De-Bachelorize Presidential Campaigns
Among the pantheon of mindless television, ABC’s The Bachelor represents the pinnacle of pablum. Two dozen doe-eyed women all agog with anticipation vie for the eye of one man in what can be described as infatuation’s version of “survival of the fittest.” Within this weekly cauldron of competition, drama-laden encounters in exotic locales ensue that help the bachelor choose which women to keep and who to send home. Presenting a rose to a woman is the bachelor’s way of asking her to stay for another week; a highly coveted, but often fleeting, symbol that love and marriage are possible.
Not surprising, this dating dalliance has proven a piss-poor way to choose a potential mate. Most couples who make it to the final episode do not last much past the finale’s talk show circuit. Within weeks, engagements wither and the couple is left crestfallen, bereft of love but now free to pursue any of their many thousands of new admiring social media followers. With follow-on appearances on Dancing with the Stars, wounds are salved and celebrity status secured.
Bad as this process is for choosing a mate, The Bachelor’s vapidness pales in comparison to how our country chooses and then nominates presidential candidates. Like The Bachelor, presidential campaigns are politics’ version of “survival of the fittest,” only nastier -- which is hard to fathom. Oodles of candidates announce their intentions and to varying degrees jockey for position, pimp themselves for donations, and define their path to the nomination. Along the way are boisterous grassroots supporters and detractors, nosy media representatives, and often sycophantic staff members angling for cable news stardom. Like lobotomy patients, we are treated to endless 30 second ads replete with bland platitudes, minute by minute polls and predictions, yards and yards of yard signs, and incessant robocalls that test the decorum of the kindest souls on the planet. Ostensibly, we are to believe that this emotionally-laced, herky-jerky process encourages and allows the most battle-tested candidates to rise to the top and secure their parties’ nominations.
Fundamentally, this belief is specious. This veritable cluster of an orgy, with the awesome power of the presidency its supreme goal, is a travesty. We deserve better. It’s long past time to re-imagine presidential campaigns. Rather than through this highly staged, media-concocted and controlled made-for-TV dramedy, there must be a better, more genuine way to vet and choose the leader of the free world. If we find one, perhaps we’ll heal some of our divisiveness.
Let’s start with the basics: the stump speech. As they did in the 1800s, presidential candidates today still mount podiums, pontificate on issues and pander to crowds, repeating their stump speech to adoring supporters, both to persuade and to solicit money. Aside from losing the top hats of yesteryear, not much has changed. For some reason, we tend to believe that beguiling speakers all possess presidential DNA, though many of the most commanding orators in history have also been the most evil beings in all of humanity. What about an introspective but thoughtful individual with a superior grasp of policy, people, principles and process but little fanfare for the stump? Eloquent leaders can and do come in different packages. Under our current rubric, however, we relegate these otherwise promising individuals to the hanging chads of history, their value to the country snuffed out in favor of who inspires the media to sell more air time and peddle more ink.
Like stale stump speeches, we should also question the importance we attach to debate performances. Are debates really a good barometer of leadership or predictor of success in office? Do the blow-by-blow analyses in the spin room of who had a knock-out punch and who survived uppercuts from competitors really matter? Pugilism aside, that our primary and general election presidential campaigns seem organized around debates is ridiculous. We make them into made-for-TV spectacles and automatically empower obviously biased media representatives with asking questions, settling scuffles, and commenting on performances. By most measures, the media’s objectivity compares poorly with Bulgaria’s in-the-tank Cold War era Olympic judges. Perhaps we should try something novel, like a spelling bee, civics test or putt putt. These are at least as determinative as debates where an innocuous, belched comment can unravel a campaign in seconds. No more nominees who tout “covfefe” or campaign in all 57 states and who can’t navigate the windmill shot, I say.
Treating debates as a crucial metric makes as much sense as counting who raises the most money. As the root of all evil, money dominates the primaries and often decides who survives and who fades into oblivion. I respect that donating money represents speech, but must it be the central determinant in how we pick the leader of the free world? With money as a vital metric, candidates are more likely to buy support through disingenuous promises rather than diligent adherence to principles, making the whole shebang a great big, fat ruse. How un-American that those with the most money should endure while those with less, perhaps better qualified, drop out. Such is not a meritocracy but a numbers game where early hoarders benefit most. Under this scenario, what’s to stop unqualified, narcissistic, greedy, immoral and monumentally flawed billionaires from seeking and winning the presidency?
Speaking of fabulously flawed, let’s take aim at our primaries. I love Iowa and New Hampshire. But placing these two states at the head of the primary line every four years is about as stupid as it gets. The last time I checked there were fifty states, each with its own unique character and qualities. Why must the citizens of the other 48 states demur and entrust Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s citizens with the disproportionate share of power to funnel candidates by their gauntlets first? As two of the least diverse states in the nation, they hardly represent a broad cross section of Americans and are therefore not necessarily accurate bell weathers for which candidates would most appeal to citizens in others states. Perhaps we should consider a rotating primary schedule or one based on regions instead, ideally compacted into a month rather than spread out over many. A campaign season designed for attrition is a campaign season designed to ensure the final nominees emerge most bruised and battered. Few walk away smelling like a rose.
These few items are merely top-of-mind elements of campaigns that deserve derision. Having advised two presidential campaigns in the past, I can assure you there are many more.
As a strategist and chief marketing officer, I spend most of my working hours thinking about and executing initiatives designed to attract, convert and retain customers for clients. In every instance, I recommend creative ways to engage prospects. Were I to recommend the same tactics and tools that marketers used more than a hundred years ago -- as sadly happens in presidential campaigns -- I would be rightfully scorned. The world has changed. It’s time for our campaigns to as well. Let’s question the entire game, from start to finish. Nothing should be sacrosanct. Everything should be on the table. Our mission: to design a process that offers the best chance for the electorate to be fully informed and the candidates to be fully understood.
Who’s with me?