A year or so after the Tea Party movement began many people are proclaiming it a permanent player on America’s political stage.
I for one admit to being a little surprised by its durability, but my basic assessment of the movement stands: if the Tea Party movement cannot convert its fervor into a marketing strategy with centralized discipline and structure then the movement is doomed.
A recent series of polls has only muddied the waters. Who are the Tea Partiers? Well, besides being mostly white and middle class, they are everyone. By this I mean that, with the exception of their unity on government spending and size of government, Tea Partiers hold a wide range of conflicting beliefs and opinions. According to the NY Times/CBS News poll, 57 percent support gay marriage and/or civil unions and almost two-thirds favor access to abortion. But at least they’re 100% in favor of gun freedom, right? Nope. Two-thirds support some restrictions on guns.
Tea Party energy and diversity is a great testament to our country’s love of freedom and individuality, but as far as the base of a political movement it’s a losing proposition.
Unlike those who want to shamefully marginalize the Tea Party movement and make it a gathering of crackpots, I believe that what the Tea Party movement really represents is us, the American electorate. Tea partiers might be more expressive than the average voter, but they basically represent what most of us believe and hold dear about our country. And that’s exactly the problem. Beyond the big rallies against government spending and all the buzz, there isn’t enough consistency to create either a) a compelling political platform or b) a dependable voting bloc.
For example, Sarah Palin is one of the brightest stars in today’s political firmament but what happens if she chooses to emphasize her pro-life credentials while de-emphasizing her small government ones? Bottom line, a conflict happens. After all, the poll numbers are probably indicating that the many of the people who want the government to stay out of their financial lives also want the government to stay out of their moral lives. By the way, that CBS News/NYT poll offers some significant insight into Tea Party political thinking: the majority of Tea Partiers believe that Palin will not have the ability to be an effective leader (47%). This means that while they might welcome her as a speaker and like her as a person, they’re realistic as to her abilities.
It’s impossible to predict where the Tea Party will go from here given that no one can predict what history will throw at us next. But one thing remains clear, it is very unlikely that the Tea Party movement is sustainable because it is unlikely that it will ever be able to put together a marketing plan that works.
Much more likely is this: at this very moment, the smartest Republican politicians are taking notes and starting to shape their own strategies around what they’re learning. These strategies will have to play down the “values” and culture war issues and play up the pocket book issues and the question of curbing unnecessary government growth.
One thing these strategies shouldn’t do, however, is treat the Tea Party as a single, unified group or focus on its most outspoken margins. Instead of getting caught up in the hype and the extremes, the smart conservative politician will remember that there are millions and millions of voters –many of whom might even attend a Tea Party rally or two— who are moderate when they enter the voting booth and choose a leader. The smart American politician never markets to the extremes.
And, remember, things are always easier when you keep marketing and branding in mind.
John Tantillo is a marketing and branding expert and president of the Marketing Department of America who markets his own services as The Marketing Doctor. He is a frequent contributor to the Fox Forum and the author of a new book "People Buy Brands, Not Companies."
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