Obama's May Surprise

  |  May 15, 2012   |  Comments

When a campaign race looks like a toss-up, what matters the most? A lesson for all marketers.

In politics - as with all marketing - knowing when to see the forest despite the trees could have major repercussions for a campaign. Emphasis on "when," because in marketing, as with comedy, timing is everything.

Last week, I was reminded of that after spending a long evening at home catching up with the news that President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage. A big meme - in the form of a question - had almost instantly emerged: would the President's historic statement help or hurt his standing with U.S. Hispanics, one of the most critical swing votes in the 2012 campaign? (Recall this cover story in Time Magazine, and our subsequent coverage of that story.) After Obama's announcement last week, reporters began asking if Hispanics - many of whom hold conservative views on social issues - would abandon Obama in his hour of need. While the consensus view is that this is unlikely, the nature of the stories that were published - mostly about the numbers - provide a clue on what it takes and what it doesn't take to win a campaign that's too close to call (a lesson for all marketers).


First, a look at the numbers. Many polls see Americans split on the issue of same-sex marriage. And according to one recent study, 51 percent of Americans polled versus 45 percent said they approved of the president's decision. But what about Hispanics? In a poll of Hispanics conducted late last year, the numbers for or against gay marriage were 43 percent versus 26 percent. That suggests a lot of support among Hispanics; and a number of commentators, in fact, have dismissed concerns about Obama blunting his Latino edge. Still, this hasn't stopped reporters from going deep in the analysis of Hispanic culture, which on the one hand has supported the legalization of same-sex marriage in a large country (Argentina) and one of the world's most populous metropolitan centers (Mexico City) but on the other hand has been slow to reform repressive policies in most of the Spanish-speaking world. (See this article for more on that subject.) It's different in the United States, say scholars who have studied life north and south of the border. Yet doubts remain whether Hispanic voters - particularly in swing states - will hold for Obama, or go for Mitt Romney, or - just as bad for Obama - stay home.


But for me, the real story is how many folks analyzing last week's news - including those examining the Hispanic angle - were in fact focused on numbers. One story took this approach to the extreme, with a state-by-state analysis of the potential impact on the swing vote. While I don't refute this kind of analysis, I believe it fails to grasp the strategy of making a potentially divisive statement when the numbers are so close. But as more than one pundit has seen, what looks divisive may in fact be unifying. For the battle for gay rights is the next great civil rights issue in America, and it may be one that can enable the many different groups to defy the numbers, transcend their differences, and come together. Hispanics - many who have benefited from civil-rights movements from previous generations - know this better than others. But it's something that many others can relate to, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum. As one writer noted, "While swing voters may be ambivalent about gay marriage itself, they're much less comfortable with displays of intolerance. Many of the same voters would punish a politician for considering crusading against it."

Maypole dance, Alabama, 1939. Source: Wikipedia


In a number of posts for this column, I've argued the following: that while Hispanics do not represent a monolithic vote - we are too complex, too diverse - we do come together sometimes when we are approached the right way…or approached the wrong way. I call this the "metatribe" effect because being Hispanic today does not mean belonging to a single tribe, but joining with other tribes with whom we share common values. I'm betting the president is thinking of a bigger metatribe, the many groups of diverse United States citizens for whom civil rights is a bedrock issue. And perhaps the timing is right. There's the old rule in politics that a campaign race can be reframed at the last moment by exposing a flaw in the opposing candidate's character. It's called the October surprise. But when the contest is about building coalitions in increasingly complex markets - the type of contest that every marketer is familiar with - the effort to reframe has to come earlier. Behold the May surprise, on the opposite side of the year, in a season known as a time for renewal. For me, that was the big story last week. In a race that was threatening to devolve around issues that divide the electorate, we may have just seen a glimpse of an approach aimed at bringing people together.

I doubt it will be the last effort of this kind. The summer before the election looms large. But Obama's move sure came as a surprise. Marketers take note. What's unexpected always reframes the story. And it sure beats a story about numbers.


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Giovanni  Rodriguez

Giovanni Rodriguez is an author, consultant, and public speaker on organizational leadership and digital/social communications. The views expressed in this blog are entirely his own.

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