A marketer’s proposal: The death of conservatism as our default argument, Part I


Republicans and Democrats have different behavioral patterns and motivational-triggers, and a fundamental misunderstanding of these differences blindsided Republican thought-leaders in 2012.  In this two part series, I’ll reveal what this error was – and what Republicans must do to correct it.

The Democratic Party is a “plaintiff party,” where various constituencies lobby to wield government power.  As the lone plaintiff party, Democrats attract voters who (rightly) recognize that their lives would be improved by reallocating American resources.

A plaintiff party is ideally positioned to attract immigrants, minorities and other groups who’ve faced historic disadvantages, because these groups are often the stated beneficiary of the plaintiff party’s legislation.  The faster these segments grow, the greater the plaintiff party’s advantage.

The Republican Party is an “ideology party,” and the dominant ideology is conservatism.  Instead of using government power to advance the interests of aggrieved demographic blocks, the Republican Party seeks the support of Americans who share conservative principles: limited government, personal liberty and traditional values.  Republicans view the world in ideological terms: Ideas and policies either reflect conservative principles or they’re “wrong.”

The Error of Marketing to Yourself

The key error that marketers make is marketing to themselves – and not to their target audience.  Some conservative commentators convinced themselves that opinion polls projecting an Obama victory couldn’t possibly be right, because the economy was bad – and surely a bad economy would demotivate his base.  Obama’s abysmal record meant diminished turnout.  Clearly, the opinion polls were over-representing Democrats!

What these commentators failed to understand is that Obama’s base wasn’t motivated by the economy.  Nor were they motivated by ideology. What motivated Obama’s base was the “politics of personal association” – associations forged by class, ethnicity and other factors – and one candidate understood “them” much better than the other.  In exit-polling, Obama trumped Romney 81% to 18% on empathy.

Romney’s Error

Romney’s error wasn’t in execution; it was in his underlining campaign strategy: Run hard to the right during the primaries; run hard to the center during the national election; relentlessly target independents; look like a reasonable, safe leader; and turn the election into a referendum on Obama.  Romney’s execution wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough to win… if only his understanding of the electorate was accurate.

America has changed.

For certain increasingly-important voting blocks, brand-loyalty has morphed into brand-monogamy; political identifications have intensified.  But for many within these groups, brand-loyalty has become brand-apathy; despite identifying with one party, they dislike all politicians and distrust the political process.

The first group can be successfully mobilized via “affirmation-messaging”: reassurance that you share their passions and are “one of them.”  (Interestingly, you can demoralize your opponent’s get-out-the-vote drive with similar tactics.  I’ll explain more in Part II.)  For the second, the objective must be to relentlessly hammer your opponent’s negatives and make your personal empathy a cornerstone message.

Democrats understand this much better than Republicans.  It’s not coincidental that the ‘92 and ‘08 campaign slogans of Obama and Clinton – “Hope and change!”  “I feel your pain!” – were both messages of personal empathy.

Obama’s Reelection Strategy

Obama’s reelection strategy was not to capture independents, or rally the nation behind a compelling second-term agenda.  His strategy was to activate his base; widen the gender-gap; and portray Romney as a conservative extremist.  Obama didn’t campaign on ideas; he campaigned on personal associations (read: empathy) – that he was one of us – and Mitt Romney was a dangerous outsider.

For all the left’s handwringing about conservative wedge-issues (Willie Horton!  The Pledge of Allegiance!  Gay marriage!), Romney’s campaign avoided ALL wedge-issues, because wedge-issues contradicted his marketing objective of seeming “safe” to independents.  (Note how quickly he backtracked from Benghazi in the final debate.)

Obama didn’t share this concern.  His campaign was a shameless, unapologetic barrage of wedge-issues.  Just to expand the gender-gap: Republicans are waging a “War on Women!”  They’ll take away your birth control pills!  They’re attacking Sandra Fluke!  They’ll kill Planned Parenthood!  Out-of-touch Romney needs “binders of women!”  Republicans support “legitimate” rape!  They’ll ban abortion!

Obama’s strategy seemed odd to many Republicans.  Conservative pundits condemned the President for “distracting” voters from the economy, lampooned him for making ideologically-absurd statements, and predicted that these wedge-issues were so brazenly outlandish, they couldn’t possibly gain traction.


The Politics of Personal Association

The “politics of personal association” requires two ingredients.  The first is relatability: you believe a candidate genuinely empathizes with your specific social group (perhaps because he’s a member himself).  The second is a unifying call-to-action, which can be positive, negative or both.

Romney’s refusal to compete for Obama’s base actually aided the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote drive, because it perpetuated the President’s campaign narrative to these groups: Obama was “one of them,” and Romney didn’t care about “us.”  It was a devastating campaign blunder, and it allowed Obama to execute his campaign strategy uncontested.