A modest proposal for Obama
The Washington Post, September 23, 2012
After Mitt Romney's week from hell, Democrats now risk being overconfident. This election is in the bag, many think—and who knows what other unexpected gifts Romney may still send President Obama's way? But it's far too early for Democrats to pop open the champagne. With national polls still showing the race close, the impact of the debates hard to predict and more bad news entirely possible on the foreign policy and employment fronts, the White House would be wise to take out some insurance.
Fortunately, I have a plan. Think of it as a modest proposal to clinch the deal. It's this: The Obama campaign should pay (yes, pay) undecided voters to watch two videos in full—the Romney 47 percent debacle in Boca Raton; and Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention.
I'm serious about this. I don't mean this as some cutesy notion a columnist floats to make you smile (or cringe, depending on your point of view). I mean it as a plan that a campaign can execute.
Here's my thinking. For starters, does anyone doubt that if an undecided (and thus presumably open-minded) voter watched these two videos, he or she would break the president's way? I'm surely a biased viewer, but it seems to me that even people who don't follow politics closely would be put off by Romney's condescension and persuaded by Clinton's case.
In any event, this proposition is testable, so Davids Plouffe and Axelrod could convene a few quick focus groups to see if I'm right.
Assuming I am, the question is how to take this idea to scale. Former Clinton strategist Paul Begala wrote in Newsweek recently that "the whole shootin' match comes down to around 4 percent of the voters in six states" (he meant toss-up states, because swing voters in states that are firmly red or blue can't affect the electoral college tally).
"I did the math so you won't have to," Begala went on. "Four percent of the presidential vote in Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, New Mexico, and Colorado is 916,643 people. That's it."
Begala added that the parties, the campaigns and the super PACs would spend more than $2 billion to sway them. That's $2,187 per undecided voter.
What if they could be had for $75?
That's the high end of what political researchers pay focus group participants to join a two-hour discussion. Let's round it up to a million undecided voters the Democrats need to reach, and be generous and make the payment a hundred bucks for the 90-minute video session. $100 million for this targeted effort will be the most efficient, effective investment in Democratic campaign history.
It'll also be a no-brainer to fund. Many high-net-worth Democratic donors have been disgusted by this year's super PAC phenomena and the sewer of negative ads they bankroll. A distressing number have therefore kept their checkbooks closed or crimped.
But this campaign—call it Operation Video—is entirely different. A donor can feel its power intuitively. It means disseminating real-life events, not slickly packaged distortions or character attacks. If Rahm Emanuel can't raise $100 million for this over a long weekend, I'll eat this column.
(Of course, to be safe, Democrats may want to target 5 million voters, not 1 million. That's a bigger lift, but if you tweak my assumptions a bit—make it fifty bucks per voter, in line with most focus group rates—we're talking $250 million. So give Rahm and Co. a full week).
I know what you're thinking: How will the Obama campaign reach these undecideds? In the old days this kind of narrowcasting would have been a dicey logistical challenge. But as Sasha Issenberg details in his fascinating new book, "The Victory Lab," campaigns have become vastly more sophisticated in the ways they reach and motivate needed voters than we political scribes have suspected.
Maybe they run infomercials. Maybe they rent theaters. Maybe mailers point voters to a site where they get paid after proving they watched the videos (sort of like those online traffic schools with which I'm unfortunately too familiar). It'll add a little cost around the edges, but Issenberg has convinced me the campaign gurus can figure it out.
There you have it. No need to thank me, Mr. President. Sometimes determining the outcome of an election is just the media's civic duty. Think of Operation Video as this year's October Surprise. And the beauty part is that there's nothing remotely dirty or sneaky about it.