Back in 1972, Joe Biden was a county councilman in Delaware making his first run at the United States Senate against the heavily favored two-term incumbent Republican Senator J. Caleb Boggs. It was an incredibly close race. The 29-year-old Biden received 50.5% of the vote, winning by a margin of just more than 3,000 votes.
The campaign not only vaulted Biden onto the national stage, it also kicked off another political legacy that remains with us.
As explained in historian Rick Perlstein’s new book, Reaganland, one of Biden’s campaign advisers for that first Senate win was a young pollster named Patrick Caddell. He coached Biden not to criticize his opponent because that made him just another politician. Instead, Caddell said, he should focus on a critique of Washington in general. Back in ’72, Caddell put Biden on the vanguard of election advertising by not prioritizing the policies of what a particular politician would or wouldn’t do, but rather emphasizing how that candidate made voters feel.
Fast-forward 48 years and that same strategy is what helped turn the now 77-year-old Biden into the President-elect.
$600 million worth of good vibes
The Biden-Harris campaign spent more than $600 million on advertising, more than any other U.S. presidential candidate ever. Of course this was split across multiple platforms and formats, but the general temperature of a broad election ad campaign like this is still most clearly illustrated in its TV and video ads.
Here, Biden was aiming directly at America’s feelings. Perhaps the spot that distilled this strategy to its essence most was “Go From There,” which launched during Game 1 of the World Series on October 20.
In a more normal universe, this might be seen as overly saccharine, a reheated Obama leftover about there being no red states or blue states. But after four years of unprecedented levels of poisoned political rhetoric and daily tweet-fueled chaos (never mind a global pandemic), for many the ad and its sentiments were a much-needed balm.
While President Donald Trump was busy fear-mongering about how Biden would “abolish the suburbs,” the former vice president focused on an actual frightening thing facing the country—the COVID-19 pandemic. He was also able to do that while making a clear distinction between his character and Trump’s, effectively and creatively using the president’s own words to do it.
Advertising execs I spoke to have said that the brand consistency of the Biden-Harris campaign also played an important role. Jayme Maultasch, managing director of Fusion by IPG and an exec at Deutsch New York, says campaigns are brands. “The Biden campaign showed remarkable message discipline and clear positioning to sell the brand,” Maultasch says. “President-elect Biden ran as a moderate looking to bring decency back to the White House and to unite the country. Go watch Biden’s campaign launch speech, squint, and watch his first speech as President-elect. One brand, well-positioned! Despite the crazy, Twitter-driven news cycle and the global pandemic, the campaign maintained that message and tone.”
Rob Schwartz, CEO of ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day New York and creator of the White House Dogs ad, also pointed to that vision. “Whether you like the line of ‘battle for the soul of America’ or not, this was a point of view,” Schwartz says. “And that was carried out into the creative, which was about the kind of America we should be. Very aspirational.”
The perils of the personality-based sell
The thing about creating election ad campaigns that focus on how voters feel about a candidate more than the candidate’s policy details is that you can potentially miss out on winning over voters who want to support candidates who will enact policies to improve their lives. The Biden-Harris campaign had plenty of details about their policy specifics available to anyone who wanted to find them, but that’s just it: Most people aren’t going to do a deep dive into the policy tab of a campaign website.
An overall brand message around decency and normalcy, plus a laser focus on the scale of tragedy as a result of the pandemic for both young and old and their families, proved to be a winning combination. But the lack of policy specifics on issues like the economy—which 82% of Trump voters identified as their most important issue—didn’t exactly help down-ballot Democrats run on a unified message. The party lost its bid to flip control of the state houses where it had a chance to do so. It lost House seats, which no one expected to happen. And it didn’t get close to winning the Senate majority it was hoping for, spending more on two losing Senate races than the funds raised to compete for those state legislatures where districts will be drawn for the next decade by the party in power. (There’s still a narrow chance for the Democrats to win control of the Senate with two Georgia runoffs.)
The thing about running on a feeling is that issues such as climate change, new jobs, and universal healthcare are inevitably crowded out, specifically when the candidate is a centrist afraid that support for the Green New Deal or Medicare for All would be weaponized against him and depress those restoration vibes. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told The New York Times that these are the issues that will really get results, especially with younger voters, rather than trying to win over Republicans disillusioned with Trump’s manners and tone.
The Lincoln Project fallacy
That brings us to the Lincoln Project. The PAC started by former Republican strategists created some of the toughest anti-Trump ads of the campaign, raising more than $67 million and along the way attracting worldwide media attention (including a 60 Minutes segment). The stated premise of its operation was to convince Republicans to ditch the Trump circus in favor of Biden’s calm, centrist seas.
Project Lincoln is like if Dr. Frankenstein took credit for defeating his own monster
— ☕netw3rk (@netw3rk) November 8, 2020
“Their goal may have been to convert Republicans, but I think their real impact was energizing Democrats,” says Schwartz, who admits that the Lincoln Project’s “Flag of Treason” ad is the one that motivated him to get involved and ultimately make a campaign ad of his own. “I saw ‘America or Trump’ and thought, Wow, what a tagline for this moment. And that’s what got me fired up to do something.”
A recent Stanford Graduate School of Business study echoes the sentiments of both AOC and Schwartz, saying that it’s more effective to focus on those already on your side—to energize the base, as they say—than to try to persuade people to switch sides or opinions completely. Stanford marketing professor Zakary Tormala says it can often be more effective to target voters who are already leaning your way but who might need to be activated or intensified in some way.
“Think of this as identifying known supporters, even just mild supporters, and focusing on strengthening their support, building their conviction,” Tormala says. “People leaning your way are more receptive to your messaging, and if you can move them to a position of stronger support, they should be more likely to vote—and vote your way—more likely to advocate, more likely to donate, and so on.”
The future of winning campaigns
Campaign advertising on policy doesn’t have to be all zzzzzz. Check out this spot from Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey’s reelection campaign.
If Biden had taken some of that ad war chest and done more than just remind us again and again that he’s a good guy, other Democrats from the Senate to state houses would have had a shared big tent message about jobs, the environment, or such popular initiatives as a $15 minimum wage and drug decriminalization, which won in state referendums.
Biden won on an almost five-decade-old formula he helped pioneer, but everyone else should strike a balance between acting like an Avenger and actually being an avenger for issues that’ll improve voters’ lives.