The gloves have come off. Except this isn’t a fistfight, it’s more like a middle school food fight. Welcome to the 2016 GOP presidential race.
It’s an election cycle where virtually every known rule about political campaigns has been run through the shredder—several times. But the sudden shift by Senator Marco Rubio to complete with Donald Trump in his own sandbox defies established strategic positioning and communication logic.
The shift in Senator Rubio’s tactics that began with the debates on February 25th, saw him sharply attack Donald Trump by trading personal insults before a CNN audience of millions. The attacks have continued on the campaign trail with the Rubio campaign even posting videos on its YouTube feed.
What’s puzzling is why Senator Rubio would go there. Yes, he is trailing in both the polls and delegate count to both Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz. And yes, he has to do something to spark his campaign and differentiate himself. But competing with Trump in the rhetoric of personal assaults only lowers himself to Trump’s level in an arena where he can’t win. It simply defies strategic thinking.
Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter argues that effective strategy is not competing in the same race, but running a different race.
“Competitive strategy is about being different,” says Porter. “It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.”
What applies to business strategy, also applies to strategic communication. For the moment, Sen. Rubio has a strategic communication problem that is in part creating his electoral problem. The perceptual map below shows how the remaining four republican candidates are positioned on axis of personal attacks verses conservative values and voter empathy. (Figure 1) By occupying with Trump a similar position on the perceptual branding map, Rubio cannot differentiate himself. He somehow has to figure out how to re-position himself in the sweet spot in the mind of the voters—that is, outside of the blue curve on the map.
Effective strategy is more than positioning. Porter argues that it is also equal parts operational efficiencies and competencies. For example, Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 not just because of where he positioned himself in the mind of the voter, but also because his campaign had a core competency in social media engagement. In 2012, the Obama campaign won again in part with its strategic superiority in using big data to mine the voter rolls.
Time is clearly running out for Sen. Rubio and it may be already too late to for strategic changes to have any immediate impact. If anyone is running a different race, it’s clearly Trump. Where the race is going, we don’t yet know. Buckle up.