By Tom Dougherty
“Change We Can Believe In,” “Liberty for America,” “What’s on the Table?” “Ready From Day One.” the sounds of a good ‘ole American presidential campaign in 2008.
Throughout our history there have been a number of memorable slogans, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” (William Henry Harrison) “Ross for Boss,” (Ross Perot) “Cox and Cocktails” (Warren G Harding) and many other colorful, witty phrases designed to stick in the electorate’s heads.
At Stealing Share, we continually talk about brand as a reflection of who the target audience is when they use a particular product or service. So the question is, do presidential campaigns use brand, as we define it, to their advantage? Well, sort of.
Emotion is the Engine of Choice.
Political Persuasion is the Goal
In the vast majority of decisions we make, we make them based on emotion then back-fill the rational reasons. The proof of that is in the variety of products that are available to us. For example, for most families of 4, a small gas efficient car would meet our needs just fine, but we believe we need the “acre” of room “just in case.” Does Colgate actually work better than Crest? The truth is, in vast majority of products, we do a great job convincing ourselves we need more than we actually do or that there is more of a difference between products that there actually is. Both are indicative of making emotional decisions. Politics is no different. In fact, in some ways, there is even more emotional context in our political decisions than in most decisions we make. This is where american politics and political campaigns have done a remarkable job – and failed miserably.
Our system of American politics created a great country, no doubt. But our political system has also made our country a great country of polarization. Emotion has eroded the middle ground. The desire of politicians to play solely into emotion has exacerbated that erosion. In offices, bars, coffeehouses, and homes around America, there is little room for honest and open discourse about the real issues. Rather, discussions more often than not turn into emotionally charged arguments, resulting in anger and further polarization.
In most cases, in the two-party system, Democrats will usually vote for the Democratic candidate, Republicans will usually vote for the Republican candidate. This is based on many factors, but most likely it has to do more with an emotional connection to the party than a rational one. This is exactly why some voters with a party affiliation will sometimes vote for the other party’s candidate if they feel like they have been “disenfranchised” in some way.
Preaching to the Choir
By and large, political candidates “preach to the choir.” They say what members of their party want to hear. How do we make politics persuasive? They run countless polls so that they can better “understand” the needs of their constituency (so they can even preach louder to their choirs) and make public appearances in throngs of party loyalists. However, the key to winning a modern-day presidential election is to get those voters not currently in your “choir” to vote for you and with these voters, modern-day candidates have done a poor job in creating an emotional connection.
For lack of a better word, we will call this voting group “independent” as they are independent of most party loyalty. Modern-day political candidates forgo building an emotional relationship with this group in favor of building a rational one. Candidates attempt to demonstrate their differences through a rational approach outlining specific points where their views contrast with one and other. Each attempts to “sell” themselves as the candidate for those voters. But, they fail to persuade and incite preference.
Sure, this rational tactic will work for some independent voters. But many who do not have time to actually dig into the candidates’ positions rely on what they hear in the media, from their friends, and from their family. Then, as polls suggest, they “go with their gut.” Ultimately making an emotional decision but not one based on the candidates themselves but rather from what they have heard about the candidates.
What to Do?
So what is a candidate to do? Forget about their platforms? Minimize building the rational argument? Unfortunately there is no short answer. But what we have begun to see in the political area is a realization by many candidates that emotion is what drives a race, more so than their position on a specific issue. This is reflected in Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In” that attempts to create an emotional tie in with those who feel like government keeps promising but not acting and in McCain’s “Ready From Day 1” which serves to position McCain with his experience directly against Obama who is less experienced.
But what each of these candidates is missing is emotional intensity. In many ways we have heard these messages before from previous presidential candidates. Reagan asked us “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” following Obama’s “change” theme and FDR said, “Better a Third Term Than a Third Rater” which is quite similar to McCain’s position of “experience” (and perhaps “status quo”). These are not new themes and clearly, they do not create preference. In reality, our two presidential candidates are really no different that those who came before. These positions may work for one election but do nothing to build a long-term emotional tie with the candidate or, more importantly, the candidate’s party.
We at Stealing Share believe that, at its core brand, winning an election or selling soap powder is built on a reflection of the target audience arrived through discovery of their “precepts” or fundamental beliefs. These are not just “beliefs.” These are fundamental germinal beliefs that guide decisions in everything we do. Understanding these core beliefs and tailoring a candidate’s message to address these highly emotionally charged beliefs will not only help a candidate win in November, but serve as a building block for the entire party in elections yet to come. (Read more about the brand of politics here)