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The 2006 Elections Through A Marketer's Eyes

by Alf Nucifora

Allow me state upfront that I will try as much as possible to divorce personal political sentiment and affiliation from the analysis you are about to read. This will be an exercise focused on assessing and critiquing the current mid-term elections solely from a marketing perspective, with a little under four weeks remaining as of the writing of this column.

Historically, Republicans have been the best-of-breed when it comes to marketing the party and winning elections. Democrats aren't even in the same league. It's why, with the exception of the Clinton-Carville period, they've been out of presidential office for the last twenty six years. Republicans know and practice their Marketing 101. Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, the exploitation of social wedge issues such as same-sex marriage, and the early understanding of the power of talk radio, and the highly-effective mobilization of its airwaves, are but three recent examples of an organization that has its marketing act together. Couple that with the fierce competitiveness borne of master strategists Lee Attwater and Karl Rove, not to mention the direct marketing genius of conservative Richard Viguerie, and it becomes obvious, in hindsight, that the hapless Democrats never stood a chance. When it came to professional marketing, they didn't get it and they wouldn't listen. It's a major reason they continue to lose. For the bulk of the last thirty years, the Democratic Party has been a passive, reactive non-performer, marketing wise. That's why any discussion of contemporary political marketing practice is essentially a case study of the Republican Party, its strategies and performance.

2006… a watershed year

Today, the Republicans are in trouble. If the Republican Party, as a consumer brand, were being managed by a professional marketer such as Procter & Gamble or Coca-Cola, heads would roll and the lights would be burning late into the evening in the offices of the brand management team. Let's review the bidding.

From a public relations perspective, the situation couldn't be worse what with the latest Foley revelations. If Johnson & Johnson had handled the Tylenol crisis in the same manner as Dennis Hastert and Congressional leaders have responded to this calamity, the popular drug would be off the shelves and long gone.

From a branding perspective, it's a slow death-by-a-thousand-cuts. The litany is agonizing…Iraq, the "weapons of mass destruction" debacle, Tom DeLay, Terry Schiavo, stem cell research, Jack Abramoff, the Wilson-Plame affair, Katrina, $3 a gallon for gas, Foley, Ney. And it's still not over. To make matters worse, if the Democrats capture either of the chambers, there'll be enough congressional investigations to tar the Republican Party reputation for the next twenty five years. It will be Watergate revisited, this time with fangs bared, jugulars bleeding and no pretense whatsoever of protecting the sanctity of institution or office.

One can feel the air slowly escaping the balloon. Even the Party's staunchest supporters, residing in the conservative and religious base, have doubts. They're not too happy about the growth in both government spending and the deficit. One also has to figure that the revelation of gay goings-on in the GOP has to be playing as well as a remembrance service for Karl Marx at a John Birch rally.

The clarity of branding message is still there, that only Republican leadership can keep the country safe and secure. But the message no longer resonates as it did pre-Iraq invasion. There have been too many color alerts, too much bad news from the Middle East, and rebellious behavior from Iran and North Korea aimed at accentuating U.S. impotence where it really counts, and by extension the inherent weakness of its political leadership, in both Executive and Legislative branches. Bottom line, George W. Bush and the Republican Party are brands in crisis.

Where the party still has decided strength is in its significant fundraising advantage estimated at more than $50 million heading into the final days, two decades of congressional district gerrymandering, a true appreciation for and application of micro-marketing that identifies and allows customized communication with supporters and undecideds with pinpoint accuracy, and a proven, unrivalled get-out-the-vote machine. Big marketing budgets always help, and an aggressive, on-the-ground "merchandising" force has driven distribution and sale of many an ailing brand. However, 2006 may play out differently in this regard. The Democratic faithful are angry. They consider 2000 and 2004 stolen elections. And they have the same love and regard for George W. as conservatives have for Clinton, Bill or Hillary. Expect a heavy Democratic turn-out. Don't count on a similarly heavy turn-out from the Republican base. One smells questioning, pointing to doubt, leading to disappointment, resulting in electoral lethargy this time around. And that ad message, "Stay the Course!" Seems lackluster! Change generally plays better to the American ethos.

So will the dog eat the dog food?

It will be close, but in the end this writer predicts that there'll be a new brand in town. By the time you read this I will have been proven right or wrong. But here's the reasoning in capsule form. Perceptually, the Democrats have a better product this time around, with more appropriate, better sounding candidates. They don't have a vision, or a leader. But they need neither. They'll get the turn-out when and where it counts, and they face a Republican brand that's had too many product recalls. We've already seen it happen in the purple states. That's why the Democrats will take the House. Possibly the Senate. The real battle of the brands will be 2008. McCain versus Clinton. Now that's a fight I'd pay to watch on pay-per-view.

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