By Akshay R. Rao, PhD
Once the tea leaves are read, Democratic pundits will offer at least three “truths” about the 2006 mid-terms.
- A tsunami, earthquake or tidal wave (pick your geological metaphor) swept corrupt, hypocritical Republicans out of office,
- Karl Rove was unmasked as less mathematically able than Robert Siegel, has received more credit for political craftiness than is his due, and will therefore be banished to pollster’s Siberia, and
- There has been a fundamental shift in electoral preferences.
There is merit in all of these claims (though my favorite is the second). But, the evidence suggests that they are a trifle overstated. The Senate went Democratic thanks to less than 10,000 votes (in Montana and Virginia) and its future hangs in the balance. Joe Lieberman could pull a Jim Jeffords and then, all bets would be off. And, the House majority was eked out vote by vote, District by District, and in the grand scheme of things probably represents a marginal shift on the political dial.
It is my suspicion that the story of the November elections is more nuanced and more volatile than meets the eye. I offer below my own diagnosis of the electoral outcome (which, whatever its other flaws, has the virtue of being mine), and draw implications for how future Democratic campaigns ought to be run. I hope what I have to say is provocative. I hope it leads to a debate about tactics and strategy. And, I fervently hope that it results in the recognition that the academic disciplines of Marketing and Psychology have much to contribute to the topic of political persuasion.
It is my contention that the Democrats have not won a Presidential election in roughly 40 years. (How’s that for provocative?) Republicans have lost a few. I discount Jimmy Carter’s victory because he won with the gale force winds of Watergate behind him. I discount Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory because Ross Perot demonstrably siphoned off substantial numbers of Bush Sr. votes. And, I discount Clinton’s 1996 victory because he was an incumbent. To be sure, there have not been that many straight Republican victories either (Reagan in 1980 and Bush Sr. in 1988 were two relatively clean wins), but, whether you buy my premise or not, you will agree that their recent electoral record is arguably superior to that of the Democrats. Despite their demonstrable inability to govern, Republicans tend to win more elections. Why?
One important reason for their superior performance at the polls is their superior understanding of the marketplace. No, I am not talking about voter registration lists and data base management techniques that allow one to identify likely voters depending on whether they drink red wine and drive Volvos (though that is an important competence). Nor am I talking about their ability to insert ballot measures such as the prohibition of gay marriage, that then turn out certain kinds of voters who are more likely to vote Republican. I am talking about consumer intimacy, a fine grained and time sensitive understanding of the deep-seated and unstated issues and concerns of different segments in the marketplace that are susceptible to subtle and not-so-subtle forms of persuasion. Consider three areas of spectacular Republican success:
- The appropriation of God. As Rabbi Michael Lerner has observed, by identifying a profound spiritual emptiness in the lives of ordinary people, Republicans have successfully employed God (more precisely, the Church) as a marketing tactic. This, despite the fact that free-market economics envisions no role for the right or left hand of God, but rather the invisible hand of market efficiency driven by ruthless self-interest, competition, and individual rationality.
- The appropriation of the Flag (and sundry symbols). On national security, economics, and social policy (read “gay marriage”), the Republicans recognize the power of rhetoric over reality, particularly when communicating with “uninvolved” voters. Bromides such as “stay the course”, “tax cuts”, and “family values” trump the reality of ballooning mortality figures in Iraq, ballooning structural deficits at home1, and the presence of “pink Republicans” in the halls of Congress. President Bush famously doesn’t do nuance, and neither does Joe 6-pack.
- The appropriation of the media. The Republicans are masters at controlling the media narrative. Whether it be generating disarray among Democrats over Senator Kerry’s slip of the tongue, or inoculating Republicans on the gap between their aggressive and muscular foreign policy and their own woeful lack of military service, the media has displayed a level of pusillanimity rivaled only by its level of incuriosity, largely due to fear of reprisal by the rabid right.
But before ceding the arena of Marketing savvy to the Republicans, let’s revisit November 2006. There exist insights and implications that might level and even tilt the playing field in favor of the Democrats.
The Political Marketplace
The best visual metaphor for the political marketplace is the dumbbell (Figure I). The sizes of the red and blue spheres are (not unimportant) empirical details, as is the magnitude of the multi-hued middle. But, there are three other important features of this picture. First, the base (on both the right and the left) is “brand loyal”. They will either vote for their guy (upwards of 90% in 2006) or not at all. Second, the voters in the middle (independents who are not brand loyal) determine the outcome of elections as much as (if not more than) the base. Independents broke for Kerry by 1% in 2004, while they broke for Democrats by 19% in 2006. Third, the middle is probably more complex than either of the extremes. There are at least three different segments in the middle: the uninterested, the currently uninvolved and the undecided. Each has different reasons for not being a conservative or a liberal, each has different reasons for voting (or not voting), and each is susceptible to different information sets that will persuade them one way or the other. And, it is not clear to me that either party has figured out how to deal intelligently with this new marketplace. There are at least two sets of important prescriptions that emerge, and that I discuss below.
Speaking with the Enemy
The best advice I have for Democrats trying to convert Republicans to their cause, is “Don’t”. It takes a great deal of effort to convert brand loyal customers because they have an emotional attachment to the brand that is difficult to overcome with argument, reason or evidence. Brand loyal voters don’t rely on candidates’ arguments when they support them. They rely on their own feelings. When exposed to the faces of the opposing Presidential candidate, both Republicans and Democrats display enhanced activation in the insula, an area of the brain associated with “disgust” and “feeling threatened”. They also displayed enhanced activation in their Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and portions of the anterior cingulate, perhaps in an attempt to enhance their negative emotions towards the candidate they dislike.2 Attempting to transform deep-seated emotions, at least in the short-run, is an enterprise fraught with pitfalls. Regardless of their expressed preference for Democrats, or opposition to Republicans, brand loyal Republicans will probably find it viscerally traumatizing to cast a vote for a Democrat. It’s difficult for a Hatfield to marry a McCoy. In fact, Democrats are much better off giving Republicans reasons to stay home, as opposed to taking the chance that a left-leaning Republican will revert to form, once faced with making an actual choice in the privacy of the voting booth.
The Middle is not the Center
And independents are not centrists. They care about particular issues, not brands. They are like the price sensitive customer who keeps switching long-distance calling plans because there is a better deal to be had. And, there are two features of these voters that make them interesting. The first is the degree to which they are informed (or not), and the second is the degree to which they are involved (or not). (I am struggling to avoid the temptation to employ the ignorance and apathy metaphor).
Each of these segments merits a different strategy. The “uninvolved” segment pays only peripheral attention to political messages when the election is months away. In research I have been conducting, I find that when the choice decision is temporally distant, advertising messages should emphasize abstract messages such as the “judgment”, the “integrity” and the “character” of a candidate. It is only when it gets close to decision time that concrete messages (such as “I have a plan to fix the budget deficit”) are attended to. Amy Klobuchar (MN) executed this strategy in textbook fashion, announcing a deficit reduction plan about 65 days prior to the election, as voters began to pay attention to detail. Prior to that, her rhetoric emphasized “real change” and “real leadership”. She beat her rival by a handy 20 points, while all other major races in her state yielded much tighter outcomes.
The “undecided” segment is quite another story. They tend to pride themselves on voting for the person not the party (they are brand unloyal), being informed about the issues, and being unpredictable. This is a group that is frequently offended by “politics as usual” including negative advertising and other overt forms of communication. Since they frequently see “both sides of the issue”, they are often faced with trade-offs. “Tastes great” versus “less filling” types of tradeoffs. Should healthcare be weighted more than security? Should the economy be viewed as more important than social issues? There are many Marketing principles that can be employed to break such ties. One non-standard approach called the “attraction effect” employs the introduction of a third (relatively unattractive) option into the choice set (see Figure II). This option is similar to the focal option and its entry influences the weight these voters attach to the attributes that influence choice. Think Ralph Nader — did his presence in the political firmament help or hurt Gore’s message? In research I have been conducting, it turns out that Nader’s presence could have increased attention to those attributes on which he and Gore dominated. (Unfortunately, he eventually stole some votes from Gore; our data show that had he exited the race after having drawn attention to the attributes on which Gore dominated, thus increasing their weight in the decision process, he would have benefited Gore more than had he never entered the race). While there may be other reasons to avoid engaging in such a strategy, one obvious implication is for Democrats to encourage the entry of like-minded candidates into a race, with the proviso that they exit once they have fulfilled their charge.
The “uninterested” segment is politically uninteresting. They are unlikely to vote for several reasons. They don’t believe their vote matters, the opportunity cost of their time is too high, they look down on politics, and the like. This segment represents a serious long-term problem, particularly if it grows, for both parties, not to mention the Union itself. But, in the short run, they are the segment that is perhaps best left alone.
The temptation to over-interpret the results of November 7, 2006, is strong and alluring. Republicans are looking for glimmers of “conservatism” among the Democrats who have been elected, suggesting that they are more red than blue, while Democrats are looking for evidence of a fundamental shift in the body politic, suggesting the country has turned more blue. Most thoughtful observers are focusing on the purple middle, and my caution is that the middle is distinguished by its complexity, the fact that it is not brand loyal, and that it is susceptible to very particular persuasion strategies that are sensitive to time (how temporally distant the decision is) and content (what attributes to emphasize and how). In other words, the middle is not “centrist” (in the DLC sense of the term). It is multi-hued, and it is persuadable, while the right and left are not persuadable because they are emotionally wedded to their political brand.
Figure I: The Political Marketplace
Figure II: The Attraction Effect Illustrated
Panel A: Bush v. Gore (Before Nader enters)
Voters care about the environment and baseball and rank Gore higher on the former and Bush higher on the latter. The candidates’ shares of the electorate are equal, as reflected by the size of the circles.
Panel B: Bush v. Gore (After Nader enters)
Nader is ranked lower than Gore on the environment and equally low on baseball expertise. He has little support.
Panel C: Bush v. Gore (After Nader exits)
Gore’s share of the electorate has grown because Nader made environmental issues more important.
Akshay R. Rao, PhD is the Director, Institute for Research in Marketing and the General Mills Professor of Marketing at the University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management.
1Try explaining what a “structural deficit” means to a college educated voter, without having their eyes glaze over. Go on, try it.
2Kaplan, Jonas T., Joshua Freedman and Marco Iacoboni (2006), “Us versus them: Political attitudes and party affiliation influence neural response to faces of presidential candidates,” Neuropsychologica, (forthcoming).