The Republican party is a shambles, and a Democrat will win the presidency in 2008. So say the pundits. In fact, they don’t even say it anymore. They don’t need to because everyone knows it is a fact.
But I’m not so sure. And I’m worried.
I donated some money to Barack Obama’s campaign a few months ago, and now I get emails nearly every day requesting more. The most recent of these was entitled “Inevitable?” and highlighted the fact that Hillary Clinton’s campaign is a couple million dollars ahead of his.
Inevitable? It’s true that many voices in the media are already talking like Hillary’s nomination is a foregone conclusion, but does anyone remember Howard Dean in 2004? Here’s a snippet from an article in the New York Times, dated December 22, 2004, just before the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries:
One recent New Hampshire survey has [Kerry] 25 percentage points behind Dr. Dean, another has him 29 points back and a third has him 30 points down.
We all know what happened after that. Nothing is inevitable.
Incidentally, don’t take my donation to Obama’s campaign to mean he’s my choice for president. I don’t know whether he is or isn’t. I want to help keep this thing competitive for a while, and I like what he adds to the field.
But I’m getting off my main point, which is the money. I question the need for more money from someone who is only a couple million behind the very deep-pocketed Ms. Clinton.
I’d like to see the candidates spend smarter, not harder. This is the Internet age. We live in a connected world, and there are lots of ways to make yourself heard on a limited budget. There are lots of ways to stand out from the crowd – and there does seem to be quite a crowd clamoring for the oval office – without breaking the bank.
These people do not understand marketing… at all. They don’t know how to boil a message down to its essence.
The always colorful [Democratic campaign strategist] James Carville once told a New York Times political columnist, “If you want reporters to write about hamburger, you give them hamburger. You don’t give them French fries and ice cream.”
The Democrats these days give you not only the fries and ice cream, they offer a salad bar, barbecue, tortillas and a dim sum cart. It’s impossible to know what the party stands for – or against. The Republicans might serve a terrible hamburger, but no one’s confused about what’s on the menu.
If you ask a die-hard Republican to explain why he or she sides with the G.O.P. you’ll hear some very clear and concise reasons. Many of them don’t make sense if you dig even a little, but that’s further testament to the G.O.P.’s success in marketing itself. Karl Rove and other very shrewd and savvy people have managed an astonishing level of control over the discourse by avoiding impromptu performances in favor of staged ones and avoiding any substantial discussion of “the issues” in favor of strategic repetition of a handful of soundbites.
Smart people on the left see right through this and point it out all the time, which almost always backfires. They end up looking like whiners and snobs and paradoxically reinforce the image they are trying to refute.
Someone by the name of Nathan Piazza wrote a smart essay after the 2004 election that looks at how the Republicans have controlled the discourse so effectively. It’s well worth the read.
The trouble is, since the smart people on the left have keen noses for bad hamburger, they don’t tolerate it from anyone – including members of their own party. We don’t let our candidates get away with staged appearances and repeated soundbites, and this is a huge challenge for them. We want substantive ideas, but ideas don’t spread like soundbites. They don’t lend themselves to the kinds of simple narratives the media depends on, so the media is left to its own devices, and we end up hearing about the Edwards haircut and the Hillary cackle over and over over again. In 2004, it was the Gore sigh because he was not able to hand the media something better. It didn’t matter that Bush came off as an idiot.
So what should the Democrats do?
Lately I’ve been thinking about Ross Perot who, running as an Independent, managed to grab nearly 20% of the popular vote in the 1992 presidential election. I remember his half-hour long television spots during the campaign months, where he would dive into an issue and explain in great detail what was currently broken and lay out his plan to fix it. He would flash through a series of infographics and illustrations and pepper his lecture – that’s what it was – with quirky Texas truisms. The thing is, it worked. People like pictures. Lightbulbs went on. People got it. It was a little dense perhaps, but it was 100% bullshit free.
The lesson here is that it’s possible to communicate substantive ideas in ways that people digest, remember and spread. And the Internet provides an incredibly cost-effective platform for reaching millions of voters.
Unfortunately, the Democratic candidates keep trying to walk an impossible middle ground between soundbites and substance.