NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Presidential Campaign Lessons for Country Music

Obama's Playbook Holds Much for Country Artists to Draw From

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Barack Obama’s unlikely run for the U.S. presidency was successful for a number of factors, but a key was the day-to-day campaign strategy plotted out by his two campaign chiefs. In essence, a presidential campaign is nothing but one very long tour with almost daily performances. Deciding on your target audience is the key. But determining your message — your content, if you will — is equally important. Can the country music industry benefit from studying the Obama camp’s strategy? I think there are lessons there to be gleaned.

Some key points of strategy that became obvious along the way in the Obama campaign:

• Build a strong organization and rely on it. Obama’s campaign is being widely praised by political experts as the most brilliant in U.S. history. Campaign manager David Plouffe and chief strategist David Axelrod were both singled out for praise by Obama in his Grant Park speech following the election. Both men had considerable political experience, although neither had completely run a long presidential campaign before. But they demonstrated considerable organizational abilities, conducted business day-to-day and maintained strict discipline of the campaign staff. The latter turned out to be a large problem for the John McCain campaign.

• Map a strategy for the long haul and stick with it. Obama’s long-term planning was consistent and steady throughout the long haul, with one exception. During the early primaries against Hillary Clinton, the Obama campaign was unprepared for what happened as a result of Hillary’s tears in a coffee shop in New Hampshire. That incident came when Clinton started to weep when a woman asked her how she got through every difficult day — as a woman. That moment so humanized Clinton that it provided a huge bounce in her poll numbers. The media, almost as one voice, said that the public was finally seeing the “real Hillary.” The Obama team had neglected to add “be human” in their strategy.

• Go for neglected markets. And forget conventional wisdom. Take nothing for granted. In Obama’s case, it was primarily small-town whites who made a difference. The Obama team determined early in the game that capturing key battleground states was the road to victory. Conventional wisdom said that Obama couldn’t win Pennsylvania, Iowa or Ohio’s white voters. McCain seemed to take them for granted as being in his pocket. Experts told Obama rural white people would not listen to a black man. Obama went after Iowa’s white voters, talked with them about the economy and subjects that mattered in their lives, and he won the state, effectively launching him on his way. In Ohio, a state which every winning presidential candidate has won but which experts had concluded would go Republican, the Obama team went after small towns. They converted enough voters to take the state. The same tactic worked in Pennsylvania. Obama did not convert the Deep South, but he made significant inroads. The New York Times reported that an Obama pollster saw a homemade sign with a Confederate flag. It read: “Rednecks for Obama. Even we’ve had enough.”

• The last time Florida and Virginia voted Democratic was 1964. Obama put both states in his sights and won them. The Obama campaign opened more than 70 offices in Virginia, and Obama and Biden made 16 trips throughout the state. With the Virginia win, Obama broke the Republican Party’s “Solid South” grip. It would not have happened if he had followed conventional wisdom and conceded that he had no possible potential audience there outside of the usual northern Virginia Democratic voters.

• Look at new markets. Florida’s Latin population had been written off previously by Democratic experts. In Florida, where George W. Bush had captured 56 percent of Hispanic voters in 2004, Obama this year went after them seriously and took the Hispanic vote by a margin of 57 to 42 percent.

• Remember that grassroots support is your lifeblood. Cultivate these followers and treat them right and they will be loyal for life. Much of Obama’s campaign money and foot soldier work came from the grassroots.

• Take full advantage of technology. Obama’s use of the Internet deserves a complete study of its own, but he worked it very effectively. Obama volunteers could learn names and addresses of undecided voters in a given area, as well as a specific person’s response to previous contacts. Going beyond that, the campaign used “flushers” — workers who could learn quickly on election day from the Internet which eligible voters in any given area had not yet voted and could then contact them. It was called “Project Houdini” by the campaign because names would disappear immediately from the list once potential voters went to a polling station.

• Ignore critical attacks. Obama largely refused to be drawn into arguments on their terms after being repeatedly attacked by McCain and Sarah Palin. Axelrod advised Obama to stay on positive messages.

• Confront your own perceived weaknesses head on. Don’t ignore them. Early in the campaign, when Obama was being heavily attacked for his association with controversial minister Jeremiah Wright, Obama decided he needed to deliver a major speech on the matter of race. His advisers argued against it. Obama gave the speech anyway, and it was a success. Similarly, early in Charley Pride’s career, when country audiences didn’t discover that he was black until he showed up onstage, Pride was being attacked or ignored because of his race. One night onstage, Pride made a joke to the audience about his “permanent tan” and won the crowd over. He also was kissed on the lips by Willie Nelson at one major show, but Obama didn’t require that extreme a public endorsement.

• Do your own research or enlist a totally reliable research firm which completely understands you and your goals. And be sure those goals are spelled out. And be sure they are realistic. Political experts did not think Obama had a chance going head-on into totally Red pockets of voters. But he did so with varying degrees of success.

• Shoot straight with your audience. Don’t try to be what you’re not. McCain wavered between being the “experience candidate” and the “change candidate.” Obama was pretty consistent throughout the campaign. How often have you seen faltering music artists try on one role and makeover after another. That usually doesn’t work. Settle on your story and your image and stay with them. Better to have no story and image except for the real ones.

• Get one-on-one as much as possible. It’s very hard to ignore an obviously-friendly person standing in front of you with his hand reaching out to shake yours. Especially if it’s someone you recognize from television. Remember the old Music Row riddle that I haven’t heard much recently? Question: How do you get a gold record? Answer: Shake 500,000 hands.