DAN HENNINGER: THE OBAMA “PERSUASION” PARTY
Two days after the election, a friend told me that because he has an Asian surname, he was inundated for months with emails from liberal Asian groups urging him to vote for Barack Obama. I asked what reason the emails gave for Asians to support Mr. Obama. Their main message: Barack Obama is “better for minorities.”
It is always useful for Republicans to revisit their “message model” to single white women and the various Americans designated as minorities. Should the GOP kowtow to the Buffett Tax and conform to Roe v. Wade? But before the party reinvents the wheel, it should have a clearer understanding of the implications of the methods Barack Obama used to deliver his own message.
The Obama “turnout machine” wasn’t faceless. It was real people living full-time, some much of the past four years, in battleground states such as Ohio, Iowa and Virginia. They attended full-time to targeted racial, ethnic and labor constituencies, as the campaign did in 2008. Obama adviser David Plouffe calls them “the persuasion army.” I would call it a skilled propaganda machine.
The job of the Obama persuasion army was to make sure that those targets never stopped having their heads filled via emails, phone calls, meetings and such with what Barack Obama was saying as president. USA Today reported, for example, that when Mr. Obama delivered his State of the Union speech last January—a half-year before Mitt Romney was the official GOP nominee—the campaign’s persuasion army held 2,700 house parties.
These field operations were the reason the nation’s 44th president had to do 153 fundraisers this year. This wasn’t just a presidency. It was a political corporation producing political product.
One view is that this merely adapts to politics the private sector’s advanced marketing techniques, and that the GOP should do the same. If the party can overcome its Keystone Kops primary system, sure, go for it. But if the Republican Party uses high-velocity information the way the Obama campaign did, American politics will be waged as a wall-to-wall propaganda war. Policy ideas will be devalued.
It was conventional wisdom in September and October that other than subsidies for student loans, infrastructure and alternative-energy jobs, Barack Obama was running a largely idea-free campaign, with the press and voters left to guess at a second-term agenda.
For the Obama campaign, the future was irrelevant. What mattered was the “product” of the president’s first term. It’s clear why Barack Obama was willing to turn former Wall Street Democrats and contributors like J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon into furious critics of the president with his seemingly compulsive scapegoating of bankers, millionaires and “the wealthiest.” Or why at the last minute of the 2011 deficit negotiations he demanded a tax increase that wrecked any possible deal and would have blown up the GOP. Once past ObamaCare, the president spent his first term creating these wedge issues and wedge people for his re-election.
Simultaneously, his field operations were driving these wedges into the heads of the Obama base of minorities, single women and campus voters. Using national politics in this way is known as agitprop.
By the time the election arrived, the Obama base had been prepped, instructed and delivered to vote against half the country. The Obama campaign didn’t have to turn them out. The relentless negative messaging never let them turn off. By the way, while Mr. Romney took the independent vote away from the president, some analysts now argue that the Obama victory coalition suggests the independents don’t matter.
Going forward, the personal takedown of one’s opponent is the new baseline for a national campaign. It is widely said that Mitt Romney failed to answer the Obama campaign’s $100 million barrage of reputation-destroying ads. Answer with what? When Mr. Obama’s “outsourcer-in-chief” ads were exposed in the media as false, the Obama campaign said, So what? The campaign’s no-apologies propaganda rolled over the media’s “fact checkers” and likely any other response. Only a fool will fail to dump at least $100 million of mud on his opponent.
Some Republicans are consumed with how to make more people like them. Interesting but complicated. The Obama Democrats used the most sophisticated information techniques to drive an uncomplicated strategy with two words: antipathy and fear. What minimal positive content existed in the Obama campaign was frosting on the stones.
Mitt Romney made his share of campaign blunders, but Barack Obama finally made the permanent campaign a reality across a whole presidential term. Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt told ABC in September: “One thing that’s different here is that this is the first president in history who kept his supporters and his grass-roots organization in place during the course of the presidency.” I’d like to understand the implications of that better before re-engineering the GOP (immigration policy excepted).
The question is whether any alternative candidate or Republican message could have overcome the Obama army of persuasion. The answer isn’t obvious.
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