Monday, June 14, 2010

Rope 'em, Throw 'em, Brand 'em - Selling the Party Brand

When journalist Theodore White wrote his classic account of JFK's election, The Making of the President 1960, it opened a lot of eyes about how campaigns are conducted in the modern era. It is now common knowledge, at least among the politically active, that media branding plays a critical role in political campaigning. Through the Sixties and Seventies, political scientists waxed eloquent about how the media consultant was supplanting the party boss, and how the media "identity" of a particular candidate would trump party identification in future elections.

Except that, thirty years after the election of the ultimate media candidate, Ronald Reagan, the most useful predictor of a voter's general election behavior remains - party identification. As only one recent example, according to exit polls in Alabama in the 2008 Presidential race, Obama got 85% of the Democrats, 3% of the Republicans, and 33% of the independents. Political scientists have devoted extensive study to the interaction of the many variables that go into party identification. While the academic debate is way beyond the scope of this blog post, solid proof of positive correlations have been found. Those factors shown to influence party identification have been identified to include family history, peer pressure from work, church, and social groups, the voter's conscious (or unconscious) reflection on her recent voting history, and electioneering activity undertaken (or not) by political parties. While we can't change what party someone's granddaddy belonged to, we can change what the Party has done - or not been doing - to increase the percentage of voters who identify themselves as Democrats, and will therefore vote accordingly, at least as a "tiebreaker."

In recent years, the typical Democratic Party campaign in Alabama has consisted of

extensive efforts on behalf of each candidate on the ticket, naming that individual in both broadcast (TV and radio) and signage (yard signs, billboards, bumper stickers and pins) media. The result has not been unlike that of the yard in the picture to the right. (And we all know Yellow Dogs whose yards look just like this.) As a practical matter, how many of these names are going to register in the mind of a motorist passing by at 40 MPH? Not many. The effect is largely the same with broadcast media, where Party supporters invest large sums in buying zillions of gross ratings points in an effort to boost the downballot candidates. (A gross rating point, in broadcast, equals the number of times an ad airs times the percentage of the market exposed to it. Run your ad on four programs, each watched by 25% of households, and you have bought 100 gross ratings points. Most consultants figure that an average voter sees the ad once for each 100 GRPs, but that can vary substantially if the ad is not properly placed.) This is an expensive way to run a campaign. Tennessee Valley Sign & Printing, Inc. is one of the better shops out there, and one of the more reasonable. Still, their standard two-foot (18" x 24") yard sign, two-color with the required union bug, and a wire frame, is $3.65 a copy. And that's if you're ordering in lots of 5,000. And it takes a lot of signs to make any impact in a state the size of Alabama. Not every supporter wants their yard to look like the one above. Most only want to display the sign of the gubernatorial candidate, or that of a close personal friend downballot. As a result, many thousands of dollars get spent on signs for downballot candidates that will be thrown out when the county Party campaign office is closed after the election. In terms of broadcast media, to speak anecdotally, no one other than lawyers and insurance executives knows anything about the candidates for the Court of Civil Appeals, and they already know for whom they're voting. Because other voters have that race well below their radar, even a well-funded, heavy broadcast media buy is going to have limited impact. The ad will be "tuned out" as soon as the voter realizes what it is. It will be like the Biblical seed sown on stony ground. On the other hand, when Billy Bob is wandering over that part of the ballot, if he stops and thinks, "I don't know either of these. But I know the Republicans are for the rich people, and I ain't rich ..." You get the point.

Personally, I can recall in the Sixties and early Seventies, when bumper stickers with a simple "Vote Democratic" message were as widely distributed as those of any candidate. (Even though they weren't needed back then!) In the Nineties, the state Party did air one TV ad in which a montage of racially and sexually diverse faces were shown, while the voiceover said something along the lines of "The Democrats ... Alabama's Party ..." If saccharine violins weren't playing, they should have been. (The only face I recall from the ad is that of Jim North.) Simply put, the ad didn't give the voter a
reason to vote Democratic. It was a bumper sticker message dragged on for 60 seconds.

What we need is a campaign analogous to the sign to the left. A simple message in signage, reinforced by a well-executed broadcast campaign to put some meat on the bones. While a blog post is the wrong place to script an ad, I'm thinking something like Joe Everyman looking into the camera and saying, "The Republicans? They're for the bank that won't extend my mortgage because they paid some bigwig a million dollar bonus and had to foreclose me to pay for it. The Republicans are for the oil companies that are ruining our beaches. The Democrats are the party for guys like me who punch a clock for a living." This kind of campaign will result in a net benefit to downballot candidates whose name-ID expenditures are diverted to it.

Party branding is a little more problematic, but worthwhile, in personal media - such as canvassing and phone banking. Granted, it's easier to get someone to canvass for their neighbor or cousin than for some amorphous "party." Care also has to be taken in formulating the script. You need to ask the voter to do
something, not just to "be a Democrat." In this vein, there's nothing wrong with asking them to vote a straight ticket. You can always script for the volunteer to qualify it if the voter says someone from their church or lodge is a local GOP nominee. For canvassing, you also need to produce an appropriate, and persuasive, piece of literature to leave that reinforces the message.

You may have noted I continuously reference "downballot" races. I do believe it is still worthwhile to push the name and message of the candidate at the top of the ticket - even in a Presidential year in which he or she might not have a good chance of taking Alabama. I am not picking on the Court of Civil Appeals. Really. But the last time a Democrat was elected to that Court was when Judge Sharon Yates won in 1998, when Siegelman was leading the ticket and pulled 57.7% of the vote. (And she lost the seat, caught in the Kerry undertow, in 2004.)

One valid point to consider is whether we should be doing this when the Republicans seem not to be doing much of it, either. Our strategic posture and theirs are not symmetrical, and neither should our tactics be. The Republicans benefit from numerous sources of "brand promotion" to which we don't have access. These include Fox News, right-wing talk radio, "Christian" ballots and candidate "ratings" passed out at a couple of thousand churches, and (I'm going to make some people object with this one)
The Birmingham News and the other Newhouse publications instate. The Republicans don't have to spend money on brand promotion. They focus their party-proper spending on identifying and turning out base voters. (Not that we don't need to do that, but we do it differently, and at lower cost.) Another valid point is that what I have said largely applies to statewide or multicounty races. Television plays a bigger role in them. It may still be important for Democratic nominees for sheriff or probate judge to display local support with yard signs and bumper stickers, especially if a challenger is doing so. But those local candidates are also going to benefit from improvement in Democratic party identification.

One passing point that needs to be considered in any discussion of party identification is the role of "independents." The media love to talk to independents, to write about them, to predict their behavior. The problem is, they frequently do so without knowing of whom they speak. When you see a poll referring to "independents" reported in the media, the odds are it identified independents by asking them "Do you consider yourself a Democrat, Republican, or independent?" Possibly because some people view "independent thinking" as a positive trait, many voters, as shown by some studies, identify themselves as independents despite having a markedly partisan voting history. The better polls, and any serious political science study, will take a minute to elicit voting history to identify these "leaners."