November 18, 2013

In politics, brand matters. TIP: brand is local.

Proving that brand matters, an endorsement from a Duck Dynasty star made a difference in a race for Louisiana's 5th congressional district.  This is not something to simply be shed as unimportant - brand is the currency of politics these days.
An unknown political novice who has never visited Washington, D.C., won a special election for Louisiana's 5th District seat Saturday on the endorsement of the “Duck Dynasty” family and a promise to fix Obamacare.

Vance McAllister beat establishment candidate Neil Riser, a state senator, in Saturday's runoff election created when former Rep. Rodney Alexander resigned on Sept. 26 to become secretary of the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs under Republican Governor Bobby Jindal.

The lesson for the GOP is that brand matters. Media makes brands.  Brands make candidates.  That's why the Democrats are so quick to brand (or define) GOP candidates in terms that are beneficial to the Democrats' candidacies.  The GOP has been slow to learn this, just like they have been slow to learn about the power of statistical models in identifying the right voters to target in specific locations to make the big differences in elections.

Just like targeting locally those who can be swayed to vote GOP or even get out to vote and targeting them, brand is local.  Consider the potential effect of the Duck Dynasty endorsement in  San Francisco - not so powerful.  Conservatives understand that one size fits all style of governing is wrong.  They don't seem to understand it when it comes to winning elections.

Of course if you ask a Texas Tea Party conservative candidate if they'd support a Chris Christie candidate in their own district you'll get a resounding 'NO!'  But similarly Ted Cruz could not get a GOP win in New Jersey.  The challenge becomes finding that sweet spot where individual candidates in different circumstances can win their unique elections for Congress and Senate.  

It becomes harder at the presidential level.  You can't say something in one market and expect it to not be reported in another.  Just ask Mitt Romney about saying something that plays well to one group but not many others.  That leaves candidates three options:

(1) Say nothing.  Talk in positive slogans only. Become a tabula rasa upon which voters project their own concept of truth, justice and the American way.  This is how president Obama won in 2008.  It's the equivalent voting present on your own political views and ideas for governance. With a GOP candidate that's a lot tougher than for an Obama or Clinton on the liberal Democrat side.  Any GOP candidate will be called on the carpet by the media for being too canned, too weak or short on specifics.  It can still work if you build enough momentum for those media complaints to be drowned out.  In other words it can work if you have the momentum of a Ronald Reagan (not that he said nothing).  There is no Reagan today.  Neither is there a unified Republican base willing to accept a piece of burnt toast as a candidate and march lockstep behind it regardless of what the media tries to do in the way of character assassination. 

(2) Become a stealth candidate.  You can say a bit more than nothing. You can go into detail where the American people have more than 80%  agreement.  For example "The government should not be shut down." Even conservatives who argued that there was a need to shut it down to make a point, can agree there should not be a need to shut it down.  But you still can not say anything that can be assailed as controversial.  Change that last example to "The government should not need to be shut down because of the debt ceiling."  Already you are inviting controversy.  Saying "The government shut down was only necessary because we cannot afford any social programs,"  (right or wrong) is controversial.  This is how John Roberts came to be Chief Justice of the Supremem Court.  He was able to say enough in his opinions to have credentials but not say too much that Democrats could latch onto anything and follow the Robert Bork model to derail him.  That stands a better chance of success than saying nothing.  This may be the approach Chris Christie has taken.  Appear moderate, and RINOesque in order to win.  That would be great if he is indeed playing this long game, but in the meantime he has to govern in New Jersey, and governing as a moderate means he is alienating the true right in the process.  No one can be certain that were Christie elected president he wouldn't be Gerald Ford II instead of  Reagan 2.0.

(3) Lie.  Say what the audience wants to hear, when you are speaking directly to them.  Have 7 different shades of the truth and share the one appropriate for the occasion.  Or, run as an outright liberal.  You can appear to be a moderate by pointing out that your previous version of the truth was taken out of context or misrepresented.  These are wholly unpalatable options to most of us on the right.  The candidate who does this is not likely at all to emerge from the GOP primaries as the presidential candidate.

Where does that leave the GOP candidates for options?  Branding.  A positive brand can overcome a lot.  A positive and solid brand perception can overcome most anything.  The brand for a presidential candidate cannot be local, which means that while voters will need to be targeted based on local needs and issues, the brand has to over-arch all of those and be above politics.  It needs to be about a vibe, a notion that this candidate stands for x, and that x has to be something that every voter can identify with regardless of their local voting patterns and issues.

There's no been Republican candidate who could weave all of that together since Reagan last did in 1984.

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