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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Billions for Marketing, But What About the Product?

Today’s big political story is the preliminary FEC report on spending in the 2004 presidential elections. And the numbers are just stunning, in two respects: (1) the total spent on behalf of the two major-party candidates was a staggering $1.7 billion, up from an estimated billion four years ago; and (2) Democrats, for the first time in living memory, outspent Republicans.
According to the FEC, $925 million was spent on behalf of John Kerry from all sources, while the total for Bush was a mere $822 million. The latter number, of course, doesn’t even begin to match the free publicity available to Bush as Chief Executive, but still, Democratic fundraising, particularly given the party-wide panic about the likely impact of Feingold-McCain, was amazing. The WaPo report on the FEC numbers doesn’t get into the breakdown of donor categories, so it might be a little early to endorse the widespread assumption that small donations, including those over the Internet, were the major source of all this new Democratic money. And I’d be willing to bet that Republicans still retained their traditional advantage in small-donor dollars, though by a narrowed margin.
But amidst all the well-justified self-congratulations we’ll soon hear about Democratic fundraising in 2004, there’s an important point that should never be forgotten, and no, it’s not just that we lost despite all that money. It’s how that money was spent: basically, in ads and in voter registration and GOTV efforts–in other words, in marketing. But despite all that marketing, in the end, about 40% of voters couldn’t tell you what John Kerry and John Edwards wanted to do if elected.
It may be time for Democrats to make a collective decision to spend a few sheckels on the product development side of the political biz along with all the hundreds of millions they spend on marketing. That’s even more important given the fact that Democrats have for too long lived off the ideas and messages developed during the Clinton administration–many of them still relevant, but now beginning to recede a bit in the rear-view mirror. Without control of the White House or either branch of Congress, where, specifically, is the Democratic institutional capacity for creating, refining, and messaging good and politically salient policy ideas? Academics? MeetUps? The new breed of talking-points distribution organizations that sprang up in 2004? Yeah, all of these can be sources of something to say, but in a party capable of raising a spending close to a billion dollars, there ought to be a little spare change under the sofa for real-live think tanks like those who have served the GOP so well over the years. We’ve got a few good ones, including our own Progressive Policy Institute, which gave the Clinton administration many of its best ideas, but they are pretty small operations compared not only to their conservative rivals, but to the vast array of Democratic groups focused on everything other than policy content.
So: whether you’re someone who squeezed $100 out of the family budget this year to try to beat George Bush, or someone with serious jack to burn, give a thought going forward to making at least a small investment in the intellectual side of progressive politics, before the well runs dry and all we are marketing is that we are not Republicans.

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