How to Get Elected

The savviest campaigners leverage lessons from the private sector for success on the stump.

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Illustrations by Sébastien Thibault

Five billion dollars.

That’s the price tag on this year’s presidential campaign season, according to the BBC. One hundred million dollars. That’s how much former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg spent to secure his third term in office. And $10 million? That’s the amount that would-be senators need to get elected.

With figures like these, it’s easy to see that political campaigning is big business. It may come as no surprise, then, that running a successful campaign has a lot in common with running a successful business, from getting off the ground to building a brand to inspiring employee buy-in and customer loyalty.

“All of the essential elements of business come to the fore 
in a campaign,” says Ted Wheeler ’89, the new mayor-elect of Portland, Oregon, who has served as Oregon state treasurer since 2010 and has 25 years of private-sector experience. “It’s about marketing. It’s about outreach. It’s about branding. 
It’s about building a community around your brand. It’s about smart use of technology. It’s about careful monitoring of 
your budget and cash flows. It’s about establishing clear goals at the beginning of the campaign and 
tracking your progress throughout. It’s  all very, very similar to what you’d see in a business environment.”

Because of these similarities, essential 
 business skills can — and should — be applied to each element of a political campaign, experts say. Here’s how the most successful politicians do it.

Build a Brand

As with the launch of any company, product, or service, market research is the first step in creating a winning political campaign. This consists of exploratory research and polling to determine viability, says Ellen Schapps, a marketing executive who teaches a Columbia Business School course called The Marketing of an American President.

“In their feasibility studies, [potential candidates] see where there is a hole and where they feel that they can target and zero in,” Schapps explains. If a market for the “product” —  in this case, the candidate — is determined to exist, the campaign team dives headfirst into designing a branding strategy.

“From the polling and the research, they’ll find out what message is going to resonate with the public,” Schapps explains. “[You ] need to have a strong biography, a strong story, and be authentic. You have to differentiate yourself from the competition.  … That’s true with consumer products, too.”

“[You] need to have a strong biography, a strong story, and be authentic. You have to differentiate yourself from the competition. … That's true with consumer products, too.” —Ellen Schapps

Wheeler and his campaign team spent significant time crafting a message that would resonate with his target audience, a process akin to marketing a consumer product. They asked themselves: “What does the product do? What do we want the product to do? That’s the forward-looking piece,” Wheeler says. “With a campaign, there is also a backwards piece. As a candidate, you push your experience and what you’ve accomplished.” This part of the branding process is similar to the stage of a new-product launch in which a company highlights its reputation to garner consumer confidence.

And name recognition itself can be a powerful tool. Just look at the success of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, says Debra Coughlin ’82, an advertising consultant and former executive vice president at advertising agency FCB (formerly Draftfcb). Research shows that consumers not only will pick a brand because they are familiar with the name (and Trump’s “name’s on everything,” Coughlin points out), but they also are more likely to perceive that brand’s quality as high. What’s more, this perceived quality has been shown to build customer loyalty, which pays off in another way: the cost to maintain a loyal customer is significantly lower — up to five times so — than the cost to attract a new customer, studies find. Ultimately, high brand awareness can translate to more loyal voters and more money in a candidate’s pocket for other campaign efforts.

Case Study: Building a Brand. President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign team used market research to successfully tailor his brand for maximum impact. “He saw that the economy was bad. It was anti-establishment in Washington. People were fed up with that,” says marketing executive Ellen Schapps. “His advertising people came up with the themes of, ‘Yes, we can,’ ‘Change we can believe in,’ and ‘Hope.’ He was really able to strike a nerve.” The brand became so successful that, as demonstrated by this poster, the candidate’s name did not even need to appear.

Launch the Product

Much the way a startup is in need of investors, a campaign needs backers right out of the gate. “You have to raise a lot of cash early, because big media expenditures have to be paid for up front in cash,” Wheeler explains. It’s the reason that in just the third quarter of 2015, the presidential candidates had already raised millions — $29.9 million for Hillary Clinton, $26.2 million for Bernie Sanders, $13.4 million for Jeb Bush, and $12.2 million for Ted Cruz, for example. In fact, lack of campaign cash at that time led to the withdrawal of candidates Rick Perry and Scott Walker. After that initial push, just as in running a business, it becomes “all about cash-flow management,” Wheeler says. Candidates must plan their spending so that they have plenty left in the last few weeks before a primary or election, when what’s left in the coffers will be depleted, he says.

A lot of analytics go into the initial fundraising efforts, Coughlin explains. Campaign managers ask: “ ‘What’s my base of voters? How many do I think I could get? And how much is it going to cost to reach them?’ ”

And just like in a for-profit company, campaign finance managers will identify areas in which the candidate is strongest and those the candidate must develop. Strengths won’t require much spending (“because we know we have them anyway,” Coughlin says), while weaker spots are ripe for investment. For example, candidates without much brand awareness might want to spend more money early to get their names out there. There will also be some areas, Coughlin adds, that campaign managers will write off, knowing they’ll never get traction and “think it’s not worth spending the money.”

Remain Flexible

In business, it’s critical to maintain the brand once it’s been established. (After all, “If your identity is luxury ...  you don’t want to start doing cost-cutting promotions,” says Schapps.) But in an election, in addition to staying true to his or her values and core constituency, a political candidate also must remain flexible and adapt to the times.

“The campaign is a ship,” Wheeler says. “It needs to be a sturdy ship, and it needs to have a deep keel — those are your values. Those are the things that you’re not going to change no matter what happens. [But ] because so much is coming 
at you from all sides, you also have to have a very good rudder on 
that ship. Candidates need to be responsive to what’s going 
on around them.”

“In order for [Hillary Clinton] to stay relevant, she has had to change her agenda. If your consumer base is starting to change, or shift in a different direction, you have to be adaptable to [reflect] what they’re looking for.” —Debra Coughlin ’82

The importance of nimbleness came up in this year’s 
Democratic primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Coughlin says. By focusing so heavily on economic inequality, “Bernie has changed [Hillary’s] agenda.” Political strategist David Axelrod, who served as an advisor to President Barack Obama, told Politico in May that Sanders’s influence has been “reflected in [Clinton’s] messaging and very specific policies.”

“In order for [Clinton] to stay relevant, she has had to 
change her agenda,” Coughlin says. It’s the same in a business. “If your consumer base is starting to change, or shift in a different direction, you have to be adaptable to [reflect] what they’re looking for.”

As an example, Coughlin points to her work on MasterCard’s “Priceless” branding campaign, in the late 1990s. “What I think MasterCard had lost touch with, which was where consumers’ heads were at that point in time, was what was important to them,” Coughlin says. Consumers found the card had good qualities, such as being “unassuming, unpretentious, and practical,” she says, but these attributes weren’t meaningful enough to keep cardholders loyal. “We needed to figure out a way to take those core elements of who we are and give a twist to that. So we went from ‘everyday’ to ‘everything that counts.’ ‘Unassuming’ became ‘purposeful.’ ‘Unpretentious’ became ‘genuine.’ And ‘practical’ became ‘resourceful.’ It was about how we could position those [core attributes ] that would make us more relevant today.”

Assemble the Right Team

A candidate’s values also have to be consistent to ensure full buy-in from employees and volunteers, experts say. “You are motivating a group of people to work very, very hard for a very short period of time,” Wheeler explains. “They need to know very quickly who you are, what your values are, what you stand for, what you’re going to accomplish if you’re elected.”

When it comes to bringing employees on board, “One of the key things is passion,” Coughlin says. “If you look at it in business, people who work at Google love Google. People who work at Apple feel like they’re special. And so with a political campaign, you want those people who totally buy you. A lot of people who work for a political campaign want to work for that person because it is a movement they want to be part of.” Employees are your ambassadors. If they believe in you, your customers will as well.

Yet there is one notable way in which campaigns and businesses differ widely: the incentive structure for a political campaign is completely different from that for a for-profit enterprise. For this reason, it is critical that campaign staffers be fully invested, Wheeler points out. “When people come to work with me on a campaign, there is no explicit agreement that if I’m elected, they’ll be employed. There is no such thing as stock options. Nobody gets incentive pay — except the primary consultants — if we win the election,” he says. Because of this, “I need to make sure that everybody working on the campaign has winning the election as their first and only goal.”

Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler ’89, who won the 2016 race for mayor of Portland and assumes office on January 1, 2017, spoke one-on-one with voters in March. “We’re responsive to things that happen in the community,” he says.

Get the Word Out

A campaign can have a great brand, but if no one knows about it, it’s not going to go anywhere.

The next step in building a successful political campaign is implementing a robust marketing strategy. And the same buzz-building tools businesses employ are the ones candidates use to get their messages out. “Just as Nike or Intel might use online tools to build communities around their brand,” Wheeler says, “we do the same thing with voters to build a community around our campaign and around me as a candidate.”

“Just as Nike or Intel might use online tools to build communities around their brand, we do the same thing with voters to build a community around our campaign and around me as a candidate.” —Ted Wheeler ’89

Strategists start by identifying which method of communication is appropriate to each demographic — direct mail for specific local communities and television ads for targeted age groups, for example. “We have people on the campaign team whose responsibility it is to actually cultivate all those different affinity groups around a community or [political] issue or around other important aspects of the brand,” Wheeler explains.

In the 21st century, perhaps the most critical component is social media outreach. The best candidates use Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and YouTube to reach voters on a personal level and build a grassroots community of supporters. Take Donald Trump, for example. The Republican nominee is a deft tweeter, often using Twitter to drum up support among his more than 11 million followers — or at least stir up controversy 
and keep himself in the news. “Trump uses Twitter to shape 
his message, not just to amplify it,” Coughlin explains. “He writes his own tweets, bringing his personality to every 
message. His followers feel like he is talking directly to them. [And] if a message doesn’t resonate he quickly drops it: real-time ‘test and learn,’ totally under his control. He has turned political Twitter into one of the most effective and efficient — free! — campaign tools.”

This election season, digital and social-media advertising is expected to cost $1 billion — a new record — according to research from Borrell Associates. A study published in the journal Nature found that a nonpartisan Election Day Facebook message simply mentioning voting increased turnout by 340,000 voters in the 2010 congressional election, while US presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush made history last year by using Snapchat to document their first official campaign rallies.

But experts agree that nothing beats customers — in this case, voters — who will spread the message for you, which is even easier today thanks to social media. “You do best as a business, project, and manager when people buy into and take owner
ship of your objective and make it their objective,” says Jane Mosbacher Morris ’12, who has worked for the US State 
Department and as director of humanitarian action for the McCain Institute for International Leadership, and who is now the founder and CEO of To the Market, a business that empowers vulnerable communities through artisan enterprise.

“The number-one form of communication is word of mouth,” agrees Coughlin.

Measure Impact and Attain Goals

When it comes to assessing campaign milestones, the most successful candidates turn again to the private sector. That’s because business-savvy candidates develop tangible metrics, says Mosbacher Morris. “ [In government], the fact that you can’t measure your impact more clearly can be difficult,” she says, noting that at one point she worked on programs dedicated to preventing people from joining terrorist groups. “It’s very difficult to measure something that doesn’t happen,” she says.

Qualitative methods are often used in government to analyze these types of programs — assessing, for example, what people in charge of implementing a certain program observe over time. But exposure to the for-profit world helped Mosbacher Morris “understand that we could capture quantitative data by applying tactics used by businesses to measure consumer sentiment.”

For example, she says, “if my goal is to encourage women to speak out against the Taliban in Afghanistan, I could provide leadership training so that they feel confident speaking out. In advance of the training, we could ask participants to rate their comfort level in expressing certain ideas or pursuing various activities. We could then ask the same questions after the program and demonstrate the measured change, [such as]: ‘Women are 30 percent more likely to talk to their children about violence after completing the course.’”

“[In the public sector] we could capture quantitative data by applying tactics used by businesses to measure consumer sentiment.” —Jane Mosbacher Morris ’12

Wheeler adds that his business training and experience contribute heavily to how he thinks about both campaigning and governing — and how he comes up with effective solutions. Just as he would do in the for-profit sector, Wheeler asks himself: “How are you going to pay for that? How are you going to sustain it? Is that the best path forward, or are there other innovative strategies that could do exactly the same things for less?” Framing questions this way has “made me very effective, not only as a candidate, but as somebody who served in the public sector as an elected official,” Wheeler says.

Having a business background provides another advantage in politics, adds Lindsey Boylan ’12, who in January was appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo as chief of staff for Empire State Development, New York state’s economic development branch. “It’s given me a unique perspective and credibility from the outset,” she says, stressing that this credibility helps her build the network she needs to accomplish her mission — just like it would in a corporate setting. “Success in [both] the private and public sectors hinges largely on your ability ... to earn people’s trust and be credible and to build a diverse set of connections to get things done.”

“It’s about relationships,” agrees Wheeler, who is solid proof that running a campaign like a business can win big. “My experiences [in business school and the private sector] helped me be more informed and more pragmatic in my overall leadership, including managing labor, managing complex budgets, incentivizing employees to do what we wanted them to do, and,” he adds, stressing this last point, “making sure that we were good stewards of the taxpayers’ funds.”

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