Some GOP contenders stumbling out of the starting block

I like Scott Walker.  Guided by conservative principles, he has effectively governed a big, liberal state.  He stood up to the unions – especially the public employee unions – and faced down a well-funded and no-holds-barred vicious recall election.  I am impressed by his leadership skill, by his speaking ability, and by his integrity and honesty.  I think he’d stand up well against the leading Democrat – he’s a generation younger, with abundant energy and passion, and he has a well-earned reputation for honesty and integrity.  Clearly, he’s a potential anti-Hillary candidate.

I also like Dr. Ben Carson.  He’s got sound, pragmatic conservative principles, and he’s incredibly powerful on the speaker’s platform.  However, I worry that he’s had no experience in governing – or even in being the CEO of a major corporation, a non-profit foundation, or any other organization that would give him hands-on executive leadership experience.  After eight years under a president who had never run any organization (and, once in office, proved himself incapable of running USA, Inc.), it’s not clear that we need another president who will need on-the-job training. 

Which is why I’m concerned that he stumbled out of the starting block following his impressive announcement event.  Dr. Carson can’t afford too many missteps.  None of the declared Republican candidates, including Scott Walker, who’s made many of the same missteps, can afford many slips.

Either of these two men has the capacity to be an effective U.S. president – not just when compared with the disaster that is Obama, but when compared with other effective U.S. presidents.  I have gone so far as to visualize myself voting for either one of them, and of living in a country led by a man of their intellect and principles.  However, to win in the primaries, they must first prove their governing and leadership abilities to the Republican primary electorate.

Which is why I’m concerned about their first post-announcement e-mails.

Why?

Today’s conservative voters instinctively know that an effective president can’t afford to be politically tone-deaf, nor can he afford to listen to second-rate advisers.

Without putting too fine a point on it, Carson and Walker each blew their post-announcement campaign launches.  Their first e-mails should have introduced the candidates to the primary electorate before asking for financial support.  However, their rather tone-deaf approach missed this key point, and they did so in virtually the same way.

Fortunately, the spring of 2015 is still far enough from the party’s first four critical primaries or caucuses – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada – so those “introductions” won’t automatically prove fatal...if their campaign teams take note of these mistakes, then take corrective actions before it is too late.

Carson and Walker seem to be listening to second-string campaign consultants.  Focusing on Ben Carson, let’s look at what was done wrong and what should have been done instead.  However, recognize that Scott Walker, along with Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio, all have all made some of the same mistakes.

As a political novice, Dr. Carson should be cut a bit of slack.  But, having received that measure of grace, he also needs to learn quickly.

In his first post-launch e-mail to potential supporters, Dr. Carson made several mistakes, but one in particular stands out.  Below is that first post-announcement campaign e-mail.  Read it – then see if you can identify what he did wrong. 

Then I’ll tell you what I think he did wrong.

Dear American, I’ve got a big announcement that I’d like to share with you.

I am running for President of the United States, and I ask for your support.

If this great nation is to survive the challenges of the modern world, we need to heal, we need to be inspired, and we need to revive the exceptional spirit that built America.

Working with you and all of our fellow citizens, I want to lead that revival.

I am not a politician, nor am I politically correct.

But I believe my values, my life experience, and my willingness to speak the truth and seek solutions prepares me well to lead our nation toward more prosperity, security, and freedom for every American.

So I ask for your commitment, right now, to this campaign. If you will be among the first to make a secure contribution to Carson America, I will be forever grateful.

Never before have we been so closely connected to each other, but more divided as a country.

Our political class has failed us, and as a nation we must work to reestablish what Abraham Lincoln once called a government of, by and for the people.

While I know it won’t be easy, I truly look forward to the journey ahead, and I hope that you will join me.

Thank you, and God Bless America.

Sincerely,

Ben Carson

That’s Dr. Carson’s message.  Here are the mistakes, starting with relatively smaller ones, followed by the “deal-killer.”

1. Dr. Carson’s campaign slogan is “HEAL … INSPIRE  … REVIVE”

In general, that slogan makes a kind of sense, especially coming from a charismatic medical doctor intent on transferring his healing abilities from his patients to his nation.

However, in this e-mail, he affirms that he wants heal, inspire and revive our country, but he does this in one throwaway line.  With no depth and no substance – with no explanation that links those three words to four or eight years of presidential leadership – it’s just a line.

Dr. Carson never says what we must heal, in what way we need to be inspired, or why (or, for that matter, how) we should revive our country. 

Without substance, those empty words ring hollow – they are no more meaningful than was Obama’s hollow “Hope and Change” campaign slogan from 2008.  

Dr. Carson should have spent a short paragraph detailing what he means by each word (heal, inspire, revive).  He needed to also say why he’s the best candidate to heal, inspire, and revive America.  At best, this is a lost opportunity. 

At worst, the sheer banality of the words might lead some discerning potential voters to consider Dr. Carson yet one more cookie-cutter candidate.

2. The e-mail is addressed to “Dear American.”  Not to “Dear Fellow American.”  Not even to “Dear Patriotic American.”  Just...“Dear American.” 

This is a problem for two reasons.

First, the technology to allow a mass e-mail to be personalized has been around for going on two decades – there is no excuse for not using this feature.  An impersonal “To Whom It May Concern” e-mail is no longer necessary, and this lack of personalization is not welcomed by many potential voters. 

Then, by not qualifying what kind of American, the salutation falls flat on its face.  It does nothing to motivate.

It’s also worth noting that Governor Walker’s initial post-announcement e-mail began with the salutation “Friend” – which, if anything, is even less effective than “Dear American.” 

3. Dr. Carson included in this e-mail a very provocative sentence: “Never have we been more closely connected to each other, but more divided as a country.”  Without explaining what he means by this apparent contradiction, the statement seems false on its face.  If people stop to think about it, this could become a real problem for him.  Consider:

Never have we been so closely connected ... 

What does that mean?  Without a clarifying explanation, this seems both vague and essentially incorrect.  Evidence suggests that Americans have never before been so isolated from one another.  Millions of Americans feel this lack of connectedness.  They substitute the often mindless Facebook and Twitter exchanges – or the false intimacy of text messaging – for real face-to-face connectivity.

Now consider: 

... but more divided as a country.

Some might say that Dr. Carson could be excused for overlooking the American Civil War.  After all, that war, which literally divided the country into two warring factions, ended 150 years ago.  But set that aside as ancient history.

However, can any man who’s on the far side of 60 – and who lived through that era of anti-war and civil rights movements – honestly say that we are more divided today than we were in the late ’60s and early ’70s?  Dr. Carson surely remembers the marches (Selma, Washington), the riots (Watts, Detroit), the police crackdown (Chicago ’68).  He graduated from college in ’69, at the peak of those movements.  He was in college during the Kent State shooting, as well as the follow-on riots and marches that shut campuses down from coast to coast. 

All of which suggests that this line, too, is just a “throwaway” line with no substance beyond the fact that maybe it sounds good.

Those three are important, but they remain relatively small, easily avoidable mistakes.  But inherent to this e-mail, there was also a big mistake, a potential “campaign-killer.”  Realistically, one e-mail won’t kill a campaign, but if this e-mail sets a pattern for other e-mails, it will surely make Dr. Carson look irrelevant, at least to potential supporters.

What is this campaign-killer?

Before Dr. Carson said anything in that e-mail to win prospective voters to his side – before he gave any meaningful reason why Republicans and conservatives should support his candidacy – he asked the recipients for money.  To the recipients of the e-mail – many of whom have yet to engage in considering the 2016 campaign – he remains a stranger.  Yet he is a stranger who feels emboldened to set aside all of his positions, all of his reasons for running.  Instead, he jumps right into the “please give me money” e-mail.  

Bluntly, he’s asking potential voters he’s wooing to jump right into the honeymoon, before the first date, let alone the proposal or the wedding.  He’s got it backwards, and at least some people he’s targeting will be annoyed by this.  With 20 or more candidates in the field, he can’t afford to pointlessly annoy any prospective voter.

This particular e-mail has four embedded links.  Each one of those leads to the same fundraising page.  There is not – in the e-mail or on that fundraising donation page – any link to Dr. Carson’s positions on issues. 

Those positions, whatever they may be, are the only matters of substance that have the potential to attract or repel potential primary voters.  Once you get past the very real intelligence or his polished speaking style, it will be his positions that define his presidency and attract primary supporters.

Unfortunately, this apparent grab for cash makes Dr. Carson look grasping, and perhaps a little desperate.  Worse, it sends a clear message to potential voters: All you’re really good for is your cash – send me lots of money, and everything will be just fine.

Today, conservatives and Republicans are being deluged by these kinds of financial appeals from candidates, from causes, and from independent special-issue advocacy groups.  To these potential supporters, one more blatant dollar appeal isn’t going to work.  Instead, it runs the risk of driving thinking voters who want more than superficial sloganeering away from the campaign.

Where to Go from Here

In professional public relations, gaining support from a target audience has three distinct steps.  These steps also apply to political communications – whether it’s a fundraising email, or a social networking post, or even a press release.

These steps always come in the same order:

First, create awareness.  Assume that potential supporters don’t know you or your issues.  Give them the information they need to figure out who you are – and, perhaps, why they should ultimately support you – before you consider asking for anything.

Next, generate interest.  Once potential supporters know who you are, it’s time to give them real and solid reasons why they should support you.  This applies to the local school board as much as it does the White House.  People must be aware of you – and then they must be interested in you – before they take the critical next step of supporting you.

Motivate action.  This is to be done once they’re aware and interested – and not a moment before that.  Among other things, this means getting them to:

  • walk their neighborhoods
  • put up yard signs
  • open their checkbooks

Calls to action can be successful only once potential supporters know who you are and why they should care about your candidacy.  Dr. Carson jumped to Step Three before even touching on Steps One and Two.

It’s not enough to point out the mistakes of a new candidate’s launch effort.  Lessons can and should be learned, and Dr. Carson should learn these lessons before he moves forward.  These are in order of importance, from least to most.

1. Be careful whom you choose (and trust) as your campaign advisers.  Make sure your campaign outreach team – including fundraising, messaging, social media, and press relations – coordinate their efforts. 

2. Whether you’re raising funds or making your case for why people should support you, personalize your appeal.  Do not send out e-mail blitzes addressed to “Dear Americans,” as Dr. Carson did.  Scott Walker’s “Friends” also does nothing to build a relationship between the candidate and the potential supporters.  In the age of social media, building a perceived relationship is vital.  It starts by addressing each potential supporter by name. 

3. If you have a slogan such as Dr. Carson’s – HEAL  INSPIRE  REVIVE, or as Obama did in 2008 with “Hope and Change,” make sure that you explain what that slogan really means.

4. Don’t make impressive-sounding statements that are blatantly false on the face of it.  Dr. Carson said that we Americans are more closely connected than ever before, but that’s nonsense.  News reports point to the increasing isolation of Americans.  As a nation, we have replaced real human connections with social networking “connections,” which gain the patina of connectivity without any real personal contact.

4. Without meaning to, Dr. Carson put the cart before the horse.  He asked potential supporters to open their wallets without giving them any reason to do so.  Effective campaign teams know you have to win their hearts before they’ll open their wallets. 

Worse, that e-mail had four links – all connecting to the same fund-raising page.  There was no way for interested prospects to learn more about Dr. Carson.

Fortunately, it’s not too late for Dr. Carson, or Governor Walker, or any of the other potential or announced candidates.  Those who’ve put the cart before the horse can still reverse course and begin building awareness and interest before renewing their financial call to action.

About Ned Barnett

Barnett has been politically active since he was the “mascot” for a Young Republican group during the Goldwater campaign.  He was media and strategy director for Ford For President/South Carolina, working with the late, great Lee Atwater.  This was the first of three state-level presidential campaigns in which he held similar positions.  After a break of a dozen years when he worked with the health care industry, striving to keep government out of health care, he returned to campaign work, supporting congressmen and senators, governors and local candidates. 

He has taught political strategy at several colleges and universities, and is the author of the forthcoming new book The Nuts and Bolts of Creating and Winning A Political Campaign, From Someone Who's Been There and Done That.  He can be reached at Barnett Marketing Communications, 702-561-1167 / ned@barnettmarcom.com.