Thursday, November 06, 2008

Yes We Brand

It’s been a long time coming.

The first time that I ever voted was the first time that I was eligible—the 1980 general election. And if that’s not enough of a humbling admission, I’ll go a step further: I voted for Barry Commoner. It was a protest vote in a non-competitive state, but the reasons for that protest formed the foundation of my complaints about Democrats—or, if not Democrats, Democratic strategy—for the rest of my political life.

At least until today (more on that in a minute).

I didn’t have a neat phrase in 1980, because the trend did not yet have a name, but I would eventually topline my criticism by saying, “Why vote for the ersatz Republican when you can vote for the real thing?”

The point of that flip and bitter but all too often prescient comment was that Democrats, by pursuing what came to be called “Reagan Democrats”—conservative or right-leaning voters who, by some freak of demographics or inertia, had failed to change their party affiliation even though their worldview had left the Democratic party with the creation of Medicare, the signing of the Voting Rights Act, or protests over the Vietnam War—had so muddied their brand that they turned off or failed to inspire their core audience while failing to convince the so-called center that a second-to-market mishmash was better than almost just-as-good as the original. And when Democrats did manage to tilt Reagan-ward enough to grab the odd brass ring, the result was even worse—for the party and the country—for, you see (and this quickly became the corollary to my first proclamation), in a contest between an old Republican and a new Republican, the victor is guaranteed to be a Republican.

By the 1990s, the Democratic elite had evolved enough to believe that they shouldn’t so much follow the voters as they should follow the money. The Democratic Party of Bill Clinton did manage to divert their way some of the rivers of cash that had been flooding GOP coffers, but, to my mind, they did so at the expense of the party’s natural reservoir of votes.

Flash forward another decade, and suddenly “values voters” were all the rage. Democrats, apparently, didn’t know how to talk about religion—apparently the font of all positive values—and so were losing white evangelicals. Until Democrats embraced the naturally conservative (some might say reactionary) beliefs of this highly organized voting bloc, they would never feel the electoral love. The dreadful results that befell Democrats for more than a decade, or, depending on how you evaluated, perhaps more than a generation, stood as some kind of unmistakable verification of this trope.

Chasing Reaganites, millionaires, or evangelicals all required the same tactic, however (and not surprisingly), and that was a full-throttle fudge to the right.

What the ever-shifting boundaries of this monotonous, mono-directional, and monumentally flawed brand strategy always failed to understand, though, was that the group of habitual voters that Democrats supposedly just had to win-over to win was so very much smaller than the group of natural constituents who had become disenchanted enough to disengage, or who had never been inspired enough to participate in electoral politics at all.

To again put it in a tidier package: Instead of chasing the money, Democrats should have been chasing the voters. There are so many of them naturally predisposed to love Democrats for who they are—or recently were—that if you could just get them excited and invested in the outcome, they would swamp any numbers you might be able to pick off from the Republican base.

Which brings us to the here-and-now.

Though I have some reservations about what type of president Barack Obama might be, I have never failed to praise him as a candidate. The genius of the Obama campaign, and what I have loved most about the last year, is the ability of Barack Obama to reach out to, excite, inspire, and organize a part of the Democratic base that had long been either taken for granted or left for dead. With the voter registration drives, the canvassing, the outreach, and the GOTV, Obama didn’t have to sweat the right—he had something bigger and better: a broader definition of the American electorate.

For, while Obama and his surrogates might talk of an America beyond partisanship, the values and, indeed, the proposals that drove the Obama campaign were solidly Democratic. The fairness he preached and the cool reason he seemed to embody contrast favorably with the selfishness and base emotion of the Bush years. Proposals like more equitable taxation, universal access to affordable, quality healthcare, and a belief in the importance of organized labor feel like the Democratic Party I remember from my pre-voting youth. And a pro-active, fact-based approach to combating global warming is a refreshing reproach to the reactive and reactionary anti-science stance that drives today’s GOP.

Embodied in all of that, too, is the inherently Democratic (and democratic) sentiment that we are all in this together, rather than the sad ethos of the right—that we are all in this for ourselves.

And, amazingly, in returning to Democrats’ core principles and best practices, and not pandering to the Reagan Democrats or values voters or whatever we will now decide to call them, Obama was able to win (win back?) some of their votes. Obama’s victory is a monument to good branding—and I mean that wholly as a statement of admiration (I am, after all, a brand strategist). Barack Obama and many other Democrats this cycle (and I would be remiss if I did not single out DNC Chair Howard Dean for special praise) have proven that crafting a strong brand, behaving as a distinct brand, and not being simply a “not” brand—and then selling the distinct benefits of that brand—is the best route to victory.

After a lifetime of railing and flailing, I feel, well, not vindicated, but, at least, validated. I hope that Obama and other Democrats see it the same way—even if not all will admit it in public. Candidate Obama preached hope while implementing a strong and identifiably Democratic brand strategy. My hope is that President Obama sees that this would be a solid strategy for governing, as well.

(cross-posted on guy2k, The Seminal, and Daily Kos)

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