What Associations Can Learn from Political Campaigns

Human Resources By: Kristin Clarke

The hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners world of presidential campaign politics may seem a far cry from association management, but much of what James Carville and Karl Rove know about strategy speaks directly to association leaders. In separate interviews, they shared their secrets with Associations Now. [Titled "The Strategists" in the print edition.]

Jump to:

Love them or hate them, James Carville and Karl Rove know strategy. As battle-tested experts on American politics, they've built deep expertise in effective messaging, data analysis, and action-plan implementation that any association CEO or board leader would envy.

Want to tap that knowledge? You'll have your chance: The two seasoned presidential advisors will appear together for a moderated conversation at the Opening General Session at ASAE's 2012 Annual Meeting & Expo in Dallas on August 12. In advance of that discussion, both men recently spoke with Associations Now about their perspectives on today's political environment and how the lessons they learned on the campaign trail and in the Oval Office translate to the association C-suite.

He Knows What You're Thinking

By Mark Athitakis

Summary: Karl Rove is expert at reading the tea leaves of group behavior and responding with an effective action plan. Here are five insights into his thought process.

Think this election cycle is nasty? Let's talk about 1800. John Adams was running for president against Thomas Jefferson, and partisans slung enough mud to turn Washington, DC, back into a swamp. One paper warned that in a Jefferson-led America, "the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes." And that was one of the milder rhetorical salvos.

"This episodically happens in American politics," says Karl Rove, a political strategist who served as President George W. Bush's senior advisor and deputy chief of staff. "If you want to see real vitriol in a presidential campaign, read the broadsides each party aimed at each other in the 1800 election. Take a look at the broadsides each party aimed at each other in the 1948 election."

Depending on your political persuasion, you're likely experiencing one of two responses to Rove's comments:

  1. Here's a savvy campaign expert with a 30,000-foot view of America's rough-and-tumble political arena.
  2. Get a load of the guy with instant recall on the history of smear campaigns.

To be sure, Rove is divisive. He's long been accused of running negative campaigns, and there is no shortage of critics of his advocacy of the Iraq War and of his current work with Crossroads GPS, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that, thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, is free to raise unlimited funds for conservative political causes without requiring disclosure of its contributors.

What everybody can agree on—to the extent that anything can be agreed on with Rove—is that he's a canny student of mass movements. He blogs on his website about the books he reads, and he mostly consumes big-picture histories and analytical works on political and economic strategy. Much of what he's learned about his job, he says, required paying attention to what other strategists do, even if they disagree on policy points. "Look, campaigning is organized theft," he says. "You keep looking at what everybody on your side and the other side is doing and steal as many tactics as you can."

Speaking with Associations Now, Rove discussed five insights into group behavior that association leaders can readily translate to their day-to-day work.

People are going to criticize your ideas, so deal with it. No, seriously: Design a strategy to deal with it. Selling a board, staff, or group of members on a new initiative doesn't usually require the kind of two-fisted rhetoric that defines political campaigns. But Rove suggests that any action—particularly in advocacy—can provoke pushback, so make sure your message acknowledges that.

"Every political argument generates a counterargument," Rove says. "The kind of counterargument you want to generate is the weaker one that puts your opponents on their back foot. If you say the sky is blue, somebody is going to look up there and say, 'Well, there a little bit of white cloud, and there's a dark gray cloud on the right, and the sun is setting so there's a little pink, a little orange.' That's the way of the world. There's no way you're going to be able to advance your argument and have everybody rally to your side. Your argument is not offered in a vacuum."

Your marketing team may be asking the wrong questions. What's the most important book on strategy you've read in the past few years, Mr. Rove? "My own." (That would be Courage and Consequence, his 2010 memoir.) OK, what's your second favorite? Rove says he routinely comes back to a book he calls "difficult to read but brilliant": Tony Schwartz's 1974 book, The Responsive Chord.

"He talks about how effective ads—and by that he means more than ads, he means effective political communications—are based not in the question, 'What is it I want to say?' but the question, 'What is it that people know, and how can I design a message that resonates with what they know?'"

That idea influences how Rove approaches campaigns to sway undecided voters. "What you've got to do is understand what their mindset is and design a message that resonates with the information and opinions and sentiments that are already in their brain," he says. "The key in strategy is not to overdo it."

Strategic plans without clear outcomes are useless. In Courage and Consequence, Rove writes that a successful campaign requires "a strategic plan, discipline, and a bias for action." To create that bias, "a plan has to have not only a concrete goal and a series of steps to achieve that goal," Rove says. "Then you've got to reduce it to numbers … and spread it over time. When are these things going to get done? And what are the standards by which you can measure your progress? What kind of metrics are built into it? …. With a plan, it's one thing to say, 'We want to achieve this, and here's our winning message, and here's our target audience.' But [you need to ask], what do I need to accomplish today, next week, the week after that, and what is the measure of success? What shows progress as we go along this path?"

You can do more with member data than you think. Today's political campaigns exploit the increasingly granular detail that's available about voters. "You want to get independent swing women? Buy [ads on] the Home and Garden Channel," Rove says. "Want to get men who are prone to be conservative but need extra incentive in order to make certain that they register and turn out to vote? Buy the Golf Channel. The kind of information we're now able to generate—the marriage, if you will, of consumer data and voter files and the ability to manipulate that information with the declining cost of computing power—is really just amazing."

Social media only gets you so far—you need boots on the ground. "The pathways provided by social networks only matter if you have an energized base of volunteers who are willing to use them to reach out to others," Rove says. He recalls a tactic Democrats used in 2008, in which college students were invited to attend a concert and rally via social media. Once people arrived, old-fashioned press-the-flesh tactics kicked in. "As you came into the rally, they would say, 'You can go register and vote, here's the van to take you there, and we'll bring you right back. And when you get back, you'll get into the special seating up front,'" says Rove. "Really smart."

Mark Athitakis is a senior editor at Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Online Extra: More From Karl Rove

On why the current political climate is so divisive:

"We've gone through a period of time in the 1990s where an odd combination of events had come together and made things more polarized than they might have been in the decades before that. We had a three-way race for the presidency in 1992, a historic change in the House majority in 1994, and an acrimonious personal relationship between Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton. Both Gingrich as speaker [of the House] and Clinton as president thought the other was a convenient foil, so the things that were routinely said at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue by the principals and their agents were pretty extreme.

"Then along came 2000. The acrimonious outcome of that election created a group of Democrats who never fully accepted Bush as president. Dick Gephardt, who's a good man and a patriot who served our country well as a Democratic leader, was asked on Meet the Press just before Bush was inaugurated by Tim Russert, if he, Gephardt, thought that Bush was the legitimately elected president of the United States, and Gephardt twice refused to answer. That acrimony sort of colored Bush's years. Then you add to it Iraq.

"In my opinion, President Obama had a chance to change that, and he wisely in 2008 talked about how he didn't want to be president of red states and blue states but of the United States. The problem was he didn't act on it once he got into office.

"[Today] there are a relatively low number of independents or undecideds—12 percent, 10 percent, 8 percent of the electorate—and everybody else is divided into their partisan camps. The country's narrowly divided, and as a result, partisanship is relatively high. That's the downside. The good side is that participation is relatively high historically."

On structuring effective surveys:

"That's more an art than a science. You've got to put it into words that people normally use to describe the problem. And you've got to put it into words that fairly depict your views, the views of your opponents, of the arguments of your opponents, of the counterarguments of your opponents. You've got to play this out as it's likely to be played out in a public dialogue. If you don't seek accurate language, and if you don't use the most powerful words for both your arguments and your opponents' counterarguments, then you're just kidding yourself."

On media bias:

"We still get most of our information from network television. We get less information than that but an increasing amount of information from cable TV. And we now get more information from the internet than we do from the daily newspaper. But the mainstream media—that is to say, this amorphous group mostly on the East Coast, mostly New York and Washington, mostly educated in the same places, who edit, write, produce, and collect and report information—I do think there is a mindset among those people, a cultural outlook about the country, a philosophical view of life and politics that makes them somewhat left of center and somewhat out of touch with ordinary Americans."

It's the Message, Stupid!

By Kristin Clarke

Summary: James Carville, one of the most recognizable political pundits on television today, is a message maker whose slogan "It's the economy, stupid!" helped Bill Clinton win the White House in 1992. Here, the now-professor gives a master class in crafting messages that spark action and change minds—or even a nation.

It was short, true, and mildly insulting: "It's the economy, stupid!" Twenty years ago, those four words formed the core of an entire American presidential campaign.

The phrase—along with the equally brief "change versus more of the same" and "don't forget healthcare"—was scrawled on a white board in 1992 by lead political strategist James Carville in Bill Clinton's famous "war room," another term attributed to Carville that became embedded in modern political and business vernacular.

The three simple messages grounded every speech, every advertisement, and every televised debate of Clinton's battle against then-President George H. W. Bush, as well as hopefuls in state and local races. In most instances, the approach worked. The distillation of issues that pained many voters led to Democratic victories nationwide and an uptick in conversations about strategic communications.

This ability to message effectively is of particular, even urgent relevance to association leaders today. Raising dues, approving a strategic plan, restructuring the board, and inspiring grassroots advocacy all require associations to craft messages that will prompt action and support by a variety of stakeholders.

Although organizations talk about "getting the right message out there," they routinely stumble in this area. That doesn't surprise Carville, who was named Campaign Manager of the Year in 1993 by the American Association of Political Consultants.

"Effective messaging starts with a culture," he says. "One thing we did in 1992 in the war room was that we were all about compressed news cycles, so everything was about speed. We used to have a rule that we actually had to run to the copy machine. It didn't save much time, but it set and established a culture, if you will.

"If you want an effective message in your association, you've got to be committed to it 24/7. You literally have to live your message. It's got to be ingrained into all of the branding, all of the marketing, and all of your [workplace]."

Now a professor at Tulane University and an international campaign advisor, the "Ragin' Cajun" tells his students that "for a message to be effective, it has to be simple, relevant, and repetitive. It has to fit all three elements."

"The most common mess-ups I see are when messages seem to be too complicated. [The message] can be relevant, and it can be repeated, but if it's too complicated to understand, then it's no good," Carville says. Likewise, if a message is understandable and you can repeat it, but it's not relevant, you're doomed, too.

But the biggest challenge, he says, is that "everybody wants to add to the message. One of the truisms of my business is that we spend way more time telling people what not to say than telling them what to say."

Hypocrisy, real or perceived, is another issue that associations—with their traditional emphasis on building members' trust—should be especially aware of in creating and delivering messages.

"Where people get into trouble is when they try to make themselves into someone they're not, [or] when you have an organization that does something that is the opposite of its message," Carville says. "You have to protect that message with everything you do. That's why I always add the dynamic of culture. ... It's got to be authentic to start. That's number one."

Stay Focused

Carville cautions against underestimating the difficulty of stepping back to objectively drill into the core of key messages, stay focused, and avoid sinking in minutiae.

"It's really hard," he says. "There are people trying to disrupt you from your message … and you can disrupt yourself. It's not like you get a chance to go out there and sort of just do it.

"You have what military people call 'friction.' You design the [message], and the sun is shining, and everyone is where they're supposed to be, and all the equipment works. But sometimes it rains, and helicopters break, and the enemies aren't where you thought they would be. These things happen, and they happen all the time. Better groups are able to anticipate and deal with [that]."

He recommends abundant transparency and open meetings during the strategic messaging process. "One thing I think is anathema to good messaging is secrecy," says Carville. "We're trying to tell 200 million people, 100 million voters, what the hell we're about, so we sure can tell 100 staffers, 'This is who we are. This is what we are 24/7, and this is what we want people to know that we are.' If somebody walks into an association for five minutes and wonders what this place is about, [then you need to ask,] 'Is our message really part of our culture?'"

Carville notes, too, that while communication methods have evolved, the integral ingredients of effective messaging have not.

"Its principles are eternal," he says. "I am very much of a content-is-the-most-important-thing [mindset]. You can have the most effective integrated social media platform and every kind of technology, but if you don't have anything to say, you're done. You can hire somebody to do that [technical stuff], but your message is something everybody's got to feel."

To help build that commitment, he urges organizations to use the terms "message development" and "narrative development" interchangeably, reminding them that "we know that every narrative is consistent in its structure—any book, any play, any movie, any speech, even any sound bite. It's set-up, conflict, resolution."

Be Brief

That narrative also must be short and "contained in a way that people can frame it in their minds," says Carville. "I won't give a word count, but you can't have a 59-point plan. ... Some people don't like that reduction, because they think it devalues the depth and complexity of what they do. But if you want people to know three things about you, have three parts to your message. If you want people to know nothing about you, then have nine."

This downsizing is especially brutal when an association is advocating for complex change, thanks in part to the current climate of deep public cynicism. "When you have institutional or general social mistrust, you have to change the way you structure a message, but the principles of smart messaging remain the same," he says. "A good association or organization will adjust to the times. You've also got to sell your own people on the message. Everyone in the association has to believe in it."

As he has modeled in many campaigns, Carville emphasizes the need for optimism and a commitment to stay on the offensive in a messaging effort. "Any good messaging starts with the premise that, 'look, we can do this. We're the can-do group here,'" he says.

Indeed, a pithy focus on achieving a positive future is compelling and persuasive. Carville's ninth and latest book, released this summer, offers both an exploration of the past and an optimistic vision for the future. Its message-laden premise and title? It's the Middle Class, Stupid!

Kristin Clarke is an ASAE business editor and journalist. Email: [email protected]

Kristin Clarke

Kristin Clarke is books editor for Associations Now and a business journalist and sustainability director for ASAE.