The key to winning political campaigns is good advertising. It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling a candidate or soap. Market your product well and people will buy it.
Marketing of politics is ethereal. People embrace a candidate because of how it makes them feel inside. Safe. Secure. Good about themselves.
Kind of like the credo exuded by suave ad exec Don Draper on the TV hit “Mad Men.”
“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness,” says Draper. “And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.”
Vintage McDonald’s “You deserve a break today” or Budweiser’s “This Bud’s for you.”
President Obama capitalized on Draper’s thesis in 2008. Mr. Obama’s packaging was near-perfect. A poised, handsome, young candidate pitted against the grey Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). Had voters tapped McCain, he would have been the oldest person elected president.
Mr. Obama truly didn’t run a campaign. He organized a movement. People were weary of the super-secretive Bush administration and a lingering war in Iraq. The economy was on the fritz. Team Obama marketed itself as “Change you can believe in.” The slogan engendered a euphoria with people who had never voted or bothered to register.
And people dialed-in to a candidate in ways they were never connected before.
At 3:04 am ET on August 24, 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama blasted a text message to millions of his loyal followers.
“Barack has chosen Senator Joe Biden to be our VP nominee. Watch the first Obama-Biden rally live at 3pm ET on www.barackobama.com Spread the word!"
Technology helped organize volunteers, generate buzz and get voters to the polls. The campaign did the same with other new media forums like Facebook, Twitter and perhaps more importantly, my.barackobama.com.
“Because it’s about you,” the site declared, almost narcissistically. It then scrolled through a photo gallery of everyday Americans of all ages and varying socio-economic and ethnic groups. Like staring into a mirror, everyone logging into that site would see themselves there. And then Mr. Obama secured the buy-in. President Kennedy told Americans “ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country.” Candidate Obama closed the deal by telling voters change was in their hands.
“I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington…I’m asking you to believe in yours,” reads a quote at the top of the page.
People were happy to vote for Obama. As Don Draper said, advertising is based on happiness. This made people happy.
The throngs surfaced at campaign rallies. They poured into voting booths. Flooded Grant Park in Chicago the night of the election and filled the National Mall for the inauguration.
Impressionable voters are like the happy consumers Don Draper targets. They voted for the new car scent Draper refers to. And the brilliant use of text messages and emails by the Obama campaign served as constant billboards on the side of the road. Change you can believe in. Their vote was okay.
The youth vote was a key to President Obama’s victory. The president captured nearly seven in ten voters between the ages of 18-29. In 2004, Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) marshaled only 53 percent of the same demographic. One polling precinct at that caters to college students at Indiana University drew 3,114 voters last November. Four years earlier, only 804 voted.
This was Pepsi-Cola’s “The Pepsi Generation” marketing slogan.
“The GOP should be worried about the trend,” said North Dakota state senator Tracy Potter (D) said shortly after the election.“Democrats here are almost giddy at the prospect of turning young Obama supporters into new enthusiasm for Democratic campaigns over the next decade.”
Change was here.
Until it wasn’t.
President Obama’s approval numbers slipped to just above 51 percent this month in multiple polls. And then there were the rowdy town halls, brimming with a mostly older demographic which lambastes their member of Congress over the president’s health care reform plan.
It should be noted that a majority of voters age 45 and older voted for McCain.
Most of the people funneling in to the town halls to savage Democrats have largely never friended someone on Facebook or tweeted that they are devouring a Danish for breakfast.
The young voters who helped elect President Obama checked out on January 21, 2009.
“They always do,” said George Mason University political science professor Michael McDonald, who studies trends of younger voters. “After the election, that’s always what happens.”
Their job was done. Which is why Democrats and Republicans are now pitched in a battle for the 2010 midterm elections.
“Midterm voters tend to be older people,” said McDonald. He says the rhubarbs at the town hall meetings are part of what he termed a “generational realignment.”
“Older people are less likely to support this health care plan,” McDonald said, noting that young voters don’t appear to be invested now.
“It’s kind of hard to pierce through the bubble of their lives. Policy issues are esoteric to them,” he said.
And very suddenly, scary writing dots the wall for Congressional Democrats.
A FOX News/Opinion Dynamics generic ballot poll indicated that 40 percent of voters would want to elect a Democrat to Congress to help Mr. Obama. Another 40 percent of voters would pull the Republican lever “to put (a) check on Obama’s power.”
A similar poll favored Democrats by five points just a month ago.
In an interview with ABC, Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union (a key Democratic ally) predicted that a failure to approve health care could mean voters show Democrats the door.
“I think we’re talking losing control of Congress,” Stern said. “After last year’s promise of change, voters will start feeling buyer’s remorse.”
George Mason’s Michael McDonald agreed.
“I wouldn’t rule it completely out of the question that Republicans could regain the House of Representatives in 2010,” McDonald said.
So we’re back to who can best sell their soap for the midterm elections.
In Mad Men, there’s a scene where Don Draper struggles with an advertising conundrum posed by Lucky Strike cigarettes. Lucky Strike and five other cigarette companies make precisely the same product. Draper’s challenge is to distinguish Lucky Strike from the other brands. And, since the show is set in the 1960s, the federal government is just starting to raise questions about the risks posed by smoking.
“We can say anything we want,” Draper says.
Draper then asks the CEO of Lucky Strike how he makes his cigarettes.
“We breed insect repellant tobacco seeds,” the CEO says. “Plant them in the North Carolina sunshine. Grow it. Cut it. Cure it. Toast it.”
Draper interrupts. He then writes “It’s Toasted” on a flipchart resting against an easel.
“But everybody else’s tobacco is toasted,” protests the CEO.
“No,” Draper explains. “Everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike is toasted.”
Mr. Obama sold his product artfully by energizing a youthful voting base. But again, the parties are again at a crossroads. Change isn’t here any more. And both political brands are toxic.
So the race is on for Democrats and Republicans to distinguish their wares.
They can say anything they want. And the team that convinces voters that their product is “toasted” will prevail.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.