Democrats in Disarray: Gore Needs to Build His Own Brand Identity
Everyone agrees (even Gore operatives) that Gov. Bush begins the fall campaign with a significant electoral college advantage, which is unquestionably enhanced by the absence of Perot. Key states that were lost by President Bush and Sen. Dole (like Ohio, Wisconsin and Missouri), in part because of Perot, now reside in the category of "leaning to Gov. Bush." According to The New York Times' and the Fox News Channel's electoral vote counts, states safely for Bush and states leaning to Bush already add up to a Bush victory (at the moment). For Gore to make this election close, he has to move every toss-up state into the "leaning to Gore" category. To do that, he has to attract large numbers of Perot voters in every toss-up state.
One of the reasons Bush's choice of former Defense Secretary Richard Cheney was such a smart move is that Cheney appeals to the Perot constituency. He's their kind of guy. He's plainspoken and unpretentious and there's a bit of the pocket-protector geek about him. Perot voters like politicians who they believe are patriots first and political animals second. Cheney is a patriot.
Another reason picking Cheney was a smart move is that it changed, however subtly, the context of the campaign. It nationalized the race (Perot voters are largely driven by national issues) by adding to it someone of national stature. And most important, it shored up Bush's greatest weakness, which is lack of experience at the federal/international level. Many Perot voters cited Clinton's lack of experience as disqualifying in 1992.
The Gore campaign seems to have forgotten altogether the Perot phenomenon and the constituency that made it possible. It's like it never happened and all those people (19.7 million in 1992, 8 million in 1996) never voted. Shortly after Cheney's addition to the GOP ticket was announced, a gaggle of female Democratic elected officials showed up on television to denounce Bush's choice as bad on abortion, bad on guns, bad on Nelson Mandela. This is known as preaching to the choir. Not one word of what was said was directed at Perot voters or the Perot constituency.
This is stupid politics. And it is emblematic of the Gore campaign since the beginning of the primary campaign season. They're so busy segmenting the electorate into little strips of interest and influence, they've forgotten the most important demographic in American life, which is: No one has any time. There aren't enough hours in the day. Time famine is the central fact of American life.
One of the ways we deal with time famine is through brands. In fact, we depend on brands as informational shortcuts to the best available choice. The Bush brand is strong, thanks largely to the father's long career in public service. The Bush brand extension (George W. Bush) seems like an agreeable mix of conservative politics and personal touch. The brand positioning ("compassionate conservatism") is roughly in line with how a majority of the electorate perceives itself. The more we learn about new Bush (Cheney being the latest addition), the more serious he seems. And the more serious he seems, the more comfortable we are with the idea of his occupying the Oval Office.
The Gore brand is weak, thanks in part to the campaign's constant attempts at reinvention. To paraphrase George Will, we've been through earth-tones Al, alpha-male Al, populist Al and various other Als; all in less than one year. The result has been confusion in the campaign's brand positioning. Tide will get your clothes whiter than white. What will Al Gore do? No one can really say.
The Gore campaign's response to this problem has been attack politics. Why not? It worked against Bradley, maybe it'll work against Bush. But attack politics are anathema to the vast majority of Perot voters. They see it as a sign of weakness, not a sign of strength. Thus, all those Democrats devoting all that time on television to attacking Dick Cheney had zero impact on the latest national polling. According to the Gallup organization (which polled for CNN and USA Today), Bush's lead increased smartly in the wake of the Cheney choice.
Gore's next mistake will be in his selection of a runningmate. He has, exactly, one good choice: former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Choosing Rubin would enable him to finally adopt a brand positioning for his candidacy?the prosperity team?that might resonate with the Perot constituency.
But you can be sure Gore will never choose Rubin. For one thing, his campaign team would never allow it. They'd argue it would deny Gore his faux populist stance. They'd argue Rubin's Wall Street connections would come back to haunt them. They'd argue Rubin's religion (he's Jewish) would unsettle the electorate (they're bigots at heart). They'd argue Rubin doesn't help them in the Electoral College math. And Gore won't need much convincing. After eight years of playing second fiddle, the idea of having someone stronger than himself with him on the ticket is unacceptable. He wants his own Al Gore.
The problem is there is no Electoral College math that works for Al Gore, unless he changes the national political landscape. And the only way he can change the national political landscape is by changing the context of the campaign. How a campaign is understood largely determines the outcome. Right now, Bush's brand positioning enables more voters to feel comfortable with him than they do with Gore.
If Gore thinks he can change that by tearing away at the Bush brand, he's mistaken. First of all, tearing away at the Bush brand is hard to do, because it's a hybrid of both the father and the son (Cheney fortifies the hybrid brand). Second, the real work of a campaign is to create its own brand and brand positioning so that voters know, instantly, the context of a candidacy.
Gore will likely win the election if he spends the next 90 days building a strong brand and brand positioning. He will lose if he continues to waste his time reacting to everything the Bush campaign and the press does and says. The more time he wastes reacting, the harder it is to establish his own brand identity. Gore needs two good hits in the next three weeks; a good vice-presidential pick and a good convention. If he blows both, he's a goner.
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