Opportunity Lost: The Importance of Campaign Momentum in Herbert vs. Johnson

lavarr policy insightsBear with me. What follows is relevant to today’s politics.

Way back in 1992, the Mike Leavitt campaign for governor used what we called a “sweeps” strategy to maximize the impact of our paid media buys.

In the early phases of the campaign we didn’t have a lot of money, so we tried to carefully schedule our TV, radio and billboard buys to influence the polling that we knew the news media would be doing at regular intervals during the campaign. We wanted to appear to have strength and momentum when we knew campaign progress would be measured by polling, just like TV networks put on their best programming during sweeps periods.

As we neared the state convention, we had worked extremely hard with party activists and delegates. But Leavitt was not well known by rank-and-file Republicans, and we knew that post-convention we would have to broaden the campaign reach. We also knew the news media would be doing head-to-head primary election polling soon after the convention.

Going into the convention, we had a couple of very capable and attractive opponents who were better known than we were.

Money was tight, but we scraped up every dime we had, Leavitt putting all the personal money he could afford into the campaign, and we made a big bet. We made a very large radio and billboard buy. We started the media campaign just before the convention and continued through a couple of weeks after (until we ran out of money).

Some people thought we were foolish to do a big media buy when our fate rested with the convention. But we weren’t trying to influence the delegates. They already knew us. We were trying to influence primary election voters and the polls right after the convention. We wanted to have momentum as the primary season started.

We came in second at the convention, and it was a disheartening loss. To be honest, our convention performance wasn’t all that great. We were disappointed. It was a tough time for the campaign.

But that paid media was out there working hard for us. We were highly visible, and we had the right messaging. We were on the air while our opponent took a couple of weeks to get his primary campaign rolling.

Sure enough, the newspaper head-to-head polling shortly after the convention showed us ahead of our opponent. Despite coming in second in the convention, we had momentum, and we never looked back.

The campaign this year is obviously a lot different. Jonathan Johnson faces a popular incumbent in Gov. Gary Herbert. Campaign communications methodology has dramatically changed with the fragmentation of the media industry and the rise of social media. It’s harder to reach the masses using traditional radio, TV, and billboards.

But I still think the Johnson campaign missed a nice opportunity coming out of the convention. He won the convention. He had great headlines, a nice convention bounce. He had swagger and momentum. Herbert was goofing around with Common Core and SAGE testing. But Johnson didn’t capitalize on it by moving aggressively with paid media into the primary campaign.

Herbert had got on the air before he did. Today’s poll (see Bob Bernick story) shows Herbert has regained campaign momentum, and it’s going to be very difficult for Johnson to catch up in the short time remaining.

I am, of course, not privy to the Johnson campaign strategy. Maybe their budget wouldn’t allow a big media buy. Maybe they’re going to go really big in the next few weeks before ballots are mailed out. Maybe they have some other brilliant strategy. Maybe no matter what they do or did, it would all be in vain, going against a well-funded incumbent with a high approval rating.

But I still see an opportunity lost.  

Quote of the Day.  How Bob Bennett’s downfall foreshadowed the rise of Trump: “That was the rumblings, the preview of the beginning of the first act. Now we’re in the second, and it’s getting much louder, much uglier, deciding whether we’re going to be a conservative party or a nationalist, populist party in the image of Donald Trump. And it’s a very hairy moment for conservative Republicans.” (Political Strategist Rick Wilson in Roll Call)

Quote of the Day II. Orrin Hatch suggesting Republicans must unify behind Trump: “He did it not kissing anybody’s behind, which I think is why so many people are supportive of him. They are sick of what’s going on around here. And to be honest with you, I am too.” (Bloomberg)