I’m not a product of the digital world that everyone under thirty seems to take for granted. When I started watching television, we had seven channels. Three of them had bad reception some of the time, and the other four had bad reception most of the time. There was no remote control and the vibrations from walking across the room to manually change the station could throw off the reception. If you found a tolerable program, you stayed through the commercials. My dad was an early adopter of cable. The reception was, by my pre-digital standards, perfect. We also had many more options (initially around sixty as I recall) and, after a while, we got a remote control too. Channel surfing was now an option, but the commercials were still part of the package and you still ended up seeing a lot of them.
This means I have no intuitive sense of how to reach people who stream their media and are mostly able to bypass traditional thirty second advertisements. The people in this demographic will probably still see the ad if the buy is big enough, but they can no longer be bludgeoned into getting the message through repetition. The combination of avoidance (streaming) or distraction (looking at your phone, tablet, whatever) means that repetition loses much of its effect in a paid advertisement. The ad will either grab them right away it won’t do much of anything.
The best way to grab this target demographic is to either embed the message directly into the entertainment itself, or to reach the audience through social networks. That is a problem because the entertainment media that is consumed by persuadables is bitterly hostile to the political right, and people in rising demographic groups tend to have fewer people in their social networks who are connected to conservative politics. This doesn’t mean that conservative policy views are absent. According to reports by both the New York Times and the College Republicans, a larger fraction of African-Americans, Latinos, and young voters registered conservative-friendly opinions than voted for Romney in 2012.
So what accounts for this population that is (moderately) right-leaning on policy but votes for the center-left political coalition? I suspect that part of the answer involves heir media and social networking experiences. While this group of voters might have moderately conservative opinions, they live in a world of aggressive liberalism. If they have friends within their social networks who are into politics, it is liberal politics. The links they get from their social networks will be about what idiotic thing some Republican assistant country chairman said somewhere. The political stories that break through into their media streams are feeding frenzies that are produced by mostly liberal journalists (think Todd Akin).
The political right, both in its media and social networking forms, exists in a parallel America. This moderately conservative but liberal-voting group doesn’t listen to conservative talk radio shows and doesn’t have many political conservatives in their social networks. The result is that someone whose policy preferences are moderately pro-life voted to reelect a president who voted to deny legal protections to newborns who survived botched abortions - and they voted for Obama in order to prevent Mitt Romney from banning abortions in cases of rape. A reason for this discrepancy between policy preference and voting behavior is that a voter who was disconnected from the right-leaning media and politically conservative social networks would have heard nothing about Obama’s record on born-alive legislation and heard endless stories about the Mitt Romney and Todd Akin war on women.
I don’t know any new ways for reaching this moderately conservative but liberal-voting bloc, but I have some thoughts about how to make some old ways a little more effective. The 2012 right-leaning general election ad buys were lousy. I harp on this American Crossroads ad where old, white, affluent business owners complain about how Obama was taxing and regulating them too much, but that is because it is such a perfect example of how so much right-leaning money was wasted in 2012. It was a Republican donor-funded ad whose sole target demographic seemed to be the Republican donors themselves. This was the Republican Super-PAC as a self-licking ice cream cone.
Our super-commenter Gabe suggested that conservative or Republican institutions hire people from NFL marketing. Those are people who know their audiences, produce compelling products and get results. I think there is something to that, but politics crucially requires a political touch. People outside of politics (even experts at marketing and television production) would not know where many of the landmines are hidden. My preference would be to put someone with principles and political prudence (my first choice would be Yuval Levin) in charge of a team of NFL Films veterans. The NFL Films veterans would provide the storytelling talent and technical expertise while Levin would give the project direction (what issues to focus on) and the prudence to avoid errors that would be obvious to people who have spent years studying politics, but invisible to those who came from outside the political world. It would be expensive, but it would be less expensive than giving Karl Rove another $300 million to burn. As a second choice, conservative or Republican groups could try getting some of the people who produce ads for the Humane Society. In any case, right-leaning ads need an infusion of talent and creativity at the production end, along with people at the strategic end who are more interested in winning than living off their reputations.
But better use of old technology will only get us so far. The use of streaming media will only increase. How do we reach people who are disconnected from the political right, and who consume ever-less commercial-supported media? That should be the key question for the institutional Republican party. We are instead getting a conflict in which the Republican establishment (and its business lobby allies) are fighting against the party’s conservative grassroots. This is a wasteful struggle because, as we shall see, the two sides are not too different. The two sides are, at both their best and their worst, remarkably similar.