A Learning Moment: Deconstructing Rand’s National Debut

If you have followed me for some time then you know that what drives me is arming the freedom movement with the tools, skills, and experience necessary to drive political success.  That is one of the reasons that this is such an exciting moment. 

The Rand Paul primary campaign has been an exercise in message discipline, image control, and managerial competence that should be broadly admired and studied within the movement.  It also makes the last week somewhat puzzling, but does provide some important lessons for aspiring political strategists and campaign staffers.

Item one:   The Victory Party

There are important principles in political event planning.  One is “Never book a room you can’t fill.”  Another is “Never miss an opportunity to use visuals to re-enforce your campaign narrative.”  Related to the second is “Never contradict your desired narrative.”

The carefully cultivated narrative of the campaign has been that Rand is a populist who stands with the people over the powerful, demands economic restraint, and gives voice to a voiceless and angry “silent majority.”  The decision to hold the victory party at a private country club runs counter to that narrative and Rand’s pained comment that country clubs aren’t as elitist as they used to be was cringe worthy.  He never should have been put in that position.

A good part of political marketing is stagecraft.  When there are cameras, you always want to put your candidate in a room that is slightly smaller than the anticipated crowd so that the excitement level and revelry of the crowds is focused and comes through to the TV or Youtube viewer.  That excitement feeds the energy of volunteers, activists, and voters while stringing a thread of broad popular support into the campaign’s narrative.  By having an outside event, the crowd noise was dissipated.  It sounded like twelve people were cheering him on while millions watched from home.

On a related note, behind the podium on Tuesday was the endless blackness of the Kentucky night.  This is like spending a million dollars on a Super Bowl ad and then running 30 seconds of dead air.  Visuals should always re-enforce the message.

The bigger, strategic concern aught to be that by making himself the poster child of the Tea Party movement, the media and the left now have a focal point for what before had been a generalized effort to demonize the movement.  By failing to use the victory speech to reach out to traditional Republicans, independents, and conservative Democrats in Kentucky, he signaled his desire to be solely and uniquely a Tea Party candidate.  The degree to which there will be a price to be paid for that decision remains to be seen.   

Item two:  Not all interviews are created equal

Setting aside   the Maddow interview, which seems more a matter of a usually disciplined candidate being tired and getting loose with someone he erroneously trusted, it followed from choosing to do a lot of media, even internet-only media.  

He would have been far better served to do a handful of national interviews (short and narrowly focused) and as much state and local media as could be booked before lunch.  Then he should have spent the afternoon relaxing and enjoying the victory.  These aren’t the frenetic last days of the general when you have to reach as many voters as possible right this second.  Andrew Napolitano will wait.  The election is five months away.  Step back, catch your breath, and move forward thoughtfully and deliberately.

Item three: Stop Digging!

The Maddow story might have been a one cycle dust-up if not for two things.  One is that it feeds an existing media narrative that the national Republican establishment is worried about Rand’s viability (not really in Rand’s control, but the missteps re-enforce this) and secondly, Thursday happened.

Rand’s statement should have been the final word.  But he was back on the interview circuit on Thursday extending and revising the earlier remarks.  Moreover, he continued to field hypothetical questions and walking back from his initial misplaced, but principled, position.  This kept the story alive and fed it more fuel; he also came off looking like a two-stepping politician in the process.

Surrogates could have carried water on this and deflected the spotlight.   Damage control starts with the Hippocratic oath, “do no harm.”  That means not feeding the story with fresh info.  You have to make your case and then turn off the mic.

My advice to the Paul campaign would be to simply stop digging.  Take the weekend off.  Hide Rand’s cell phone and modem somewhere he can’t find them and everybody just decompress.  It’s been an intense few months and it’s only going to get worse.

UPDATE:  Late Friday, the Paul campaign did just that and cancelled their weekend media.

For the rest of us, this campaign is a laboratory for figuring out how to market our message and how to deflect the inevitable attacks that will come.  We all do well to reflect on the lessons to be learned.  These missteps are one type of lesson.  The other is borne of the considerable successes of that campaign.  They have generated earned media, used technology effectively, maintained message discipline, cultivated and organized support, and, most importantly moved voters to the polls.

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