In Defense of Niche Campaigning

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In a campaign full of notable unfortunate comments – from “you didn’t build that” to “the 47 percent” – Tuesday’s comments by a Romney campaign staffer that “we don't have to go in and package a message to different groups” seems like small potatoes.

The comments from political director Rich Beeson sound high-minded. No niche targeting for them. They have one message about the economy for everyone and they don’t need the duplicitous practice of telling different groups what they want to hear.

At least that’s one view. Patchwork Nation would argue it’s not the right one. We come today to speak in defense of niche messaging.

Wrapped in Beeson’s statements are a few misunderstandings about American elections. Regardless of what he said, niche marketing is part of all modern campaigns. However,  in a broader sense, there is something of a “one message for all” approach in the Romney campaign and it may be hurting them.

From the beginning of the 2012 presidential race most every pundit and campaign strategist said the focus would be the economy, and Mitt Romney was well positioned with the reputation and resume of a savvy businessman. But along the way those two words – the economy – have gone from being his campaign’s raison d'être to a broad catchall without many specifics, as even the campaign has noted.

Patchwork Nation has seen time and time again that specifics matter because they are ultimately the purpose of campaign targeting. Targeting and specifics are important in the 12 county types we examine – and for good reason. The country is fragmented. Different voter blocs and communities want different things.

What is ‘fixing the economy?’

As we have noted on this site for years now “fixing the economy” means different things in different places. Consider the Patchwork Nation map and the challenges the different communities face.

The wealthy Monied Burbs, in beige on that map, clearly want the unemployment rate lower, as everyone does, but they have been buoyed by the rising stock market. They are the most heavily invested of the 12 county types, more than 62 percent of households have some money in the market. Their 401(k)s have rebounded, and many people are at least feeling a bit better about their prospects.

The agricultural Tractor Country counties, in pink, did not really suffered that badly in the Great Recession and its aftermath. The unemployment rate in those places has been hovering at or below 6 percent for months and rising global demand for food has stood them in relatively good stead. The stock market seems a much more distant concern for them. They never had a housing boom, so they never had a housing bust.

The more exurban Boom Town counties, in rust, rode the housing boom-and-bust cycle hard. In a lot these places foreclosures and housing values are at the center of the economic crunch. The construction jobs that let them grow so big, so fast have gone away. These places need some of those jobs to return if they are to recover.

And the small-town Service Worker Centers, in red, have been taking economic hits for decades as small manufacturing dries up. These more far-flung communities are generally not the kinds of places that bring in a lot of jobs in the new economy – where high skill and education levels are much more important.

Reaching all of them

Look at those communities. Suburban, exurban and rural. Large, medium and small. Different kinds of populations, economies and resources. Reaching them with one broad message is all but impossible. The people in those places want to hear how their problems and concerns are going to be addressed. And that doesn’t even address the different cultural issues that move them.

Some would argue that giving voters different messages in all those places is pandering. But that’s not necessarily true. Niche messaging can be pandering, but isn’t always. Different problems require different solutions. The test is whether a candidate’s messages are consistent when you compare what he tells different crowds and whether he’s serious about implementing those messages. If he is, then targeted messages may not only be good politics they may also be good policy.

This is something we address in great detail in the Economics section of “Our Patchwork Nation,” where we note a 2008 Saturday Night Live sketch, that devolves into a “financial consultant” yelling “fix it” over and over. The point is the “it” that needs to be fixed is murky at best – and in the eyes of Patchwork Nation the way you define “it” has a lot to do with where your live.

During the Republican primary season as Romney traveled the country making his stump speech, he was often accompanied by his wife Ann who would warm up the crowd with an anecdote about why her husband got in the presidential race. “I said I only want to know one thing and that is, Mitt, if you get the nomination … can you fix it? I need to know, is it too late? … Has America gone over the proverbial cliff and we don’t have time to turn things around?”

Romney clearly believes he can, but many voters seem to want a better understanding of how he would – and particularly how he’d fix their “it.” You can call that specifics if you like, or niche messaging, but it is crucial part of how you win votes.