Dennis Culloton, President and CEO 

Billions of dollars were spent on this fall’s presidential election and what do we have to show for it? Well, it depends on whose campaign you backed. But what we have is an important lesson for business leaders and others trying to get their message out.

Over more than 18 months ago, what we were hearing from candidates evolved. On the road, they learned what resonated with the American people and honed their message to inspire and motivate voters.

They learned from the process and reevaluated their strategies, sharpened the focus where it was needed and ditched what was potentially alienating. That’s not to say you should lose your voice. You have to be authentic and not completely abandon your principles and philosophies.

Gov. Romney faced a difficult challenge in that he had to prevail in a grueling contested primary over several foes. The old adage in republican politics once was run to the right in the primary and track to the center in the general election. But the activist far right pushed candidates to take more strident extreme positions. Gov. Romney’s inability to ignore the pressure from the right was costly.

Voters and your customers are smart and can smell out the inconsistencies or phoniness.  So for Gov. Romney, was he pro-immigrant or for mass deportation?  Was he for the health care program he pioneered in Massachusetts or ready to dismantle its twin Obamacare?  Did he say Detroit’s automakers should have gone bankrupt or not?  His positions on key issues before, during and after the primaries seemed to shift.

Despite these shifts, Gov. Romney began to surge after the first debate.  But, as Crain’s Chicago Business writer Greg Hinz said, Hurricane Sandy and the savvy Obama campaign team took advantage of the unique opportunities of the incumbency to drive home that Obama already was the kind of president America wanted:

But then two storms hit. One was named Sandy. It showed Mr. Obama at his best. The other was unleashed by David Plouffe, David Axelrod and the other number crunchers, who reached out to specific chunks of the electorate like auto workers, Latinos, college students, gays and lesbians, African-Americans and unmarried women.

Each of those groups got something. Like the Detroit bailout, Dream Act light, cheaper student-loan rates, support for same-sex marriage, social-welfare spending and support for contraceptive insurance coverage. And while each of those groups by themselves was collectively small, they collectively reached a critical mass.

The Republicans played into that strategy time after time. Irresponsible comments about abortion and rape by Senate and House candidates. Support for big banks on students loans. Total opposition to gay marriage. Trying to rewrite history on the Detroit “bankruptcy” matter.

They helped Obama make his real underlying case: In an increasingly diverse nation, the national Republican Party is dangerously close to labeling itself as the old white codger club — a big tent with no seats, as one commentator put it yesterday. And unless that changes, the party’s future is dim.

In the end knowing what you want to say and responding to the needs of your customers in an authentic way is what it is all about in business and politics.  

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