Election lessons #1: The risk of only hearing what
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Holmes Report

Election lessons #1: The risk of only hearing what

Paul Holmes

There were two or three interesting lessons in this week’s US elections from a public relations perspective, but the first and most important is just how dangerous it can be if you start to believe your own spin. If you want a sense of just how wrong Republican analysts were about the election, you should check out this fun infographic from Slate: George Will predicting that Romney would win 321-217; Dick Morris was somewhat more optimistic about the GOP’s chances, predicting a 325-215 drubbing. Were these pundits simply talking up the chances that their favored candidates would win, or did they actually believe these unrealistic scenarios, which flew in the face of all the empirical evidence, not just from Nate Silver but from pretty much every major polling organization? There is good reason to believe that (at least some of) these professional commentators believed (at least some of) what they said. Will still has a reputation—in some circles—as a serious political analyst, and there is at least a chance that even The Washington Post will eventually grow weary of his almost unbroken streak of wrongness. And Karl Rove’s meltdown on election night—refusing to accept even Fox News’ crunching of the actual numbers—suggested that he really thought Romney was going to win. The lesson here appears to be that the right-wing has created such a sealed bubble echo chamber for itself—Fox News, talk radio, “conservative” bloggers, outspoken evangelical preachers all telling each other what they want to hear—that they come to believe that the entire world agrees with their perspective. The fact that ordinary Americans simply don’t see the calm, moderate, appealing President Obama as a rabid, partisan, socialist, Muslim, American-hater is simply incomprehensible to them. I’ve seen it suggested that (many) Republicans are living in an alternate reality, but that’s simply not true. They have repudiated the very notion of reality, of objective truth. They live in a world in which dogmatism trumps pragmatism every time. This is evident in their campaign, in the weeks before the election, to shut down a Congressional Research Service report that found no link between top tax rates and economic growth; in the bizarre focus on turning the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi into an indictment of the Obama administration; and—oh, yeah—continued denialism, even post-Sandy, when it comes to climate change. The fragmentation of media and the ability to pick and choose communications channels to reinforce existing beliefs and opinions mean that politicians—and businessmen, to a lesser extent—can end up with a pretty distorted view of the world. One of the things public relations people need to do is listen, not only to supporters, but to opponents—and to respect what they hear rather than rejecting it out of hand. The election provides a reminder of how badly things can go wrong when you stop listening. ADDED: Just in case you were wondering how likely it is that the GOP will actually learn a lesson from all this, two of today's stories provide some evidence. Here's Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson, who believes that his party's losses come down to "an uninformed electorate." And here's a Washington Post article about the party's post-election research, which will consult focus groups to find out what went wrong, but with an important caveat: "Party officials said the review is aimed at studying their tactics and message, not at changing the philosophical underpinnings of the party."
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