As I listened to the various political pundits size up Wednesday night's first presidential debate, it struck me that the presidential incumbent faces the same uphill battle as does an incumbent agency defending a piece of business (or, as I discovered on Monday, an industry awards champion competing for the same prize a second straight year).
Think about it. With few exceptions, the challenger has always smashed the incumbent in presidential debates:
– Carter outclassed Ford in 1976
– Reagan trounced Carter in 1980
– And, Clinton ran rings around H. W. in 1992
When the incumbents did win, I think it was more a case of the challenger having lost: Mondale couldn't compete with Ron's charisma, Dole was battling Clinton's impeccable economic record and poor John Kerry wasn't sure how many times he HAD changed his mind on key issues.
The bar is set extremely low for challengers. Take Sarah Palin, please.
In her now infamous 2008 debate with 'Senator O'Biden' (the Alaskan intellectual powerhouse couldn't remember Biden's surname, so her handlers suggested she instead call him Joe), Palin was considered the winner simply because she didn't make any completely idiotic remarks. And, BTW, what's become of the ice hockey mom? Talk about a disappearing act.
But, back to the debates. Obama has everything to lose and little to gain. Romney, on the hand, merely needs to speak in coherent sentences and not repeat one of his many malaprops in order to be seen as the victor. It's not fair, but that's how we Americans think.
It's the same with clients who put their account up for review after a long, and successful, run with the incumbent agency. Nine times out of 10, they do so for one of two reasons:
– Change for the sake of change
– The new sheriff wants her own agency; not her predecessor's.
And, statistics prove that nine times out of 10, an incumbent agency will lose in its defense of an account.
The same holds true for awards. As I sat at an industry event earlier this week, I realized I was defending champion in the blogger of the year category. I leaned over to my associate and whispered, “They'll have a revolt on their hands if they give the award to the same person two years in a row.” And, I was right.
Note: there are caveats to the awards incumbent rule. I've noticed one midsized agency, which purchases 10 or 11 tables at a certain awards event, routinely wins the top award. And, then there are the categories where, having flooded the submissions with so many entries, the defending winners (read: global agencies) dominate the numbers of finalists and win by default (i.e. “And, for best use of cell phones in a dead zone, the nominees are: Weber, Weber, Edelman, Weber and Edelman.”).
Like you, I'm really looking forward to the debates. But, as is the case with accounts in review and industry awards up for grabs, the odds are in the challenger's favor.
Actually, Kerry did quite well in his debates against Bush, which should give Obama some comfort. Kerry, on the other hand, probably derives little comfort from the assessment that had he not performed so well in the debates his loss to Bush wouldn’t have been so close.