H.L. Mencken once said, “For it is mutual trust, even more than mutual interest, that holds human associations together. Our friends seldom profit us but they make us feel safe.” Mencken was right. The small group of people we trust to help us are the most powerful among us.
In Applebee’s America, a book I cowrote with Ron Fournier (now National Journal Group’s editor-in-chief) and political strategist Doug Sosnik, a chapter is devoted to a group of people in this country we called “navigators.” These navigators make up 10 to 15 percent of the population and help influence the choices of their family members, neighbors, and colleagues on everything from consumer products to politics to pop culture. The group is diverse: It includes young and old, male and female, every ethnicity, college-educated and not, rich and poor, and all manner of partisanship. Navigators are extremely powerful, and companies and political campaigns continue to underutilize them.
In 2003, when I was getting ready to organize the reelection campaign of George W. Bush in my role as his chief strategist, I recommended to campaign manager Ken Mehlman that he read a book called The Influentials by Ed Keller and Jon Berry. Its subtitle is One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy.
This analysis informed much of the discussion of navigators in Applebee’s America. It was this group that Mehlman and I made a concerted effort to reach in the run-up to the November 2004 election. We designed television messages and ad buys with them in mind and asked our operatives in the field to try to identify and contact people with influence in their neighborhoods and communities. This was just one part of the reelection strategy, of course, but we believed it was a crucial part of the winning effort. Oddly, it is not one of the lessons that other campaigns (or companies) have picked up and tried to replicate.
As Americans have more instant access to volumes of information and become more siloed in their seeking of it—anyone with a computer or laptop can log on in the privacy of their home or at a coffee shop—they feel more of a need to have someone help them wade through all of this data and then let them know who or what they can trust.
Ironically, the widespread availability of multiple cable or satellite channels, cell phones, handheld devices, computers, and the Internet has taken America back more than 100 years to a time when navigators, or “influentials,” ruled. Back when my Irish ancestors Patrick and Mary Dowd got off the boat, someone met them and helped them find a place to live, to work, to shop, and then to decide which political party best represented them. We are moving megabyte-by-megabyte back to an age where such neighbors and good friends matter and “precinct captains” have power again.
Many discussed this use of technology as the cutting-edge way to approach organization and communications in 2008, especially by the Obama campaign. But the campaigns and the media focused little on navigators. In the 2012 election cycle, I believe this group will be absolutely key. And not just in determining Americans’ political choices, but in all the choices they make every day, from those about schools for their kids to churches to movies. I told someone once in explaining this to think about a Hollywood movie that cost $100 million to produce and $50 million to market. But if you asked your neighbor if the movie was any good and she said, “It stunk,” you probably wouldn’t go see it, no matter how slick the sales techniques.
So as you keep an eye on which candidate is likely to emerge in the Republican nomination process or who may win the general-election fight, look for the one who best connects with and motivates these navigators. This select segment of society will likely determine who leads America.
These navigators can also help us in our own lives and the choices we make, perhaps keeping us from going down a wrong path or ending up in a destructive relationship. We all need trusted confidantes who can help us make these decisions. But recall the signature phrase often used by President Ronald Reagan in discussing relations with the Soviet Union, “trust but verify.” This is as true in our personal lives as it is in politics. We should trust, but we should also take it upon our-selves to verify.
Want the news first every morning? Sign up for National Journal's Need-to-Know Memo. Short items to prepare you for the day.
This article appears in the May 28, 2011, edition of National Journal.