Will Bunnett

Politics • Branding • Psychology

How to Blow a Right-Wing Billionaire’s Money

Aren’t mighty captains of industry like Charles and David Koch supposed to derive their success in business because they’re so calm and rational and make such good decisions? Isn’t that what’s earned them the money to make us all tremble at their enormous election spending?

Then why are they so bad at it? Because seriously, they stink out loud — and the stink goes deep.

Start in October, 2011. Progressive senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio was ahead in his reelection race — but he was in trouble. The polling average had him at only 44% approval, well below the 50% threshold usually considered safe for incumbents. Right-wing groups funded by the Koch brothers, among others, smelled blood in the water and attacked. All told, these various groups poured in over $31 million on TV and radio to defeat Senator Brown.

The result: on Election Day, Brown won easily, cruising to a 51-45 victory.

That money could have gone into a Get Out The Vote (GOTV) operation designed to increase turnout among anti-Brown voters, or it could have gone into research by policy experts on effective positions for Brown’s opponent to adopt. But it didn’t.

Vice President Biden, are you worried about right-wing groups spending money so effectively they damage your brand?

Vice President Biden, are you worried about right-wing groups spending money so effectively they damage your brand?

Republican voters turn out more reliably than Democratic ones these days, and the GOP is, frankly, in the grip of a sort of post-policy nihilism that makes the brand the point anyway.

That $31 million went into TV and radio ads designed to damage Senator Brown’s political brand, and it didn’t even come close to working. Any ad agency would be ashamed to take a budget that size, in a state like Ohio, for one year, and make so little impact. Negative impact, even.

So, being such shrewd captains of industry, the funders of these right-wing groups must have learned their lesson, right? They must have used their essentially unlimited financial resources to figure out something that at least wouldn’t waste time, right? Well, other than some minor attempts at voter suppression, no, the Koch brothers and others are doing the same thing again, at this very moment, in the 2014 election:

As of July, the Koch brothers had spent $6 million attacking Democratic Senate candidate Gary Peters in Michigan. Yet in the Huffington Post polling aggregate, Peters has improved from 39 percent of the vote in January to 47.3 percent today, far outpacing his Republican rival…

In North Carolina, conservative groups spent $17 million in ads attacking incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan through the end of June. Of that, Koch groups accounted for about $9 million. Yet according to polling from the conservative Civitas Institute, Hagan’s favorable/unfavorable ratings climbed from 38/45 in January to 41/39 at the end of July. The best spin for the Kochs is that their flood of negative advertising had zero effect

Now, many factors play into the health of a political brand beyond these ads, including ones outside any single candidate’s control — like the party brand, the state of the economy, the state of operation of healthcare.gov, and more. But there’s no way to look at the Koch brothers’ spending and conclude it’s achieving its funders’ goal of defeating Democrats.

The best thing to come out of Ford’s experiment with the Edsel might have been a Chinese waiter in San Francisco who was famous for being rude.

I mean, this would have to rank up there with the worst brand campaigns of all time, right? Like Edsel or New Coke level, right?

Well, when I say any advertising agency would be ashamed of these results, the catch is that this wasn’t an integrated campaign. This was dozens of groups, none of which was trying to do anything remotely related to establishing its own brand, and each of which was just trying to damage one specific other brand.

There really isn’t much in the commercial world that would be analogous. Imagine dozens of organizations running ads telling you how awful the iPhone is — except they’re not even selling competing phones.

But the end result of all these groups getting in on the action was each group pushing its own agenda, leading to a lack of coordination and a useless cacophony — basically like this description from the 2012 presidential race:

But when critics of political spending cite the massive numbers invested in presidential politics this cycle — $2.5 billion by November — it’s easy to forget that this is some of the least effective spending in the world…

One pre-convention week in August, for instance, the Romney campaign was focused on what his aides said was the most effective ad of the cycle, an attack on Obama for weakening some work requirements in the federal welfare law. But the SuperPACs were offering an array of different messages: American Crossroads was attacking Obama over the deficit; Americans for Prosperity was dwelling on a failed solar energy company, Solyndra; and Restore Our Future was talking about jobs.

It goes to show, as I’ve said, strong authority and chains of accountability are key to a strong political branding effort. These “top businessmen” who plunk down the cash should know stuff like that, shouldn’t they? How do they not realize they’re wasting money?

I wish I knew. But oh, and by the way — Charles and David Koch didn’t build their success in business by making shrewd decisions. They inherited it. That kind of head start makes it a lot easier to break every law you can find and spend a bunch of money on elections, which, even if that spending hasn’t defeated every Democrat, has at least turned the Republican party into a Koch protection racket.

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