then presumed to be the odds on favorite and future challenger to the Republican incumbent, Gordon Smith. He all but ignored Novick... at first.

In normal cycles, big name endorsements are a typical indicator of the choice of the insiders and eventual nominee. Merkley emerged early with nods from former Governor Barbara Roberts as well as many of his colleagues in the Legislature. (The Bend Bulletin was one of the first in the MSN to detail the DC establishment support for Merkley flowing from the DSCC.) Even still, Novick became the front-running underdog. Because of his establishment status, another new name in Merkley's column wasn't big news. But each time Novick picked off a significant endorsement (Les AuCoin, John Kitzhaber), he gained momentum.

For six months Merkley spurned calls to debate. As a result, both candidates remained relatively unknown. As late as the beginning of April, Novick could boast out-polling Merkely 2 to 1. Of course Merkley was only receiving 11% of the vote, coming in third behind Eugene activist, Candy Neville.

[A word on Neville... Having received a very respectable 7% of the final vote, some might regard Neville as a spoiler. Given that her chief causes (impeachment and ending the Iraq occupation) were more aggressively supported supported by Novick than Merkley, one can't assume that Novick was denied Neville's entire share of the vote. Just as many Oregon independents registered as Democrats for the soul purpose voting for Clinton or Obama, Merkley or Novick (as was the case with me), with over 38,000 votes going her way, she can also boast having enlarged the Democrats big circus tent. Too bad we don't have instant run off voting. Still, I don't criticize her presence in the Primary, nor her subsequent off-again / on-again involvement in the Merkley campaign.]

The Novick campaign strategy worked. It worked where and to the extent which it was employed.

In this cycle, voters are attracted to champions of change. It's not enough just to be different. Not just any non-white or woman or short man with a hook for a hand can attract a following. In fact, one of Novick's notable differences, his prodigious intellect was early rumored to be a deficit. “He's a brainiac. He can't relate to 'normal' people.” I liked what I was reading about Steve Novick. But I wanted to take the measure of the man myself The lede was his hook, but the hook for me was his message. I bussed 3 hours across town to hear him in person in Aloha. His message was “I can beat Gordon Smith” He made me think he could, but more importantly, he made me want him to beat Gordon Smith. Steve Novick had the brand. “We need change and it'll take someone a little different.”

Barack Obama: “Change you can believe in”

Both Obama and Novick qualify as “different” candidates unto themselves. That's the selling brand this cycle, but what Obama excels in more than most is charisma. Over the many months of the Primary, I saw Steve Novick grow into his new roll. No longer just an issue manager or an activist, he was becoming a leader... a man to look up to. No, he's no Obama. Luckily, his challenger Jeff Merkley was charismatically challenged. This certainly had an impact on the grass roots fund raising. Barack Obama, of course was stellar. Steve Novick's numbers were impressive. Jeff Merkley lagged. But still he managed to build a bigger warchest than Novick. Unfortunately, his booty was in part bogus. Were it not for the debt he incurred on one of his homes and his indebtedness to the DSCC, Merkley would not have had the money to advertise his brand, however mediocre. He also had the wherewithall to run attack ads. He was given the resources to undermine Novick's brand. No wonder in the end there was an undervote in the OR-Sen race to the tune of 85,000 Oregonians who couldn't be persuaded to vote for either Novick or Merkley.

“And money matters too.” [Steve Novick]

Money matters most of all. It trumps other virtues like being right on the issues or possessing the ability to accomplish an agenda. Because of money, what we need is not always what we get. We need a maverick who will speak truth to power, even when the power rests in one's own party. What we'd get with Merkley is a man beholden to the Democratic leadership.

In the course of the primary I wrote that a true grassroots candidate needs to be organic and locally grown, without any Washington DC Miracle-Gro. I was right about the needs of a grassroots candidate, but that isn't necessarily the right recipe for a winning candidate. Artificial sweeteners can taste pretty good, even if they are toxic. Democratic Party money knocked off Novick and may be able to deliver Oregon a win this November but I doubt it can break the bank of Senator Smith's warchest given their difficulties in taking out Steve Novick.

In marketing an off-the-shelf Democrat, not only is the DSCC promoting a candidate who will struggle to get the support of conservative Democrats, but there are many in the far left who will either sit on their hands or even support Smith in the General. Practical motivation for casting a Smith vote is simply this. If Merkley (who's campaign used Rovian tactics to attack Novick as a “tax and spender” and described his base of support as “the inner circle of the Kremlin”) can win the Senate seat without the support of peace and just progressives (code for activists working to remove Bush from office and thus end the US occupation of Iraq), they will have even less influence with Oregon's delegation in Congress than at present. Democrats are certain to retain the leadership in both chambers. Perhaps a minor liberal backlash will give them the courage to do what they have failed to do after so many of us worked so hard to give them control in 2006; bring Bush to justice and bring our troops home.

On an even playing field, branding is most important. But money is trump no matter how the cards are stacked.

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