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Another Lesson From 2012: You Have to Say Something

12/03/2012 04:59 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2013

In the weeks after the Democratic victories won on November 6, much has been written about the nation's changing demographics and Obama's record-breaking ground game. But there's at least one more lesson for aspiring political pundits and scientists alike -- to win, you have to say something substantial.

After two years of relentless campaigning (arguably even longer), Mitt Romney failed to craft a coherent message beyond the banal Republicanisms of "lower taxes, less regulations, creating an opportunity society." He never fully defined himself, his policies or his plan for the United States. And until Karl Rove develops that telepathy device to insert thoughts into voters' minds, politicians will need to tell Americans what they stand for.

Early in 2012, President Obama and the OFA set a strategy to make this election a choice:

"America is coming back -- which means the last thing we can do is go back to the same failed policies, the very same policies that got us into this mess in the first place. And that's what's at stake in this election."

- President Barack Obama, Feb. 17, 2012

The President not only stuck to this frame but he expanded on it throughout the campaign:

"This country doesn't succeed when just the rich are getting richer. This country succeeds when the middle class is growing; when there are ladders of opportunity for all people; when everybody has the chance to live up to their God-given potential. That's when America grows. That's when everybody does better."

- President Barack Obama, Oct. 10, 2012

Team Obama organized every aspect of the campaign around this fundamental frame; most prominently through a highly targeted, highly sophisticated paid media campaign. Unlike the Romney campaign, OFA controlled a much higher percentage of its media, ensuring a clear, consistent message. Specifically, Kantar Media reports that Obama produced 66 percent of the unique ads that ran on the Democratic side during the Presidential election. By contrast, the Romney campaign was responsible for only 36 percent of Republican advertising, meaning that the GOP message was disjointed and inconsistent.

The Obama campaign also said something directly to each groups of voters they were trying to reach. OFA produced 38 unique ads in Spanish. Romney: only 18, many of which were dubbed version of the English-language ads. Obama also made ads tailored to specific states, issues and constituencies. One of the most effective being the contrast Obama drew on the auto bailout in Ohio and Pennsylvania -- a hole Romney could never quite overcome.

Indeed, Obama used the power of the incumbency to amplify his message. The President had the ability to craft a message with policy weight. The White House picked important fights that mattered to key voter groups, and fought them hard. An executive order staying the deportation of many illegal immigrants was only one of many "proof points" that also included: the President's support for gay marriage, fighting to keep the interest rates on student loans from doubling, and pushing back on religious employers for denying contraceptive coverage. Regardless of the motivation behind these decisions, they have political ramifications; and lend the President a greater capacity to shore up key constituencies.

And it worked. Joel Benenson, OFA's leading pollster, broke down how Obama's message, and the frame he created, carried the day on November 6th. The kicker:

On the eve of the election, only 44 percent of voters said that Mr. Romney's views were in line with the views of most Americans, while 48 percent said his views were out of touch. By contrast, 52 percent said Mr. Obama's views were in line and only 43 percent said they were out of touch.

Simply put, there is no replacement for a campaign and a candidate with vision. Demographics and increasingly sophisticated field programs cannot replace the voters' need to hear something from the candidate -- something that resonates with them.