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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Brand and Product

In today’s Washington Post, E.J. Dionne puts his finger on a phenomenon that’s beginning to trouble many Democrats: the significant gap between public perceptions of the Democratic Party, and of actual Democrats, specifically the Democratic-controlled Congress and the leading presidential candidates.
Using a June 8-11 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Dionne notes a 42-35 favorable/unfavorable ratio for the Democratic Party (the GOP weighs in at 28-49), as contrasted with a 23-64 job approval ratio for Congress, roughly equal to Bush’s 29-66 rating. Meanwhile, the same poll shows Democrats with a 52-31 advantage in a “generic” presidential ballot, while head-to-head surveys on actual candidates show a close race, at least when well-known GOP candidates like Giuiliani and McCain are tested against the leading Deomcrats.
Dionne’s basic analysis is that Democrats won in 2006 by putting together a coalition of “base” voters focused on ending the war in Iraq, and swing voters with a broader range of concerns about “getting things done.” Both categories, he suggests, are increasingly disappointed in Congress’ record so far. That doesn’t explain the relative weakness, as compared to the generic numbers, of Democratic presidential candidates, but it does make for an interesting interpretation of the Democratic Party “brand” and its subsidiary “products.”
If you step back for a moment, it’s important to remember that poor approval ratings for Congress are hardly a new thing; the real aberration was the brief moment earlier this year when the positive assessments inched up into the high thirties. Surveys specifically rating Democrats in Congress show a slightly more positive picture; the last ABC/Washington Post poll at the end of May gave them a 44-49 job approval ratio, down from 54-44 in April. Totally aside from specific issues before Congress, it’s reasonable to expect some deterioration as Democratic control of Congress began to sink into the public consciousness, given an environment where the right track/wrong track ratio has plunged to 19-68 (to cite the NBC/WSJ survey).
We’re likely to see a clearer partisan shakedown in terms of assessments of Congress by this fall, if, as anticipated, Bush starts vetoing appropriations bills, and congressional Democrats find new ways to dramatize their efforts to end the Iraq war.
On the presidential front, the gap between “brand” and “product” is partially just a function of the fact that the “well-known” Republicans who are running well in trial heats happen to be those with the strongest appeal to independent voters; that will almost certainly continue to change as the nomination process goes forward, with GOP candidates visibly chewing conservative red meat in every speech and debate. (As my friend Will Marshall has acutely observed, Republicans in their current authoritarian mode seem determined to move from being the “daddy party” to the “abusive daddy party.”) And I personally would bet big money, if I had it, that neither John McCain (whose support is clearly collapsing) nor Rudy Giuliani (who’s been slipping of late) is going to be the Republican nominee. Trial heats involving Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson, as they become better known, will be the ones to watch.
In any event, a strong “brand” with relatively weak “products” is preferable to the reverse proposition. A lot was written, and appropriately so, during the long winter of Democratic discontent earlier this decade, about the inability of Democrats to convert “generic” ballot strength into electoral victories. But “generic” advantages mean the door is wide open to gains if you are smart enough to walk through it. And in the long run, that pays off more often than not. Just ask the Coca-Cola people if they’d trade a dip in the warm and fuzzies generated by their treasured brand for a quick upsurge in sales for one of their fruit-flavored Diet Coke offerings.

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