Ron Nehring in POLITICO
Each election gives us the opportunity to evaluate, learn, and make adjustments to improve our effectiveness in organization and communication next time.
Post-election analysis is a critically important phase of the election cycle. Because it is so important, post-election analysis must be objective, candid, and informed by a thorough understanding of the respective roles of candidates, political parties, pollsters, vendors, PACs, and other groups.
The lessons derived from each campaign can influence the issues, language, strategies, tactics and organizational techniques used in the next. This means all kinds of individuals and groups have an interest – financial, ideological, or personal – in influencing the analysis, conclusions and recommendations.
The single most important factor in generating useful post-election analysis is the proper understanding of which groups play what roles, and who makes the decisions in a modern political campaign that has hundreds or even thousands of players.
Consider this: the term “Republican Party” can refer to the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Republican Governors Association, 56 state and territorial party committees, and/or thousands of county and district committees throughout the country. Each of these bodies is independently governed, and many have overlapping responsibilities.
Yet, often we see post-election analysis blindly ignore these distinctions and assign group blame or credit for an election outcome to “the party.” Such analysis is of little use because glosses over who made the decisions, the impact of those decisions, and therefore misses the opportunity to make specific recommendations to people who can actually do something with them next time.
CYA. Decision-makers have a natural bias to protect and defend the decisions they made during the campaign. And make no mistake, in a campaign it is the candidate and those he or she hires who make the call. When on the winning side, decisions tend to be seen as strokes of genius, but when on the losing side, it’s rare for decision-makers to step up and admit they miscalculated. Yet, losses still need to be explained, so the tendency is to blame factors beyond the decision-maker’s control (the party, the environment, external events, etc.) or insufficient resources to fully implement the decision-maker’s vision (insufficient time or money).
IDEOLOGICAL BIAS. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that liberal Republicans will blame losses on Republican candidates being too conservative, while conservatives will often find ways to argue that the losing candidate should have been more hard core. This doesn’t mean people with ideological dispositions are incapable of dispensing useful advice or providing helpful analysis, but it does mean the consumers of such advice should draw a distinction between rigorous analysis and ideological spin.
BLAME THE PARTY. European campaigns tend to be party-centric, yet American campaigns are candidate-centric, with candidates and their subordinates being the key decision-makers on strategy, tactics, and message and the party apparatus implementing the instructions of the candidate campaign. In the Presidential contest it was the Obama headquarters in Chicago and the Romney office in Boston that were calling the shots and giving direction to the DNC and RNC, not the reverse.
Yet, in the post-election aftermath, the conversation turns to “what went wrong for the Republican Party,” or following 1994 and 2010, “what’s wrong with the Democratic Party?”
Individual candidate campaigns, win or lose, have packed up and gone home, but it’s the party that continues. Curiously, on the winning side the tendency is to credit the candidate’s campaign, while on the losing side the party takes the hit.
Candidates and consultants with a personal interest in explaining a loss have the greatest tendency to use “the party” as a convenient excuse to avoid scrutiny of their individual decisions and how they may have contributed to a loss. They ignore the fact that the key decisions in any campaign are made by the candidate and subordinates, not party officials.
MISTAKES BY WINNERS, AND GOOD CALLS BY LOSERS, ARE OVERLOOKED. Winners and losers each made mistakes during a campaign, or at minimum they made different decisions than they would have made with the benefit of hindsight. Yet, the post-election tendency is to highlight the brilliant moves made by the winner, and dwell on the perceived shortcomings of the loser’s campaign. This misses the opportunity to see successes that take place within the context of an overall perceived failure.
Meg Whitman lost the 2010 California governor’s campaign to Democrat Jerry Brown, but this does not mean the Whitman campaign did not do many things especially well.
PUNDITS ARE NOT NECESSARILY ANALYSTS. Today’s airwaves have no shortage of strategists, commentators, and other experts providing advice to political parties, candidates, and elected officials. I know, because I’m one of them. Yet, not all television talking heads, radio guests and columnists are created equal, and it is worth considering how many have actually been responsible for running a campaign, serving as a candidate, or managing a political party. And candidly, many of them have absolutely no idea.
I served on a panel with a columnist from one newspaper at a conference last year and recall being lectured about how the party can pressure candidates and elected officials to bend them to their will. The columnist flatly lacked a clear understanding of the dynamics of political parties, the relationship between parties and candidates, or how political parties are governed.
The airwaves and oped pages are great places to debate ideas, but candidates, party officials and other decision-makers must carefully consider the source and consider opposing viewpoints before drawing conclusions.
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