10 Questions with Mike Allen: More Ways to Get Your Message Out

Story appears in the 2013 Jan./Feb. issue of Capitol Ideas

Mike Allen, Politico’s chief political correspondent, believes state leaders can learn a lot from the 2012 elections. Although the 2013 Congress is likely to be even more polarized, he offers some hope for states still trying to rebuild after the Great Recession.

What did the 2012 election say about what is going in the American electorate?

“What we saw in the election results is people really pay attention to the candidates. We knew it was a 50-50 nation. If you were to look at a map of the results, either county-by-county or state-by-state, it would look very red. It would look like the country, as far as land mass, was Republican. If you were to look at the results, you’d think, ‘oh, this is kind of a blue country.’ In the swing states, President Obama did very well. They weren’t by the skin of his teeth.

“But what I look at is the split between how we vote for state officials and how we vote for House members and senators and governors and president, then it starts to look like a 50-50 nation again. Then we really see the fact that campaigns matter, candidates matter and people pay attention. We’re not like so many countries where huge blocks (of people) vote even in the age of technology. Elections are still very much retail, person-to-person exercise. We now (campaign and connect with voters) more efficiently with technology. And the campaign that is smarter with that has a huge advantage. But, this is still a retail business not a wholesale business.”

What is different about state-level politics and national politics that the electorate seems to behave a little differently?

“In state politics, we are more likely to have a personal connection with the person that we’re voting for and that makes a huge difference. Very often in state government at all levels, we are voting for someone that either we have a personal connection to or we know somebody who knows them, and we’re less dependent, perhaps, on a portrayal of them. We’re more likely to know what they’ve done, maybe what they’ve done for us and what they stand for. That’s why you see voters distinguishing among candidates. People vote for who they know and who they like and trust and who they think understands them.

“In the presidential campaign, we saw that that was a very powerful measure, over many presidential campaigns, actually. We’ve seen the idea of someone who understands people like me is a very powerful connection for a candidate and that’s going to be just as true, perhaps more true, in state government.”

You mentioned the technology in the election. What did social media do in this election?

“The success of social media in this election is very encouraging because it shows that individual voters can participate, do have a voice and, perhaps more importantly, have a real window into what’s happening. If you want to, you can follow a campaign, whether it’s for statewide office or for a state legislator or for House or Senate, you can follow any campaign almost minute by minute through social media.

“State officials tell me that they can’t give their constituents too much information. The people really want specifics. Constituents really love a link to a position paper or a bill. So we have a more informed electorate than we’ve ever had.”

Is social media playing a bigger role than traditional media or is it a combination of both?

“The distinction between traditional media and social media falls away every day because in social media, one particular tweeter can have as big a voice as the local paper if people are following it. On the other hand, the local paper or radio station or TV station also needs to be in social media conversation and so in addition to being a publisher, they’re also a tweeter. One clear phenomenon is that voters, constituents, users would rather follow people than institutions. So people would rather follow Maureen Dowd than The New York Times.“

"At Politico, we found that people like our Twitter feeds and subscribe to our Twitter feeds, but they also really embrace and engage with our specific reporters when they tweet. Just a little more personal touch and I think that that’s a reflection of an age when we may prefer what Yelp thinks about a restaurant, what our friends think about a restaurant, than what some fancy reviewer is going to say about it."

“The real challenge for traditional media, whether it’s a television station or a radio station or a newspaper or a political website, is that we don’t have any more automatic eyeballs. Back home in Orange County, Calif., we read the Los Angeles Times every morning because it was in our driveway. And we watched the CBS Evening News because that’s what our dad turned on. So that newspaper and that television station had our automatic eyeballs every day.

“Now with the rise of social media, with all the people’s digital choices, every single morning during the news business, you have a chance to win that reader back or lose them. At Politico we talk about ‘winning the morning,’ because we think that’s by far the most important time of the day. When people are waking up, that’s your best chance to serve them. If you have something good there, they’ll keep coming back. But if you’re not serving them, they’ll go elsewhere, and they should. They have so many choices.”

What about the money in the campaigns?

“I think the super PACs had a little different effect this year than was expected and I think there will be as much money in politics than there ever has been. But I think that the money will be spent differently. Super PACs this time, especially on the Republican side, were trying to fill in for what Mitt Romney wasn’t able to do when he was still catching up from the primary.

“But there’s a frustration for campaigns because even if the super PAC is on your side, it may not be on your message. So they can be useful to a campaign if they’re delivering hits that the campaign doesn’t want to. But (they) also can take them off message. I think super PACs are going to look at how they spend their money, but there’s no chance that we’re going to put the toothpaste back into the tube and have less big money in politics.”

So you think the big money is going to continue to grow?

“It will find a way. People always find ways, and, let’s remember, that the House members and senators who would have to change the law were elected and are thriving under the current system.”

Do you think the election results will bring changes to the parties nationally?

“You can argue that the 2012 election was more historically important than the 2008 election and that’s because it’s provoking profound changes in both parties. On the Democratic side, they saw the success of their engagement campaign, of their technological efforts, of their very precision targeting of voters. And liberal groups feel more empowered. You’ll hear more from climate groups and from gay groups and from other constituencies from the Democratic Party that got this surprisingly wide victory.

“On the Republican side, more so than after past losses, we see party officials say, ‘yes we need to make a fundamental change in our brand. We’re not going to change our principles.’ Republicans say they are still going to be for cutting taxes, cutting spending, conservative values. But they recognize that they need to talk about it in a more relevant way. So you’ll see the House budget Chairman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, talking more and more about poverty and how to help bring people out of it. You’ll see Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, a top potential candidate in 2016, talking about upward mobility, how to help people through education and job training. Those haven’t been traditional Republican issues, but I think you’re going to hear a lot more about that, in addition to the clear effort by the party to have a more inclusive face. So I would say that you will never again have a Republican presidential ticket that’s two white guys. The Republicans see the importance of diversity and I think you’re going to see that in the ticket starting in 2016.”

What does election say about the Tea party and what their role will be?

“The Tea party still showed its muscle in some key races, and the Tea party, I think, will remain a force, especially in the Republican primaries. In Republican primaries, you’ll continue to see a group of activists who are promoting the most conservative potential nominee, tugging the candidate to the right.

“In Washington, even in the first couple of days after the election, you already saw an effort to curtail the influence of the tea party in primaries. Republicans lost a lot of key U.S. Senate races this year because the nominees had been pushed by the tea party rather than being the most viable or the most likely nominees to succeed.

“So the challenge for party leaders is, how do you make sure that you have the most viable candidate without having the so-called party bosses or outside forces from Washington determining the nominees in these states and districts, because we know that voters do not want that.”

There has been talk that party leaders in Washington think they have got to take control because they did lose the chance to take over the Senate.

“In 2010, Republican leaders in Washington felt burned because they had gotten directly involved in the primaries, so that hurt some of the candidates. Some of the candidates lost, so they overcorrected and this time they kept totally hands off. I think for 2014 U.S. Senate races, you’re going to see a little bit of a hybrid. You’re going to see Senate leaders in Washington encouraging, perhaps, outside groups—Republican or conservative groups—that aren’t part of the formal structure to encourage the most electable candidates in states.

“So you’re not going to have the National Republican Senatorial Committee coming in and endorsing a candidate. But what you might see is top senators encouraging their friends in outside Republican or conservative groups to back candidates that they think would have a good chance in the fall.”

One storyline of this election was gridlock and the approval rating of Congress. Are we going to see a change or a softening toward compromise?

“That’s one of the great questions of our time. I’d be inclined to say yes, because voters clearly want that and if you believe in political markets, you believe that voters will eventually get what they want. But I’ll tell you, there aren’t signs of it now. The House Republican Conference in January 2013 will be more conservative than it was in December 2012. The new members are going to make the conference more conservative. The House Democratic caucus will be more liberal, will have less independent or moderate members than the last one did. So that suggests—hard as it is to believe, hard as it is to visualize—perhaps even more polarization.

“I do think, though, that voters will eventually get what they want and there’s no question, as we’ve seen in the last several presidential elections, voters want people who are different; people who can make the system work; people who can thaw Washington, not freeze it.”

What does this mean for state governments?

“An encouraging note for states is that the last thing that Washington wants is to provoke another recession and that is a significant driver toward making the government work and that helps states that are so dependent on what happens in Washington. And it’s encouraging for citizens who, maybe, worry about the effect on their businesses or their employers if there’s another big economic recession in this country.”

What is the biggest issue that people aren’t paying attention to?

“Officeholders, the media, all the players in our political system cannot pay too much attention to the technological tools that the Obama campaign used to great effect. I think we’re going to see consumer product companies adopting some of those techniques, some of them taken from business, but I think you’ll also see business embracing them.

“The media will pay more attention to the infrastructure of the campaign. What’s behind the curtain of a campaign, because that turned out to be very significant this time. So if you’re a reporter, half of your job is covering what’s in front of your face, what the candidate says and what the handout and the audience says. But the other half of the job, and the increasingly important part of the job, is to cover what a candidate or an officeholder or a campaign is doing behind the scenes. Because in this election, we saw the power of campaign organization.  … We had thought a 2008 turnout was a once-in-a-lifetime event. The Obama campaign came surprisingly close to replicating that. And no matter what level of office you hold, from a municipal office to a state office to a federal office, or whether you cover the process or care about the process as a citizen, you can’t pay too much attention to that.”

What should state officials take away from that? What are some of the key things that will help them?

“One of the big lessons of the Obama campaign was engaging potential voters or supporters through people. One of the great technological leaps the Obama campaign made this time, was they would email you and say, ‘Mary, these 10 Facebook followers of yours might be open to the president’s message. Click here to send them a fact sheet. Click here to send them a note.’ And they found a fantastic response rate from that, both from the people they asked to do it and the people that were on the other end of it. So tapping into people’s existing social networks turned out to be a very powerful tool and one that can be replicated on any level of our government, from the most micro neighborhood level up to the national campaigns.”

One of the things that was interesting about this campaign as it deals with the media, was that there were stories and there were fact-checkers. That used to be one in the same, but there was a divergence at some point.

I think that’s a good point. All good news stories should also serve as fact-checks. We’re not there to just take down what candidates or officeholders say. We’re there to give some perspective and context. And readers want that. That’s an opportunity for traditional media, which faces all this new competition, but that’s something we can offer that you might not get yourself just by watching a candidate or an officeholder on YouTube or on their website. If you come to an account by a news organization, if it’s doing a good job, they’ll help you understand not only what they said, but also why they said it and to put it into the context of known facts.”

What is your message for state leaders?

“I have a message of great hope for them. That in the new digital age …,  if you’re a state officeholder and you have a message to deliver, there’s never been a better time because you have more avenues to deliver it, more chances of reaching people than ever.

“I also think it’s one of the best times to be in the news business because more people are consuming more information, more often in more ways. So that’s encouraging both for people who are covered and who do the covering.”

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