Three Learnings from Election 2020

23 Nov 2020  

Donald Trump seems reluctant to believe it, but we are now well past the election. It is a good time to consider what we learned. I think three things stand out.

The Democrats Need Better Marketing

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’ve been unimpressed with the marketing efforts coming from Joe Biden and the Democratic party. Instead of talking about benefits, the marketing focused on character and values.

How did it all work out?

The Republicans did exceptionally well. Trump attracted more support than in 2016 and the Republicans picked up seats in the House and may well retain control of the Senate.

This is astonishing when you consider that the U.S. is not in a good shape by almost any measure. There are millions of people looking for work, with the unemployment rate at about 8% in September. COVID is out of control, with hospitalizations and deaths hitting new highs. Kids can’t go to school, seniors in long-term care facilities are left alone to worry about the virus, vacations, weddings, graduation parties: all cancelled. Despite all of this, the Democrats made little headway and Biden narrowly won.

Democrats need to figure out how to translate their policies into benefits that people care about. The current approach simply isn’t working.

Republicans have a strong platform – they support economic growth, low taxes and law and order. They also communicate that the Democrats want high taxes, new regulations, government handouts, more crime and fewer police officers.

If the Democrats don’t shift the message, they will continue to struggle.

People Are Smart

I think there are many people in the world who believe that the average person isn’t particularly bright. This is wrong, and the election this year demonstrated just how savvy people really are.

The Illinois “Fair Tax” plan is a perfect example of this. Billionaire Governor JB Pritzker and his peers promoted a tax plan that would allow for graduated tax rates. The Pritzker team spent millions of dollars trying to convince voters to support the plan. They called it the “Fair Tax” and told people that under the new plan 97% of people would see their taxes decline. Talk about an easy vote!

So what happened? Voters resoundingly rejected the plan.

I suspect the reason is simple: voters were smart enough to realize the entire proposition was a bad idea. Giving state leaders the ability to play with tax rates would just make it easier to raise taxes for everyone. Telling people their taxes would fall was a ridiculous idea for a state that is billions in debt. People realized the entire proposal was fundamentally manipulative, from the empty promise to cut taxes to the cute Fair Tax name.

The Illinois vote is a reminder that people can make sophisticated decisions and see beyond easy promises.

Don’t Assume Polls Are Correct

The polls were off again this year; the projected Blue Wave never materialized. The miss was more striking since it followed 2016, another bad year for polls.

Does this mean market research has no value? No, but it does highlight three points.

First, people often don’t say what they really think. There is enormous pressure to embrace socially acceptable positions, even when this conflicts with a person’s true beliefs.

Second, market research is only as good as the sample. It is getting more and more difficult to reach people. As a result, it is easy to see a misalignment between the sample and the actual population. Who gets over-represented in polls? People who reply to polls.

Third, it is tempting to talk to people just like you. The fact that pollsters ended up with a Democratically leaning panel is not all that surprising since I suspect most pollsters are Democratically leaning.

For business leaders, market research remains very valuable. In elections, precision is critical. 49% vs 51% can totally change the outcome. In most business situations, this level of accuracy just does not matter. The question is whether purchase interest is 10% or 60%.

Still, anyone doing research needs to be diligent and thoughtful, spending particular attention on the population.

2 Responses

  1. toddholscher says:

    If Trump had the charisma of Reagan, instead of Nixon, it would have been different. Trump was easy to vote against for enough people… this time. There is enough generational and industrial change in the 20’s for either party to find a winning message. Fox News is the best at this so far.

  2. Emita Hill says:

    Sobering but all accurate. Happy Thanksgiving, Tim.

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