David Brooks, in a recent column reinforcing a point made by Peggy Noonan, wrote about his "...attitude toward this presidential campaign: It’s incredibly consequential and incredibly boring all at the same time." He has a number of theories why, but I'd like to focus on one:
Third, increased focus on the uninformed. Four years ago, Barack Obama gave a sophisticated major speech on race. Mitt Romney did one on religion. This year, the candidates do not feel compelled to give major speeches. The prevailing view is that anybody who would pay attention to such a speech is already committed to a candidate. It’s more efficient to focus on the undecided voters, who don’t really follow politics or the news.Brooks doesn't get into how they target the uninformed, but I think we know: create a sensational claim about your opponent that fires up the media, and hope that the media will run with it to the point that it enters the consciousness of the uninformed voter. And, to drive the point home, run lots of ads echoing the attack.
As a marketer, I both understand this approach and am appalled by it. I understand because, unlike just about any other decision you make, presidential elections are a binary choice. The electorate "buys" one candidate or another. Individual voters have the option of staying home, but to a candidate's political operation, a non-voter is much better than a voter for the other guy, so that's alright. If, in contrast, I'm trying to sell a Toyota Camry, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to attack the Honda Accord, because the buyer can just go and buy a Nissan Maxima (or buy nothing, which is just as bad for you as if they buy a competitor.) You have to make a sale, so you might compare when you're better (especially when you're "best in class") but you won't just go negative.
But, as I said, I find it appalling that a campaign would go this route, not from any moral squeamishness (though many attacks cross a moral line) but because it is ultimately counter-productive. To be an effective political leader, you have to be a brand.
The ironic thing is that Barack Obama aspired to be a brand in 2008. In the classic marketing formulation, a brand should provide a rational, emotional and self-expressive benefit. How did Obama want to do this? His rational benefit was that he claimed the power to bridge an increasingly divided America. His classic line was, "there is no Red America and Blue America, just the United States of America." In other words, he was a centrist, a pragmatist, and would find solutions acceptable to both sides. You could argue that this was the "change" he often spoke of: not just the change from George W. Bush, but the change from ideological conflict to rational, solution-oriented governance.
The emotional benefit he offered was his other buzzword, "hope". This tapped into something deep within the country's psyche, because I'd contend we were feeling particularly hopeless after the wars, natural disasters and economic strains of the Bush years. But to achieve the emotional benefit he aspired to, Obama would need to deliver on the rational benefit. Part of our hopelessness was that our very system seemed to be failing.
Let me explain self-expressive benefits before I tackle what Obama offered: they are essentially what affiliation with a brand says about you. Nike has a famous self-expressive benefit: when I wear Nike gear, I'm showing the world that I'm a committed, hard-working athlete. Obama had a unique self-expressive benefit. His supporters were able to say, "I'm the kind of person who sees past labels (whether Democrat and Republican or black and white) and makes a visionary choice." A vote for Obama was saying you were on the side of tomorrow.
But a brand has to be very careful not to over-promise, because people don't like it when they fall for a brand only to feel it has let them down. I'd say Obama's failure (in the minds of a majority of Americans) to deliver on his promised rational benefit has tainted the emotional and self-expressive benefits he offered. If I was giving him advice, I'd say that his best bet is to go out with a certain amount of humility, and say, "I think we've accomplished some important things, but I pledged to change the attitude in DC and that is, to put it mildly, still a work in progress. I haven't done that as well as I wish I had. But one big initiative of my second term is going to be (pick issue with broad bipartisan support), and I hope if I am fortunate enough to still be the leader of this great country, that my Republican colleagues will sit down with me, share their thoughts, and give my proposals a fair shake." If he was really thinking about his brand, that issue would be deficit reduction, and he'd find a way to make a proposal that would make at least some Republicans say, "Damn, that's not such a bad idea."
But it seems obvious at this point that Obama's strategy is to say that Republicans are impossible to work with, and that they want only to help the rich and return us to the bad old days of George W. Bush's presidency. He doesn't seem to care that his message is poisoning what is left of his brand.
So, what about Romney? His challenge is that he is an essentially cautious man, and those types of executives tend not to focus on brand-building because good brands take a strong position, and by nature don't please everyone. Even the company he started, Bain Capital, borrowed the brand name of a famous consultancy. So it's not surprising that his brand is poorly defined. There seems some chance that the selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate might help him to define it, but his lack of brand-building before the pick means the pair is vulnerable to being defined as benefit-slashing, heartless tools of the wealthy. I'd advise them to make their rational value "sustainability", though you could equally say "preservation" could work: essentially, that we are going to find ways to sustain America's greatness and America's promise to her people. Our entitlements, our security, our freedoms and our place in the world could all be defined as unsustainable on the path we're on now. I'd relentlessly make the point that both Republican and Democratic leadership have made decisions that put our wealth, our freedoms, our safety net and our security at risk, and the Romney/Ryan administration will retrench us in a way that they are on sure footing.
That easily enables an emotional benefit of: "unleashing potential". People want to believe that we could do a lot better, that the system or the decisions of our leadership are hamstringing us. Give them faith that you have a solution.
Republicans typically try to tap into a self-expressive benefit of patriotism: I think it's fair to say a lot of Republicans harbor suspicions that Democrats like the America that they think will exist in the future, when we fix it, not the country that exists now. My guess is you'll see that again this year, but I think that'd be a missed opportunity. It doesn't appeal to anyone worried about their job or their family or their debt. I think they need to make people feel that a vote for Romney is a vote for optimism. That not all our options are miserable, that we can rearrange things so that more people are more successful and happier.
The trick is, to build that type of a brand the Romney campaign would have to stop focusing on Obama's flaws and say how he would make things better. And have the facts and conviction to make the case compellingly, and keep making it despite all the fleeting issues that will pop up during the campaign. But there is no reason to expect this to happen. Instead, we should anticipate the daily messaging efforts to continue. Here's Brooks again:
Both campaigns fervently believe that more spending leads to more votes. They also believe that if they can carpet bomb swing voters with enough negative ads, then eventually the sheer weight of the barrage will produce movement in their direction. There’s little evidence that these prejudices are true. But the campaigns are like World War I generals. If something isn’t working, the answer must be to try more of it.Maybe things will change, but it is more likely we'll keep getting messaged by both sides, and keep feeling worse and worse about where our politics and our country are going.