There are now over twenty candidates in the race for president, and I challenge you to name even half of them without peeking. No matter what your personal politics may be, it's easier to name all seven dwarfs from Snow White. In a field this crowded, how can any one candidate stand apart?
Consider that in the past few weeks only Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have gained significantly in the polls, their numbers rising every time they dig in their heels. The more polarizing they seemed at first, the more popular they became, which confounded both press and pundits who routinely referred to both as "unelectable." And though Trump has decided to test the limits of pugilistic politics, even within his own party, his recent skirmishes haven't really changed the relative positions of the other candidates.
So what's going on here?
For better or worse, we live in a marketing-driven culture. We are all consumers, using brands to make sense of the choices we face everyday. From a behavioral economics standpoint, choosing a presidential candidate is no different than picking an insurance company, buying a new car, or deciding which beer to drink. That's why experienced pollsters will tell you that the best indicator of which candidate will ultimately win an election is the question: which candidate would you rather have a beer with?
No kidding. If you can imagine yourself sitting on a bar stool next to Candidate A and debating the issues, but not Candidate B, then even the best campaign ad in the world won't convince you to make sure your chad isn't hanging on election day.
From a marketing standpoint, name awareness is half the battle, and in the early days this favors the dynasty candidates -- Jeb Bush and Hilary Clinton -- simply because every voter in the country already knows their last names.
It's far more crowded on the right, and though Donald Trump possesses enough name-fame to rival Bush, he was disregarded as a sideshow until he became a human hand grenade and started defying his detractors. To the surprise of prognosticators on both sides of the aisle, his thunder has only made the other candidates appear all the more cloudy, with no lightning in sight.
On the Democratic side Hilary Clinton's candidacy is yearning for the same feeling of manifest destiny that Obama brought to his first presidential run. Two hundred and forty years after our declaration of independence, we finally have a woman running for the White House. We're the United States of America, what's taken so damn long?
But Hilary has been losing ground to Bernie Sanders, a little-known Senator from New England arguing for a progressive tax rate of ninety percent, a self-proclaimed socialist who paradoxically also likes guns. Nobody saw that coming, but when you look closer at the parallels between Trump and Sanders, there are valuable lessons there that every presidential hopeful should take to heart.
This isn't about preferring one candidate over another, this is about winning. In more prosaic terms, it's about marketing strategy and brand recognition. Elections aren't won on the left or the right, despite the conventional wisdom that energizing the base is key to victory. (That might win you a primary, but it won't get you a house on Pennsylvania Avenue.) To win, a presidential candidate needs a clear brand positioning with populist appeal. In other words, win the middle and you win the White House.
Because after name awareness, the most essential trait for any brand is consistency. A single, unwavering position that you can remember long after every other brand fights for your attention.
This is no small thing. Behavioral economists have noticed something that defies the conventional wisdom of political advisors who routinely triangulate a candidate's position in response to the latest polls -- we will actually vote for someone we don't totally agree with politically -- as long we believe that they believe what they're saying. All iconic brands stand for something -- and any false note causes consumers to lose trust instantly. Voters are just consumers, as skeptical of politicians as they are of brands. Actually even more so, with approval ratings for Congress now at 12% after a slow crawl from only 7% two years ago. (If Congress were selling a brand of soap, consumers would stop taking showers.)
Hilary Clinton should have the winds of fate at her back. Putting a woman in the White House is as worthy a cause as you could ask for, but as the campaign intensifies it may not be enough on its own. Bill Clinton was famous for perfecting the art of triangulation, steering new campaign rhetoric towards the shifting tides of public opinion, and in past elections this probably appeared responsive to voters. But in a world where social media amplifies any false notes and magnifies inconsistent behavior, a change in position can easily be perceived as disingenuous, especially to younger voters. They might tolerate marketing, whether for brands or politicians, but they also see right through it.
So let's get inside voters' heads and see what fits: Bernie Sanders is against income inequality. Donald Trump is fighting illegal immigration. Simple, sticky, easy to remember.
And now that Scott Walker declared his candidacy we have another simple brand message -- his tagline is anti-union reformer -- so depending on your politics he's either pro-jobs or anti-labor, but whether you love him or loathe him, his position is clear.
The reason most candidates fail is that success at the local level is a different ball game, media exposure easier to come by, a public debate more tolerant of nuanced answers on complex issues. But on the national stage there are only two issues that electrify the electorate: unless you're positioning yourself against the economy or national security, you're just not relevant.
I want a job and I want to feel safe -- those two primal needs drive people to the polls.
Barack Obama's victory in 2008 was truly a watershed moment, a time when Americans came together to prove they could bridge the racial divide and deliver social change with the power of a vote. That prospect ignited voters' imaginations, but what made the notion of "change" urgent was our visceral reaction to the banking crisis and the implosion of the U.S. economy.
And in the 2004 election, when Bush won his second term handily over John Kerry, it was the nation's anxiety over the war on terror that made voters hedge their bets and stick with an incumbent.
The economy and national security are the yin and yang of the presidency. And that's how voters will fit more than one candidate in their heads, by mapping their "brands" against those two issues.
Unions are tied to jobs, which gets you to Walker. Immigration is tied to both the economy and national security, and the politically charged, racial subtext around the border lends itself to Trump's bombastic style. Income inequality has been the catchphrase of economists since Obama's second term, a topic tailor-made for Sanders.
Seen through that lens, the Clinton and Bush camps look strangely out of focus. No clear brand positioning, no hard lines, just two well-known names hoping to become the faces of their respective parties. As brands they haven't taken root yet, and to a wary consumer they both may appear to want higher office for reasons that have more to do with their own ambition rather than our collective well-being.
In Hilary's case it's an easy fix but potential gamble. Hilary is primarily a hawk, not a typical stance for a Democrat but largely true if you look at her record. So rather than leaning more to the left to protect her flank from Sanders, Hilary could lean to her right with regard to foreign policy. With the Mideast in continual crisis and global hostility towards the U.S. the new normal, she has a chance to be a Democrat who sounds like a Republican, which is like getting vanilla ice cream dipped in chocolate. From a marketing standpoint, this is precisely how her husband Bill got re-elected.
The Bush angle is tougher to nail down, in part because he's stayed on the sidelines while the mosh pit of Republicans has expanded, waiting to jump in as a natural frontrunner. And as a brand, Republicans have become a party of cognitive dissonance -- on one hand complaining the federal government is too big and invasive, while on the other starting their speeches by talking about social issues like gay marriage, which true conservatives would argue should be resolved at the state or local level. When even mainstream voters in the Midwest approve of gay marriage by a two-to-one margin, it's time to focus on the economy, stupid.
So as debates approach and caucuses loom, it will be interesting to see if name recognition alone can carry Clinton and Bush through to the final contest. It would be fun if one of them picks the economy while the other focuses on defense, just to see how the yin and yang of the two-party system plays out. But either way, they both need to pick something. Otherwise their brands will continue to get trumped by someone willing to stand apart, and in the end nobody will want to buy them a beer.