This issue's shoptalkers: Whit Ayres, president of North Star Opinion Research, a GOP polling firm; Tad Devine, partner at the Democratic media firm Devine Mulvey; Jim Innocenzi, president of Sandler-Innocenzi, a Republican media firm; and John Rowley, partner at the Democratic media firm Fletcher Rowley.
C&E: Looking back at the 2012 cycle, what stood out the most for all of you?
Whit Ayres: Unfortunately, it was not terribly surprising. 2012 was the year the changing demographics caught up with Republicans. It’s been pretty obvious that it’s been coming for years and years and years, but eventually the obvious becomes apparent. And this was the year when the obvious changes became apparent to virtually every Republican elected.
John Rowley: So you felt like even down ticket from the presidential race that was nipping at the heels? Ayres: Absolutely. And it’s something that we obviously have to deal with if we want to remain competitive as a national political force.
Tad Devine: I think technology is just changing so much of what we do. This was true not just in the campaigns I worked on, but in the big campaign that we all witnessed. Look at the incredible targeting that occurred at the presidential level—we’re moving beyond the polling we used to rely on and getting much more sophisticated when it comes to figuring out where voters are. Living in Virginia, the Obama campaign came to my door four or five times and I was really impressed that they were out there that much. Also, the flood of money was significant. Having worked for John Kerry and having run a presidential campaign for $100 million in a general election, it’s amazing to think of what you can do with six or seven times that amount. That’s why the Obama campaign could have 54 people in their IT department. It’s unbelievable.
And the targeting is not just at the national level. My firm did a lot of local races, and I’m just amazed now at how television advertising, which used to be thought of as too expensive to deal in lower level races, can now be targeted in very precise ways within individual districts through cable systems. You can get the power of television without the enormous cost of broadcast television buying. And the last aspect of the technology is the fact that everybody has an iPhone or some kind of device that not only allows them to communicate back and forth but also to witness. In one of our races, we had video from a meeting of a state representative candidate who got up and lied in front of a bunch of people. Well, somebody had an iPhone there. We made a really powerful TV ad from that video. That is really changing the way the game is played at every level.
Rowley: With this whole body of knowledge we now have about targeting, one of the challenges is figuring out how to apply it on a smaller scale. When you’re talking about state and local level campaigns, what’s doable and what’s not? Think back to the days when these were mano-a-mano affairs; it was us versus the other candidate and we were either going to kick their ass in broad daylight or not. Now, instead of boxing one-on-one, it’s five-on-five basketball. You have The Chamber of Commerce vs. organized labor or the party committees. It makes me wonder, when you’re on the advocacy side, what the quality of the work really is if you’re not accountable to the candidate. And frankly, whatever your influence is it ends up divided by three or four or five because of all the outside groups.
Also, earned media is just having no impact in some of these races. Some of the Republican campaign committees have gotten to the point where they won’t even do editorial boards. They’re playing hide the candidate and it’s working because the earned media just isn’t influencing a lot of these races. I do a lot of work in the Midwest and the South and some pretty red areas. I was surprised what a lasting impact Obama and Obamacare had on Democrats in places where there were red waves. Even in Oklahoma and Tennessee and places where we historically have won as Democrats on the state level. It just didn’t matter what we did or what we said. We just weren’t going to defeat the Republican as long as the opponent came back and said, “He’s for Obamacare.”
Jim Innocenzi: I like to look at this from a little bit of a different perspective. I agree with you guys about the dissemination of the message, and I agree totally on the demographics. But I think it’s even more basic than this. On the Republican side we need to have a message. We don’t have a message. Let’s just say both sides get to an equal playing field in terms of dissemination because I’ve got to believe the Republicans are going to wake up. If we don’t have a message it doesn’t matter because it just becomes white noise. I saw it in every race that we did this cycle. The last month was white noise because of all the third party stuff and all the presidential stuff. It was almost like it was baked by October 10 and it really didn’t matter. We don’t have a message that’s relevant anymore. I think for a while there with Reagan and both Bushes, we knew how to talk to people. Now we’re back to being the party of the green eye shades again. We’re talking about numbers that I don’t think are consequential on a micro-level to voters.
Rowley: Richard Nixon used to have this famous saying about Republicans having to fake right for the primary and then go left in the general. I don’t see any of the moving back to the middle from Republicans at any level. Whether it was Romney or people running for Congress, I don’t know how you continue to stay on a message that feels tailored so much to the Tea Party, not even to a conservative independent base of 50 plus one. Maybe that’s just my perception as a partisan Democrat.
Ayres: But let’s look at where the message is working. The red states are getting redder and it’s going farther and farther down the ballot. Look at Tennessee. Republicans added seven state Senate seats to the point where they now have, I believe, over three quarters of the seats in both the House and the Senate. So the message is working really well in red America and you’re getting resistance to changing that message nationally from red America. The problem is that it’s not the message that sells to a majority of American voters anymore.
Innocenzi: That’s exactly right. You could have looked two years ago and known the 10 or 12 states that we had to play in to win in 2012. The message from red America didn’t work in those 10 or 12 states because they weren’t as deep red as you needed them to be. You have to come up with a better message.
Ayres: We are in many ways in exactly the same place the Democrats were in 1989. They lost five of the last six presidential elections, the left seemed to have a stranglehold on the party and the people on the left were arguing not to change because they said, “We don’t need two Republican parties.” But then Bill Clinton came along and bingo. He said, “I’m for the death penalty, I’m for welfare reform and I’m for all these things the far left is not.” Before you knew it, Democrats were in charge. We are in the flipside of that 1989 environment right now. We have lost five of the last six presidential elections and the conservative wing of the party is resisting any change.
Devine: I’m glad to hear you say you lost five of the last six. That makes me feel better. (laughter)
Ayres: Five of the last six in the popular vote.
C&E: Whit, you and some other Republicans have been talking about these demographic problems for a while. How did the party let itself get to this point?
Ayres: That answer unfortunately is too easy. We got there by threatening to veto the Dream Act, by calling for self-deportation, by not reaching out aggressively in the Hispanic community and not making Hispanics feel as though we want them as part of our team. During the primary, Romney took some positions that I guess he thought were necessary to win the primary. I happened to disagree on that. But once he took those positions he was stuck with them.
Rowley: As you’re thinking about retooling for the future you should not look past how poor of a candidate Romney was. If they had a better candidate, I think we would have had a dramatically different campaign. He was just colossally horrible as a candidate. We as Democrats should not take too much comfort in how this cycle went because a big piece of it was what a horrible nominee the Republicans had.
Devine: I agree with that about Romney although, if Romney had been as good in the second debate as he was in the first and Obama had been as bad, this election might have been a lot closer.
Ayres: And there are other factors too that are much larger than the particular nominee. We’ve got a presidential nominating process and a debate process that presents our worst possible image to the world. Some of the things that were said and done during that debate process haunted us through the entire campaign. Now it’s tough to get a handle on that because we don’t have a national party and a national chairman that can dictate anything.
Rowley: What do you mean specifically about the debates?
Ayres: First of all, the number of debates was ridiculous. The format was ridiculous and you had some questions that were designed to embarrass everybody on stage. We have too many contests that exacerbate the power of the minority rather than reach out and bring in a large majority of Republicans. There are some structural challenges that we need to fix so that we have a stage full of truly credible contenders, rather than people who are just trying to make a name for themselves.
Innocenzi: Exactly—people who just want to sell a book or end up with a radio talk show.
C&E: As you look ahead to next cycle, can you speak to your particular disciplines? What are the greatest challenges moving forward in your sectors of the industry?
Devine: As someone who makes television ads, I can assure you that the business changes very quickly. I’ve been making TV ads full time for 20 years. When I started making ads, I used to take a train to Philadelphia because we had a studio there. Sometimes it would take a couple of days to do something. Maybe we’d fly something somewhere. I do a shoot now and we can edit on a laptop while we’re sitting there filming the ad. We could probably figure out a way to get it to a TV station if we wanted to. The challenge from our perspective is that you have to make sure you’re not left behind in dealing with that. I love the fact that we can make things happen so quickly and move so fast. Secondly, television is still dominant but it’s changing. The way that we communicate with voters is changing rapidly. You either have to embrace that change and become part of it or it’s going to overwhelm you.
Innocenzi: I’ve been making ads for 30 years. I remember when you first started there were three networks and an independent in most markets, so it was really easy to buy TV. You were also able to get huge market shares. Now with broadcast and cable and social media it really has become much more difficult to build name ID or brand awareness for a candidate. I agree with you on the technology, but it’s both good and bad. With the technology, everybody thinks they know how to do it now and you create a lot of garbage out there. There is a lot of crap on TV because everyone says, “I have a laptop so I can make TV ads.” That’s the downside and it clutters the airwaves and jacks prices up.
Rowley: The barrier to entry is lower now, even to just be a consultant. This used to be more of a secret society, but now with the way the business has evolved it’s an aspirational vocation. We’re also communicating so much earlier now because we either have the money or it’s just taking longer to get the message out. I think we’ve seen a little bit of a de-professionalization of the business where there are more people in media, polling and mail, and every operative wants to have their own firm.
Ayres: From a polling perspective, reaching the right people is increasingly challenging. It’s just amazing the number of people who are cellphone-only now. I’m one of them. Cellphones are more expensive to call and it’s more challenging to get the right people in the right gerrymandered House district. Getting those people is going to be a continuing challenge. Ultimately, I think we will migrate to Internet-based data collection. We’re sort of in that phase now that polling was in the 1960s, when we were migrating from door-to-door to telephone data collection with all the same kinds of concerns back then. Not everybody had a telephone at that time. Not everybody has a computer now believe it or not.
We’re in that transition, but we’re still in that phase now where we have to get an increasing amount of our data from cellphones and that’s difficult and expensive to do right. And then getting the sample right is another issue. We had huge disputes in our business this past fall about what the sample was going to look like. And if you make assumptions about the sample based upon things that have happened in the past that don’t follow through, then your numbers are going to be of.
Rowley: If money is no object is there a blend of online, cellphone, telephone poll that you would do?
Ayres: Right now we would do at least 30 percent of our calls from cellphones, but that’s going to have to increase because literally every year you’re going to get a higher proportion of cellphone-only voters.
C&E: How quickly is this digital shift happening?
Devine: I don’t think we’re there yet. I’m glad I’m not 20 years old and doing this. But I don’t think it’s going to change that quickly. I still think television is a dominant force in our culture. It’s a way that people consume information routinely. I don’t think it’s an accident that the presidential campaigns spent so much of their money on television. That doesn’t mean they weren’t communicating in other ways, but there’s now so much money that they’re able to do all the things they want. If you had $100 million to run a general election, you can’t do as much.
Innocenzi: I think the answer depends on the demographic. Maybe the digital guy is right when you’re talking about reaching the 18-35 year old voter. But when you’re talking about a Republican primary base that’s older than dirt, television is still the predominant way to reach them. If it didn’t work, campaigns wouldn’t be spending all this money on it. That’s not to say that the trend isn’t pointing toward digital. I think it is. But you just can’t ignore television. It’s the same for radio. You know, everybody seems to forget about radio, but when you go into rural states it’s a huge component of a media mix.
Rowley: What’s the real legacy of Obama’s campaigns? I think it’s a fully integrated campaign: monster television spending with early, definitional TV, an online component and field. As far as the whole digital-versus-the-media guys dynamic, ever since I got into this business it hasn’t been an either-or proposition. You need to run a fully integrated campaign.
Devine: I agree with that. But if someone said to me, “You can spend all your money on TV or you can spend all your money online, but you can only spend it in one place,” I’ll spend it on TV today. Maybe that will be different in 10 years.
Ayres: The distinction between TV, the Internet and cellphones is disappearing, too. It’s more a matter of one message communicated through different mediums.
C&E: On the regulatory side of things, what are the greatest challenges at the moment?
Ayres: The most immediate challenge we face in New Hampshire is a secretary of state who has defined push polling to include any legitimate campaign research and required all kinds of disclosure, sometimes up front in a survey. We’ve all done this long enough to know that if you call and say up front that you’re calling from the Obama campaign and you’d like to ask a few questions about the race, you can hang up the reliability of your numbers. I think it’s manageable if you can put the disclosure at the end rather than the start. That’s at least part of the way to deal with it. But we’ve got a lot of folks out there who are tired of calls at dinnertime and I get all that. There’s an easy way to make sure you don’t get a lot of calls at dinnertime: New Hampshire can change its primary from January to March and nobody will care. (laughter) So I’ve got an easy solution for them if they’re tired of calls. But this is going to be an ongoing battle.
Rowley: I’m curious how you feel about the IVR polling. What are the strengths and weaknesses there? In the polling sphere that’s been a dramatic change even from 2010 to 2012.
Ayres: You’re right. IVR polling has exploded, because it’s dirt cheap. Some people have no clue how to do an IVR poll, but some others have gotten pretty good at it using weighting and getting access to more and more people. The problem right now for IVR—and it’s a huge problem—is that they are prohibited from using an automated dialer to dial cellphones. So it goes back to the earlier conversation—if you have more and more cellphones you have a larger share of the numbers that are off-limits to IVR polling. Now, I think the IVR guys need to make some adjustments in federal law to allow them to do that. It’s a hangover from the time when somebody called your cellphone and you were charged for the call. Right now almost everybody has unlimited calling and so it’s not that big a deal from a regulatory perspective, yet we still have old regulations governing modern cellphone calling.
Ultimately, IVR will never replace what those of us in my side of the business do and that is extensive message testing that requires a live call. There’s no way in the world IVR calling will ever be able to do that, but IVR is here to stay and it’s going to grow particularly for short questionnaires where the main thing you want to know is who’s up or who’s down.
Devine: In my view, I think the development of what I would call narrative descriptive polling—the fact that you can read a statement to someone and gauge whether a voter is going to move in one direction or another after hearing the information—is the most important development in politics in my career. The fact that we can actually get that stuff, model it out, figure out a race on paper and then go to make a TV ad is critical. The fact that it could be threatened by a regulatory scheme could change the whole nature of our politics. If we can’t do that, our crystal ball is taken away. We can’t figure out how to make things happen in the future. I think that’s a really serious threat to people who rely on research and believe that it’s the basis of a winning message.
The second thing in terms of polling is that the great threat right now doesn’t seem to be the movement to cellphones. I think the big threat is the way you can aggregate so much data and actually match up the information to voter files and get down to finding individual voters. So instead of having to rely on a sample of 600 or 1,000 people to determine what a large group of people think, we can actually just go out and find out what that large group of people actually think. If you start moving toward that, it could be very precise.
Ayres: But you still have the issue of new information being injected, and you don’t always know from detailed demographic or social psychological data how people are going to react to new information. That’s where there would still be a role for what I do even given the truth of what you’re saying.
Devine: Absolutely. I agree with that.
C&E: Whit, have you looked at how to use data from social networks and what role that might play in the future of survey research?
Ayres: The thing we’ve done the most with at this point, in conjunction with The Mellman Group, is Twitter. We’re figuring out how to use their billions of tweets. Jon McHenry in our shop has been working with Adam Sharp at Twitter and Mark Mellman to figure out an algorithm. We came up with something called the twindex to anticipate, almost in real time, reactions to events and positive and negative information flow. It’s a fascinating project, but I think we’ve just scratched the surface of what you can do with Twitter.
C&E: Do campaigns need more of a brand focus on social media?
Devine: One thing about campaigns is that they have a life span—the end is on Election Day. The good campaigns are all alike, it doesn’t matter what you’re running for, and the bad campaigns are all alike. (laughter) In a bad campaign, the media consultant wants to be the pollster and the candidate wants to be the scheduler. In a good campaign, everyone has their role and they operate that way. So I think good campaigns are understanding social media and utilizing it well.
The Obama campaign plugged into social media and used it to get into people’s networks and communicate with people very aggressively. I think that’s the future of social media—it can usurp the role that parties once held exclusively where people got together and exchanged information and acted as a pack. You can begin to replicate that on social media right now at a very low cost. That’s an exciting development, especially for people who want to challenge the structure and authority of parties.
Rowley: For a lot of this we need to not focus on the presidential race. A lot of what’s happening online at the presidential level doesn’t translate even to a governor’s race, let alone a campaign at the district level. It’s not even a know-how issue; it’s a manpower issue. If you’re running as challenger in a really highly targeted race for Congress you probably don’t have a full time person who does digital for you. This is one way the party could become more relevant with some of these candidates. If they started providing those sorts of services—a tangible service that a candidate can’t provide for themselves. The expectation of what it means to have a great online campaign is still not the sort of thing that’s persuading a ton of people en masse. It’s still more of an internal newsletter to your supporters than it is a persuasion device.
Innocenzi: You bring up a valid point. When the presidential campaign has a billion dollars to spend it can do everything well. And in the case of the Obama campaign, they had four years to refine it and perfect it and make it better. When you get down to the lower level races, the big mistake you see with a lot of campaigns is that they want to do all things. You can’t do that on these races because you have limited budgets and a limited number of bodies. What you really need to do is pick one or two things and do them really well on these lower level races. You can probably win a smaller race with digital if that’s all you’re doing. But to stretch and do none of it well, you end up losing.
C&E: When you look at younger operatives and where this business is going is there anything that concerns you?
Innocenzi: Back in the 70s, when I first came up here, being a Republican in Washington, D.C. wasn’t necessarily a big thing. We had just gotten our ass handed to us in 1976 and so anyone who really called themselves a Republican was truly a Republican. They had a set of principles that they believed in. My one pet peeve now, especially in the ad business, is that everybody looks at the media commissions that are out there and some of these people do it for the money and there are no principles. Now, those guys get caught eventually. They get caught because they’re scamming somebody or because they’re overcharging. I think that’s probably the scariest thing you have on the Republican side, and I presume you guys have it on the Democratic side, too. These guys are looking for commissions and they don’t really give a shit about the principles of the party. Some of the younger folk are lacking principles. It’s not everybody, but there are some out there to make a buck and that disturbs me.
Rowley: There are so many more consultants and consulting firms out there now. It’s just inevitable that the talent pool is going to be a bit diluted. When I first got into the business whenever I was around the more established people I would try to soak everything up and try to learn. But I just feel like there’s a little bit of a devaluation of experience now. I’ve been in campaigns when we’re arguing about late breaking, important ad strategy, and somehow somebody who’s the second string on the field staff gets their opinion about the ad strategy weighed as heavily as mine. It’s sort of like Peyton Manning about to make a call on the field and someone comes in from the stands and changes the play. So I do think there are a lot of people who have hung out their own shingle pretty quickly. What I tell people who are thinking about going out on their own is you can’t think about the next year. Most people who have any level of talent can probably cobble together a practice for a year or a cycle. But you have to think about five years. Once you’ve been in this business for five years, you’re real. You’ve been through the ups and downs of the off-years.
Innocenzi: I think the market does weed this stuff out. The guys that have been around for 15 years or even 10 years are good, but we need new blood.
Ayres: It’s a Darwinian business.
C&E: From an AAPC perspective, can an industry group be an authority on who is serious in this business and who is not?
Ayres: We have talked periodically over the years at AAPC about a credentialing process for political consultants in general. After reflecting on it for about five minutes everybody around the table agrees it’s not a good idea. As partisan a business as this is, you could immediately see a credentialing process turned into a way to get even with a competitor or with someone you really don’t like. So I don’t know that we could ever get agreement on any sort of objective standards that you would apply to be a political consultant. So the idea pops back up about once every five years, but after discussing it we end up reaching the same conclusion every time and that is that this isn’t the sort of profession that’s going to lend itself well to any sort of objective credentialing process or gatekeeper role.
Innocenzi: The credentialing process is basically this: if you’re around for five or 10 years, then you know what the hell you’re doing. But if you go two cycles and you make a little bit of money but you’re not really good at it, you end up selling real estate.