Election season is heating up, and longtime political consultant William S. Bike knows what candidates and their campaign teams ought to do to win.
Bike, Senior Vice President at Central Park Communications, a communications consulting firm in Chicago, IL, USA, literally wrote the book on political campaigning. His classic text, "Winning Political Campaigns," now is in its third edition. It has been updated for 2012 and is available as an e-book on Amazon Kindle, Reader Store, Shelfari, and Smashwords.
Campaigning is "all about strategy—that’s one of the larger chapters in my book—but you never want people to be talking about your strategy," Bike explained. "You want the strategy to be something that is not obvious to people. So if the media or the voters are talking about your strategy, that’s not good. It is something that shouldn’t be seen."
Campaign teams and candidates should begin with an analysis, Bike said.
"Analyze what the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses are and figure out ways to play off the strengths--and either cover up the weaknesses or make them unimportant," Bike continued. "In ‘Winning Political Campaigns,’ I talk about planning and actually have a checklist of things that must be done—assembling data, looking at previous campaign plans, determining what you want to spend, what kind of alliances you can build, etc."
Targeting also is important to Bike.
"Targeting is basically making the best use of limited resources," he noted. "For example, some candidates feel that they want to go out after every vote, but this is really a waste of resources.
"You have to strategize whom you want to target. In an election you have some people who are for you no matter what—your party’s base, for example—and some who are against you—the other party’s base. You are always fighting for that middle ground of undecided and swing voters, and that group is getting smaller all the time. You have to figure out the best way to target these people and what issues they care about at this particular time."
Bike noted that in 2000, Democratic Presidential candidate Al Gore in the run-up to the election "was campaigning in Illinois, a state he had wrapped up, when he could have been in Florida. His targeting was off the mark, and it cost him the election."
Campaigns need to strategize their candidate’s positioning—" how you differentiate your candidate from the other candidates," Bike explained. "One thing I talk about in ‘Winning Political Campaigns’ is repetition—come up with a simple message that the voters understand and then repeat it. And coordinate that message. The Republican Party is great at this. The message coming from the Republican National Committee is the same one you’ll hear on Fox News and the same ones you’ll hear from right-wing radio personalities. The Democrats often are all over the place, however."
Bike explained political marketing.
"You’re packaging the candidate and trying to sell him or her to the voters," Bike noted. "Richard Nixon in 1968 was the first marketed candidate. His campaign for the first time used marketing tactics like focus groups and calling to see what voters were thinking, just to see how certain positions played—and then tailoring the campaign and its literature accordingly. Everybody has done that since then."
Although political consultants and marketing tactics have become more important in politics, so have political parties.
"Thirty or 40 years ago, political pundits were saying that with the rise of television and our entertainment-centered culture, political parties would become less important and the personalities of candidates would becoming more important," Bike explained. "What actually happened, with the information explosion via television, radio, and the internet, and with people being busier than ever, is that people cannot keep up with or process all that information. They don’t have the time. So, they look at the party label more than ever."
The pressure on campaigns and candidates is greater than ever, and so is the temptation for campaigns to commit ethical violations.
"In my book ‘Winning Political Campaigns,’ I talk about the ‘just this once rule’—campaigners who wouldn’t normally do a dirty deed, whether it is putting out-and-out lies in a speech or denying a charge when it is true , but who decide to do it ‘just this once,’" Bike noted. "I’m against ‘just this once,’ because it quickly becomes ‘more than once.’ When a charge against your candidate is true , I recommend admitting it and moving on. In fact, I recommend admitting it before the charge is made, to diffuse the issue before it ever becomes a problem."
Bike looked at some of the biggest changes in political campaigning lately.
"Campaigning has always been about getting the swing voters to vote for your candidate, but what happens when there are fewer swing voters in a highly partisan era such as the current one?" Bike noted. "You’ve got to work harder to find them, and to get them out. Barack Obama did it in 2008, and the Tea Party did it in 2010.
"Grassroots campaigning has probably been around since some ancient Pharaoh sent supporters out to talk to people shopping in the marketplaces of Egypt, but the 2008 Obama presidential campaign turned it into an art form with electronic organizing. Take the state of Missouri. The 2008 Obama campaign had 40 offices, 150 organizers, and 2,500 neighborhood leaders. The campaign used the internet, e-mail, and social media to organize these people, yet their old-fashioned face-to-face contacts with their neighbors were way more persuasive than TV ads," Bike said.
"The campaign must take an active role in voter registration. The 2008 Obama campaign and the 2010 Tea Party campaign actively registered thousands of new voters all over the country. It is an axiom in politics that an overwhelming majority of new voters are going to vote for the candidate or party that registered them," Bike said.
The internet and social media are where the most innovations are taking place, and more rapidly, Bike asserted.
"The Obama campaign of 2008 used the internet better than anyone else had until that time," Bike explained. "In February 2008, when Obama raised $55 million in one month, he did not host a single in-person fundraiser. The money all came from small-donation internet contributions.
"The internet makes it easy to get involved, and creates the expectation that of course the viewers/voters will become active. When Obama came to an event in 2008, there was an expectation that the audience would not just sit there or write checks, but would make phone calls, canvass, and become part of a movement encouraged and fueled by and organized on the internet," Bike said.
Social media can be used to increase awareness, engage supporters, listen to the community, and monitor the competition, Bike added, noting "social media are a two-way street and are not just about getting your message out—they allow you to listen to what your voters want and change your strategy accordingly."
No matter which of the strategies explained in "Winning Political Campaigns" are used, research is the key, Bike noted.
"Political consultants and campaign staff sit down with the candidates and talk about why they are running and what they want to accomplish," Bike explained. "We do research in the district to find out what the issues are via polling and focus groups. It’s very seldom a matter of providing boilerplate—‘This is what we did the last time, so this is what we will do this time.’ Every candidate is different, and every race is different. Barack Obama in 2012 is not running the same kind of campaign he ran in 2008.
"You have to do research in order to be effective," Bike added.
Part of that is opposition research.
"You look at the other candidate’s strengths and weaknesses from a strategy viewpoint, but also at the most basic level—to figure out why your candidate is running," Bike explained. "If your candidate holds the same opinions as his or her opponent and they appeal to the same constituencies, what’s the point?"
Once the consultants and campaign staff figure out the differences between the candidate and the opposition, they have to craft the candidate’s message.
"First, you talk to the candidate to find out what his or her views are, and then you try to articulate that," Bike said. "You come up with a message that is very simple. Say what the candidate’s views are in a nutshell, and if you are lucky you can identify the candidate with that message in voters’ minds."
That is necessary for both high-profile and low-profile races, but there are differences, he noted.
"Bigger visibility races mean your problems are bigger," Bike noted. "If there is a negative that comes out about your candidate, you have to deal with it more rapidly and more strongly that you would in a down-ballot race. For a lower profile office, the race is less about personalities than it is about issues and parties, because people pay less attention. In those races, voter turnout becomes more important, and you get that the old-fashioned way, with doorbell ringing and yard signs. The larger races are more about glitz and rapid response on social media.
"In modern campaigns, things move a lot faster than used to, but so long as the campaign worker or consultant is effective, the candidate has a good chance of winning. If the campaign worker or consultant is not effective, he or she won’t be working on campaigns for too long," Bike concluded.
For more about Bike and the book Winning Political Campaigns, go to http://www.centralparkcommunications.com. To see Bike on CNN, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhZYkyRx-C4.