Early election start puts onus on outreach

With the White House race already in full swing, all involved must adjust comms plans accordingly

With the White House race already in full swing, all involved must adjust comms plans accordingly

At this point in time, the next presidential election will be held 18 months in the future. But a visitor wouldn't guess that Election Day was in November 2008 by watching the news from the campaign trail. This election is already in full swing, making it the most ridiculously early-starting contest in the history of US politics.

Late last month, the first debate between the Democratic candidates - all eight of them - was held in South Carolina, which will be an early battleground state when primary voting begins a year from now.

Quarterly campaign finance reports have already inspired much horse-race punditry from the political media. And missteps by candidates are already being weighed as potential deadly factors to their presidential aspirations.

Lost in this unprecedented early campaign fog is how transformations in communications strategy are subtly affecting all parties with a major stake in the election.

Candidates, as well as special interest groups and others with an issue to promote during the campaign, are being forced to tweak the accepted game plan of campaign communications as the work's timeframe is being stretched to previously unconsidered lengths. Messaging must now be more closely entwined with fundraising, and everyone must keep a closer eye on the tolerance levels of the general public and the media. And candidates must always be on message, as this is the first "YouTube" presidential election.

The earlier start date means outside groups - ranging from corporations to politically idealistic lobbying organizations that seek to catapult their issue to the forefront of the public debate by tying it to the election - must also begin their outreach further away from election day.

"[Outside groups] have to move on a parallel track to the campaigns. That is, they have to raise money sooner - and more of it," says Stan Collender, an MD at Qorvis Communications in DC. "They must start earlier and sustain it for a longer period."

Not only will this election be more expensive, but it will take a more skillful communications strategy to keep an issue prominent. As the public will grow weary of political news and talking points sooner than ever before, groups must plan for a sustained and nimble issues campaign that can be visible, but not repetitive.

"The communication strategy has to be a lot more aggressive and a lot better thought out than it has been," Collender adds. "This is not a matter of one or two events properly timed before a key primary... otherwise, messages will fade."

Candidates themselves - and those who manage their communications - will also be forced to interject themselves more forcefully into the political conversation in order to make their mark. But the extended schedule may prove to be a mixed bag.

"The risk of having a two-year-long campaign, of course, is burnout," says Josh Gottheimer, an EVP and chair of Burson-Marsteller's public affairs practice who was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, as well as for John Kerry's failed presidential campaign in 2004. "The flip side of that is that there is more time to actually explain your positions and get your opinion out there, in a way that's not just sound bites."

Gottheimer predicts candidates will get "nine lives" in this election, meaning that its sheer length will lead to many ups and downs in fortune that are not necessarily fatal. Indeed, much of the focus of communications directors will be on keeping their candidates clear from the inevitable slip-ups. At the same time, look for campaigns to tap different media platforms for different types of messages in order to keep voters engaged.

"One of the problems will be keeping the voters awake. Political campaigns are, by tradition, dozers," says DC veteran Wes Pedersen, who runs an eponymous firm in Washington. "And this time candidates have so much more time to convince people that they are dullards."

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