Unifying Trends for President, Microtrends for Congress

May 29, 2008

Crossposted at thenextright.com

Patrick’s argument against a Mark Penn style microtrends approach and in favor of Obama (Axelrod) style unifying messages is spot on… but only if you’re talking about the Presidential race and to a lesser extent gubernatorial races.

Presidential candidates get to create their own themes and realities. They have gigantic megaphones and as we’ve seen this year, their campaigns are more earned media-centric than paid media-centric. If a presidential candidate says something, a regular person may actually hear it every once in a while.

They’re so prominent they aren’t capable of running a real microtrend strategy because anything they say will be amplified ten million times over. If Obama gives a speech to, say the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (or whatever), the national press covers it and if he says anything different than his normal theme, everyone hears it.

That’s just as true of the internet. Any communication he sends out will probably get picked up by some reporter somewhere and the logistics of tracking microtargeted messages to every small constituency in the nation are a mess. Someone will screw up somewhere along the line and anything the campaign sends out has the potential to turn into a blowup. Either the messages are so plain vanilla that they’re not really even worth calling a micro message anymore, or there’s a huge potential for trouble. I think this dynamic kept HRC from running a truly micro campaign incidently, her strategy was more old school “constituency collection.”

On the flip side, micro messages are great for members of Congress and legislative campaigns because basically, no one pays any attention to them.

The fundamental challenge of Congressional campaigns is getting a message across. The races don’t get much press coverage and no one but a handful of activists gets very excited about them. That’s why congressional campaigns are so expensive, candidates have to ram their messages down voters’ throats through paid media.

This is where microtrends get useful. People don’t pay much attention to broad messages from congressional candidates, but voters care a lot more when a candidate talks about their specific micro issue. In a campaign setting that means heavily tailoring your cable buys, investing in a lot of issue mail and buying the hell out of (wonderfully targetable) internet advertising. As long as the candidates don’t contradict themselves to different audiences, they can get away with more message variation.

Nationally, it means that David All’s suggestion that congressional messaging should look like a lot more like Netflix has some merit, but this post is running long and I’ll save that for another day.

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