‘First you win the argument, then you win the vote.” Good advice from Margaret Thatcher, who understood the ultimate power of ideas in the political arena, something Republicans need to take to heart if they are going to win national elections in the future.
RNC chairman Reince Priebus’s innovative and much-needed post-election plan to bring the party’s mechanics into the 21st century is a major step forward. But as important and necessary as these initiatives are, in the end, ideas matter more.
Would another $50 million worth of voter contacts with Latinos communicating a failed message have elected Mitt Romney? Or would an economic plan that actually connected with voters and their dreams have made a bigger difference? If the GOP was unable to offer up easily understood policies that addressed swing voters’ biggest concerns, would more technology to reach them really have changed the outcome of the election?
What I’m talking about here isn’t mechanics or even message; it’s content. Tweaking a word here or there isn’t going to fix the GOP’s problems any more than another million attack tweets will. But traditionalists who believe that Republicans need only “return to their principles” in order to win also misunderstand the challenge the party faces.
As important as Republican core principles are, it is the potential outcomes those principles and ideas generate that, in the end, win elections. How effectively Republican candidates translate these ideas into clear policies will determine whether the party succeeds in the future.
If business tells us anything, it is that great products make great companies. Designing a governing agenda that can win elections is a little like making a great pizza. Republicans have the right ingredients — solid principles and innovative ideas. What we didn’t do in 2012 was meld those ingredients into a product that people wanted to buy. If the Republican party is going to fix its branding problem, then it must first focus on generating products (policies derived from those principles and ideas) that will bring back customers. That’s the real challenge ahead for the party and its candidates.
Unfortunately, much of the Republican campaign-consulting community — from strategists to pollsters to ad gurus — treats candidates and their ideas as liabilities, not assets. For decades, their strategic focus has consisted of negative ad campaigns and little else.
In fact, if Democrats didn’t exist, most Republican campaigns wouldn’t have anything to say, thanks to a collective consultant mindset that puts little stock in ideas. For them, it’s all about the message, and most of the messaging (over 90 percent in the Romney campaign) is negative, and it’s not working.
There’s a reason why Ford spends millions on advertising the quality of its products, but not a penny on tearing down GM. Or why Walmart touts the value it provides customers rather than attacking Target.
Negative advertising only rarely brings positive bottom-line results, and over time it actually hurts the brand it is supposed to be supporting. But too many Republican strategists today rely almost totally on endless and often over-the-top attack ads.
Sadly, the party’s brand has paid the price for this negative focus with years of lost opportunities. The 2012 presidential election is a good example. The Romney campaign decided to make it a referendum on President Obama’s record rather than a choice between two very different visions for the country. Romney failed to win the issues because he focused on Obama’s negatives rather than effectively communicating his own positive ideas for turning the country around.
But it wasn’t just the Romney campaign; there were other troubling losses, like the Senate races in North Dakota and Montana. GOP campaigns across the country, along with outside PACs, spent billions of dollars on ad strategies and came away with little to show for it. Why? Because Republican campaigns lacked confidence in the strength of our ideas and failed to communicate to voters how these ideas would make their lives better.
If the Republican party is going to win in 2014 and ’16, it must choose a different strategic vision, one that focuses first on winning the issues, because history tells us that when we win the issues, we win elections. The best examples: Ronald Reagan’s idea-based campaigns in 1980 and 1984, Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America in 1994, and House Republicans’ Pledge to America in 2010.
Republicans were successful in each of these elections not because they changed their core principles to attract one or another group of voters, but because they translated those principles into real-world policies that resonated with voters. When a candidate talks about the principle of smaller government, a middle-of-the-road suburban mom really wants to hear in concrete terms how smaller government will generate outcomes that will help her and her family.
Creating an opportunity society is a long-held Republican principle, but a Latino small businessman wants more than an abstract concept. He wants specifics: How exactly will this principle produce results that will help him grow his business?
As someone once said, “You can’t eat principles or pay the mortgage with them.” When we make our case with ideas and policies that not only embody our principles but also translate them into real-world solutions, we win.
The party’s technology, outreach efforts, and mechanics need upgrading. But, if we don’t run on issues, we let ourselves, our motives, and our values be defined by others, and, most important, we don’t connect with voters.
We saw it happen in 2012. We can’t let it happen again. Winning the issues is the winning strategy for the future.
— David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and for over a decade has advised the House and Senate Republican leadership.