Executive Speechwriting: Corporate, Weddings, Retirement

Monday, February 12, 2007

Branding, Manipulation, Voting, Obama and Iraq: How We Vote Becomes How He Runs

Defining a campaign strategy is tough. How honest should a politician be? How manipulative?

Such are the ponderings of each candidate.

A big issue where this comes into play is Iraq. We know Barack Obama will be playing to the antiwar crowd. Expect other Democrats and some Republicans to follow suit.

That's a Catch-22. What if by the time the election comes around, the war has changed? You know, what does an antiwar crusade do when the war is over?

Like Inigo Montoya, in the movie, the Princess Bride, after he found the six-fingered man who killed his father, he lamented that after so many years of being in the revenge business, he didn't know what to do with the rest of his life. Wesley gave him the answer, that he should become the Dread Pirate Roberts. Most note able in the antiwar efforts if Cindy Sheehan, who was not a protester prior to her son's death in Iraq. He was a soldier there serving in the USA military, and gave his life fighting for Iraqi democracy.

Because Sheehan is one-trick pony, there's little reason to use her any longer when we start moving out of Iraq.

That we are moving out of Iraq no one questions. The issue is when and how. If the the how, and especially the when, appeal to antiwar protesters, what have you got? A boring, inconsequential group of unemployed protesters.

This, I think, is why Hillary Clinton is playing the war issue as vaguely as possible. She must address it, but to dwell on it might prove fatal to her campaign if she gets out of the primaries. In November 2008, it will still be an issue to manage, but to voters, it may be one of those things that has been important, but now they are satisfied.

With a Democrat-run Congress, it may turn out to be a harder fight that it appeared several months ago. The Democrats are moving in the direction that will, in fact, bring the troops home. In November, almost 21 months from today, they may make great progress. Or they don't. Too early to tell, and there lay the gambit.

An antiwar candidate must ride that horse hard. Bush won 2004 partially based on the nation's belief that, when all is said and done, his administration would more capably deal with Iraq than John Kerry. Had the war ended before the election, Kerry might just have pulled it out. It didn't, and he didn't. Bush had the most votes in the history of presidential elections (even more than Reagan and Clinton at their best).

So, going back to where we started: How honest should a politician be? How manipulative?

Honesty matters. If the candidate says he's antiwar, then doesn't get the job done, he'll need to make up excuses about the previous administration, which results in admitting he did not understand how big of a job the office of president is. Bad move if he wants to be re-elected. To hedge his situation, he must present, instead, a conclusively inconclusive plan, with enough "ifs ands or buts" to allow squirming. It just might be that he means everything he says, understands the job, but the war gets worse, like if bin Laden's lackeys blow themselves up in Peoria, Illinois. What can the president do? Unless it is plainly obvious those lackeys have no connection to Iraq, he's stuck.

How manipulative is a doozy. The war, the deaths, the idea of freedom all evoke tragedy, Viet Name and our own fight for independence all at once. Depending on your general view of war, and of Iraq specifically, the thing is loaded with emotion. Add to the baiting done by various talk show hosts, and the heat is. Objectivity gets thrown put the window, and candidates with strong speaking skills can manipulate everyone from Johnny Redneck to Suzi City-Sophisticate, from Herbie Hipster to Nancy Noteeth, with each thinking they are sure of themselves.

Getting out of the primary requires powerful branding as each candidate needs to appeal to certain demographics as their base. Hillary has women, Obama has blacks, Rudy has take-no-crap guys, Edwards has the corduroys, McCain has the military, and they are fighting for the Christians (defined anyway they please).

Everything, by the smart candidates, will be about branding. Bill Clinton was the master because he was smart, hick, artsy, intelligentsia, political, Joe Sixpack all at once, and believable the entire time. His spinners (great band from the 1960s?) had the perfect clay for molding minds to pick him. Sure, he could have beat either Bush any day, anytime. He could have also beat every other president, except possibly FDR and Reagan. It has little to with his views, and everything to do with his brand.

People vote brand or antibrand. People buys brands. We skip logic, and buy what feels right, which, in the case of food, is the brand we ate since we were kids. In the case of politics, we vote brand because we thinking we are voting for, ostensibly, ourselves, or against 'not ourselves.'

John Kerry went the antibrand route with his "I'm not George Bush" focus. That was all good and fine until smart voters figured out all the other candidates also weren't George Bush. If GW was your brand, you stuck by and voted him into his second term. If not, you picked someone, anyone but GW. That's great, except that diffused the vote. True, Kerry got most of those other votes, but not enough.

Manipulations galore are necessary in a primary for two reasons:
  1. Many of the leading candidates in a given party all have more or less the same view on the big issues.
  2. They need to attach emotional sticking power to carry the vote the following November.
Car purchases - any big purchase - come with post-purchase dissonance.
We just spent $15 grand or whatever on a car? What are we, nuts? What of it isn't the right car, I'm there was that other one Consumer Reports mentioned. Why did I listen to Uncle Bob?
Sound familiar? People return that car, and the dealer loses out to our insecurity. Votes, carrying with the tremendous power, and therefore, responsibility to vote wisely, are similar. We vote in the spring, then second guess ourselves.

Since the Democratic Party is often trying to appeal to younger voters (remember Bill Clinton on the Arsenio Hall Show?), they realize those voters are more fickle. Their ideas aren't set because they are still figuring out their moral compass, growing from impractical idealism to the hard cold world, and suffer more peer pressure. Like a school of fish (or, Amish voters), they vote as a group to some degree. Not all youth together, but segments and sub-segments vote in blocks. Branding matters heavily - a brand is easier to deal with than values.

Looking up Barack Obama on the web, you'll see him working hard to build brand through social networking. Catch the MySpace and Facebook block, and he snags a very easily managed group. Why? Sam sees Sally is on board with Obama, so he joins. Jim sees Sam, Amanda sees Jim, and so on. Joining is easier than quitting, and this newly galvanized crowd becomes a happily pro-Obama group think bunch. Peer pressure, the kind that uses no words, might be stronger than personal conviction. It is akin to why engaged people, realizing their marriage won't work. The invotes were sent, so they must go through with it. No, they don't, and no one tells them they must marry, but that's peer pressure. Will it work? We'll see, but, on the surface, it looks brilliant.

Whammy, manipulation galore. If it works, it really doesn't matter what Obama thinks about the war. He will have won his war online, and can do as he pleases in the White House about Iraq.

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