Reflections on the 2012 election

Many people automatically think that because I’ve run for office (so many times) I’m some sort of political wonk/junkie/analyst. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, I abhor people who believe that the metrics of elections are important, to me, they are a part of the problem. A big part of the problem.

We, as Americans have lost sight of what’s important in the political process. I believe we’ve actually done everything we possibly can to obscure all but a few from having a real handle on what’s really happening (and when I say a few- I mean not enough people to make even a small standard of deviation in election results). An analogy, coming from something that I am more of a wonk on may explain it better, so here it goes:

Political strategy of today is the twin brother of “Search Engine Optimization” (for those of you unfamiliar with my real life job, I run an ad agency that has been teaching a seminar, Websitetology, since 2005 to educate clients and potential clients on the proper way to approach the web for business). Search Engine Optimization for websites is, to use another analogy, what voodoo is compared to modern medicine- it’s fine if you want to do it in addition to sound medical practice, but a very bad decision if you want to bet the farm.

Let me explain. The goal of your website is to be the most valued resource on the web to people seeking answers to their problems. The New York Times spends a lot of time trying to be the best source for news on the web- generating high quality, informative, useful and delightful content. The people who throw their hat into the SEO world focus on creating key words, metadata and building links instead of doing the right thing. In other words- they build content for Search Engines- the New York Times builds content for people. Google has their best and brightest minds working hard to make sure that the content for people works, and routinely change the search algorithms, to thwart the SEO voodoo practitioners who spend their lives enthralled in figuring out some way to “game the system.” That’s what we have in politics today. What combination of keywords, buzz phrases and positions do we believe will work to game the system to get us elected. It’s come down to database voodoo and not much else as we saw the Obama campaign use their understanding of databases and a get-out-the-vote effort on hyperdrive only where it mattered.

How could all the pollsters be wrong?

How many polls did you hear that said it was within a few percentage points all the way to the last minute of the election? The answer lies, as it almost always does, in following the money. Over $6 billion was spent changing very little. In advertising that would be considered a massive fail. Why does P&G spend close to that much globally to shill its products and why are they the leader in almost everything they do? Because they understand a few things that our political amateur marketers don’t- people really do like to feel they have multiple choices (that’s why P&G makes a lot more than just Tide in the laundry aisle) and that there is no one size fits all. P&G isn’t afraid to stake out one market segment and own it, lock stock and barrel (which by the way almost never means having even close to 51% of the market), they just care about making a profit and staying in business.

Compare that to the business of politics. That $6 billion machine we’ve allowed to take over politics makes money only when there is fear, uncertainty and doubt of FUD. Pollsters, consultants and the media (which are the real winners in this bonanza of an auction) see money being thrown at them to solve the wrong problem- getting elected, instead of building a better politician (product). And sadly, politics in America has evolved to be a consumer product- something that can be bought off the shelf, like laundry soap.

Blame John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and television

Whip out some folding money and take a look at those mug shots, Franklin, Jackson, Washington, these guys wouldn’t exactly be called telegenic. Back when our country was founded and our constitution crafted, the idea of electing pretty boys and girls to run our country would have been laughed at as ludicrous. Not anymore. Likeability has moved on to “Likeonomics: The Unexpected Truth Behind Earning Trust, Influencing Behavior, and Inspiring Action” (the title of a book by my friend Rohit Bhargava, an ad guy who spotted a trend), which is why our politicians are more like products than representatives and political parties more like a brand than a political philosophy.

John Kennedy beat Nixon because he looked better on TV in the debates the theory went, and Ronald Reagan has gone down in history as “the great communicator” because he delivered his lines so well (he was an actor before he became governor of California just like Arnold Schwarzenegger after him). Our voters are kept in a constant state of FUD purposely, with the hope that at the last possible minute they’ll somehow vote the way the most messages connected with them on just a few key emotional points- most often the “hot button issues” of our country- guns, abortion, gays, taxes and “big government and our welfare state.”

In a country where we have somehow managed to turn water into a premium branded bottled product I guess this makes sense, but, when you get down to analyzing the chemical differences of the different waters there is very little and even in drinking a lot of it, not much changes.

What is missing from the equation?

As I sat last night with friends and listened to someone ramble on about how he should run for Mayor of a suburb in Dayton and how he’d win on his good name, which came after his blaming the re-election of our president for the closure of two bad steakhouses in Dayton because “health care costs of Obamacare” will kill their business, I knew that we’re still in the world of SEO voodoo as a substitute for a real political system.

We just witnessed $6 billion wasted on electing one more Democrat to the Senate and 7 extra “blue seats” in the ouse. Granted, Elizabeth Warren is a glowing example of a worthy winner (proving that a blind nut can find a squirrel) but remember, that seat had been held by Dems forever before Scott Brown got lucky. Hopefully the people who had the billions to waste on nothing will exercise the supposed smarts that “earned” them the right to have that kind of play money, and they get smart and kill off “Citizens United” so the next time it won’t cost so much.

But, wait, there is more. After watching our own Secretary of State try to interject himself in the election so many times that he’s now got a national name (and really, why else would he do so much before an election in what was considered one of the key battleground states?) shouldn’t we take a look at our system of locally run board of elections who have given us such wonders of design as the butterfly ballot which ended up swinging Florida to George W. Bush in 2000? Please follow this link to watch a short video produced by the New York Times with Mo Rocca interviewing designer Todd Oldham on ballot design and especially pay attention to Canada’s standard design for all ballots: or try to catch the film “Electoral Dysfunction” and reconsider if even the actual ballots we’re using contribute to adding FUD to our process shouldn’t be the first thing to go.

I hope I wasn’t the only one happy to see the return of bad local car dealer ads to TV starting right as the polls closed in Ohio. The economic damage this election caused by making advertising prohibitively expensive for the very “small businesses” that both candidates tried to woo is criminal, as was the costs added to cities across Ohio who had to pay for providing security for the candidates’ visits to our state, which only happens during election time. A simple law stating that no presidential candidate can visit a state more times than the sitting president visits the state during his last 3 years in office without getting billed for the costs out of their campaign kittys may put a stop to that.

And lastly, I still stand by my assertion that the best way the 99% or us, or even the 47% should pick our candidates if this crazy system is to continue in its current form is quite simple: always vote for the candidate who raises more of their money from the smaller donors. Take a look at this infographic and see the part about average contributions:

I know this post is long. I thank you for reading this far. I’d love to hear your thoughts. And as Mike Turner once again sweeps yet another opponent decisively out the door, our local voters learn that electing a president while also electing a congressman who is diametrically the opposite does nothing at all but prove that the system is broken at all levels.

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