Lessons from 2012: Lead with Emotion

I had the privilege of “cutting my teeth” in the political industry by watching and learning from a Louisiana political consultant, George Kennedy. Folks outside the Beltway may not know who he is, but they should.

George is unconventional in every modern political sense. You won’t find him shopping at Brooks Brothers or hobnobbing with high-power lobbyists over mojitos. He’s remarkably uninterested in economic theories or policymaking, and he finds little use in groveling at the feet of Washington’s self-proclaimed “movers and shakers.”

Instead, George dons cargo shorts and little artistic glasses that are noticeable only if he pushes his unruly salt-and-pepper hair from his eyes. His work is behind the camera, never in front of it. His social life revolves around a small circle of folks he genuinely likes and a few needy dogs he takes in. He is loud. He is intense. And he is brilliant.

In a marathon telephone conversation two years after I moved to Washington, D.C., George and I strategized about what it would take for Republicans to win again. I complained that the GOP had forfeited emotional appeals to the Left, all too willing to scream at its potential voters in “high impact” viral videos, paid media advertising and social campaigns.

“In 2012, Mitt Romney had the words, but Barack Obama had the music,” George replied. “Sometimes, the music is so good that you don’t even need words. But, nobody wants to dance to a poem.”

Indeed, Mitt Romney had the words. Our economy was in shambles, an unpopular Obamacare was on the horizon and the Obama administration was much farther to the left than the American electorate. Strung together, these facts made for pretty powerful political prose.

Still, President Obama had the music. His was a savvy campaign focused on behavioral science. The Obama reelection team appealed to people by understanding what moved them, not simply what facts it would take to convince voters the president’s leadership was better. They didn’t detail an ambitious second term agenda, and really, they didn’t promise much. Instead, they told stories.

In the spring and summer of 2012, the Obama campaign flooded the airwaves with attack ads that depicted Mitt Romney as a greedy, ruthless corporatist. One particularly tasteless, though brilliant, advertisement detailed the plight of workers whose company closed after it was bought by Mitt Romney’s venture capital firm, Bain Capital. In it, the employees explained that they were given the job of hammering together a wooden stage for a Romney appearance. “We were building our coffin,” the scorned worker said, reflecting on his subsequent layoff, which he blamed on Romney and his heartless cohorts at Bain.

The ads aired in battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia in efforts to appeal to similarly-situated blue-collar workers, and they worked. They were so effective, in fact, that voters were willing to overlook President Obama’s policies, many of which harmed them acutely and were decried articulately and repeatedly by the Romney campaign.

Conservatives were incensed. Nearly all could agree, irrespective of their views of Romney’s individual policy positions, that he was a good man who loved his family, his community and his country and lived an admirably charitable and moral life.

“Sometimes, the music is so good that you don’t even need words. But, nobody wants to dance to a poem.”

Team Romney only answered the Obama campaign’s character assassination at the nominating convention in Tampa, where they showcased testimonials of the many families touched by Romney’s exemplary character and good will. These stories were real and they were true. One family recounted how their dying son had taken to Romney, and on his deathbed, asked him to help write his will. The child outlined who would receive his favorite toys and trophies, and Romney patiently and lovingly recorded the child’s last wishes.

This should have been an ad, and it should have run after the first day of the Obama campaign’s assault on Romney’s character began. They could have shown the parents, now older but still deeply moved by Romney’s gesture, in their deceased son’s childhood bedroom, reviewing photographs of their beloved child’s life and the impact this friend had on him in his dying hour.

Such an advertisement would not have been exploitive or cheap because it would have reflected an incident that was in no way isolated. It would have been an honest portrayal of a good man who offered a better vision for our country and had a better foundation for governing.

But that wasn’t the story his campaign decided to tell. Instead, it chose to focus on Obama’s abysmal economic record. After all, poll after poll showed the president was a likeable guy, and that going after him personally would do nothing to boost Romney’s standing. They figured, with significant historical precedence to confirm such a theory, that a president couldn’t get re-elected if things were this bad. They were wrong.

Although Republican digital gurus lament the failings of the party’s technical outreach — a fair critique — the truth is, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. Obama’s campaign had demonstrated to voters, rightly or wrongly, that Romney was emotionally disconnected from the struggles of ordinary Americans and therefore, could not serve their interests, and the voters believed them.

Obama didn’t win the election on the words; he won with the music. His campaign proved that although it is preferable to have both, an instrumental is far more compelling than mere poetry.

The point here is not to disparage the Romney campaign or those who led it. In fact, there are many operatives I admire who loyally served him and ran a hard-fought and honest campaign. Truly, it seems they were honoring the wishes of Romney, who evidently is so humble that all the accounts of his good works may never be known.

But, as the GOP continues to discern its return to political triumph (they’ll just need to thwart Trump first, it seems), I’d offer up a line from R&B sensation Rihanna (though better performed by British jazz/pop star Jamie Cullum): “Please don’t stop the music.”

While clever young politicos may be lured into creating spots on Final Cut Pro that flash statistics and news clippings on the screen set to a “doom and gloom” soundtrack, chronicling the unencumbered failings of this administration and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, there still should be thoughtful conductors willing to lead an orchestra to a beautiful, vivid tune.

Candidates such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) and businesswoman Carly Fiorina have incredibly evocative life stories about overcoming real adversity in the form of poverty, addiction and illness. When portrayed masterfully, their life experiences can foster real empathy from so many who struggle. They can provide hope in the greatness of our country, too.

This requires beautiful cinematography, sophisticated composition, thoughtful messaging and a mature delivery. This is how you make a song.

George Kennedy was right: we have the words. Now, it’s time for the music. Play on.

Ellen Carmichael is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter at @ellencarmichael.