The Business of Losing an Election

“The base and the donors went apocalyptic (on Obama) over the last few years and that was exploited by a lot of people from the conservative world. I won’t soon forget the lupine smile that played over the head of one major conservative institution when he told me that our donors think the apocalypse has arrived.” David Frum.

The most repudiated idea this election cycle is that money can buy quality product.

Romney’s loss last week has opened a peek into the Republican mentality and offered a great study of how they think and operate. Republicans approach elections like a business transaction. Their party operatives and their billionaire donors outsourced the campaign to vendors (Super PACs, unscrupulous pollsters). Donors with money met smooth-talking consultants with promises and sealed their own fate.

The preferred business of most of Romney’s donors is buying other businesses, thus their electoral strategy involved buying a ready business – Conservative Super PACs. But both parties of the transaction fell victims to transactional negligence of the same origin – the mistaken belief about the real state of race. Such belief was borne out of two conservative axioms: 1) Obama is an unmitigated disaster that must be rid of; and 2) Obama’s demise is imminent. The first premise pressed donors to open their wallets; the second premise allowed the vendors to sit back, blanket airwaves with TV ads and ignore to do the job that really matters – build the ground game. The Super PACs were disincentivized to invest in the ground game by those very donors who were willing to write huge checks with no strings attached. Both sides of the electoral transaction were all too happy to brush aside this obvious conflict of interest. Sheldon Adelson and other big donors put their best business instincts aside and succumbed to the idea that big money will always buy quality. That by paying more you’re assured to fly private. But what they got instead is a bunch of charlatans selling them coach seats for the price of a ride in a private jet. It’s stunning but also ironic that a casino business mogul, a guy who strips others of their cash for a living, was played in such obvious manner and by his own team.

Republican GOTV turned out to be a joke. Turns out you can throw hundreds of millions of dollars at election and still lose it. You can carpet bomb the enemy – a preferred conservative way of combat – but lose the election because what you need is the combination of pointed drone attacks focused on individual neighborhoods and close combat. Business executives failed to realize that in a political campaign, different human factors are at play and economics is not a deciding factor: people who will do a better job of knocking on doors and running a phone bank are those who would still do it for free, simply because they would make an extra effort to reach a household. But perhaps a non-economic metric is alien to the party of business, in a world where no one does anything for free. For a party that is bent on measuring everything through an economic lens perhaps it was a gross miscalculation, a case of political malpractice. The conservative volunteers’ enthusiasm was there, but the party operatives never bothered to harness it, preferring to spend the money on TV ads instead. If you’re a Romney’s ground game organizer being drowned in unlimited cash flowing your way every month at some point you just stop trying. Instead of hiring people to walk neighborhoods you begin to look after yourself, as a good Ayn Rand conservative should. No matter the outcome, you will get a cushy job at a think tank.

Obama’s campaign, by contrast, approached the election the way one builds a small business – years of painstaking, step-by-step, granular work. It’s the ultimate mom-and-pop business, a thousand of local establishments run by locals and for the benefit of locals. As with any small business, the owners are so invested in their creation that they are often willing to go without paycheck just for the sake of growing it. That’s the essential difference between the campaigns: Obama nurtured his base individually and over a long period of time; Republicans have tried a blanket, expensive, one-size fits all approach and failed.

In essence there was a great dichotomy between much praised Republican business sense and their amateurish way of electoral deal making, their delusional and naïve tactic of selecting their consultants and merchants. What prudent business leader would spend millions of dollars on people who tell him what he wants to hear and on pollsters that only show him that he’s ahead? And these are the guys who, touting their managerial skills, were planning to show us all how to run the country?

If Romney won with this kind of campaign, this method of running things would have been validated. But would that make that alternative reality, through such electoral endorsement, real? Would that enable the new Romney administration to base their future policy decisions on the way they believe things are, not the way things really are? What a scary thought.


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