Not Your Father’s America

Not Your Father’s America

A bit of automobile history.

Back in the late 1980s, the Oldsmobile car company was struggling to stay relevant in a changing American culture. Founded in 1897, Olds had produced more than 30 million automobiles in its long run as an up-market brand for General Motors. But tastes were changing.

GM called on its advertising agency, Leo Burnett, to come up with a new campaign to rejuvenate the Olds brand and reverse the decline in market share. Burnett put together television ads featuring William Shatner – Captain Kirk – and his lovely college-aged daughter, Melanie, and ran print ads over the tagline: “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile… This is the new generation of Olds.”

But it wasn’t enough. Oldsmobile was unable to shake its image as a car for old people, and GM stopped production in 2004.

Many of the morning-after commentaries in the US have focused on the similar challenge the Republican Party faces in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s defeat. Having won more than 60% of the white vote, and after racking up solid majorities among older Americans and rural voters, Romney still came up short against a president who enjoyed the support of young people, women, urban voters and ethnic minorities. “The white establishment is now the minority,” lamented conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly.

What we learned on November 6 is that this is not your father’s America, and the Republican Party will need to adjust its message to appeal to the fastest growing sectors of the American electorate if it wants to remain competitive.

But while the demographic shift might be the headline, it isn’t the whole story of the 2012 US election campaign. In a first draft of history that’s sure to be elaborated upon in the days ahead, New York Times correspondents Adam Nagourney, Ashley Parker, Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny report that the Obama campaign didn’t just sit back and wait for the demography gods to deliver victory.

“In Chicago, the campaign recruited a team of behavioral scientists to build an extraordinarily sophisticated database packed with names of millions of undecided voters and potential supporters. The ever-expanding list let the campaign find and register new voters who fit the demographic pattern of Obama backers and methodically track their views through thousands of telephone calls every night. That allowed the Obama campaign not only to alter the very nature of the electorate, making it younger and less white, but also to create a portrait of shifting voter allegiances. The power of this operation stunned Mr. Romney’s aides on election night, as they saw voters they never even knew existed turn out in places like Osceola County, Florida.”

Through its sophisticated – and relentless – get-out-the-vote campaign, the Democrats – according to the Times’ report – actually “alter(ed) the very nature of the electorate.” And all of this took place virtually unnoticed by most journalists or by the American people.

It slipped right by me. As a Democrat and an Obama supporter, I was on the receiving end of hundreds of e-mail updates and solicitations from my party during the past year. I was impressed by the messaging and the party’s ability to micro-target me, especially for fund-raising purposes (how do they know what day I get paid?) But I still worried that the Republicans’ historic ability to turn out their supporters on polling day would swing a close election to the challenger. The fact that it did not was a consequence of both the changing face of the American electorate, and the success of Obama’s “Chicago machine” in turning out the Democratic vote.

Close to 120 million votes were cast in the 2012 election and Barack Obama won by fewer than 3 million. This was not as close as the 2000 election, where Al Gore won the popular vote by more than half a million votes (but lost the presidency in the Supreme Court – don’t get me started), but it was still a very close election. Had the Obama campaign failed to find those Hispanic voters in Osceola County, Florida, and millions more like them – and get them to the polls – Mitt Romney would be spending this weekend planning his first term as president of the United States

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