Will Bunnett

Politics • Branding • Psychology

Democratic Political Brand Crumbles, But for How Long?

The 2012 election showed us how badly troubled the Republican political brand is — but this month’s election showed Democrats are in a lot of trouble, too.

From here on, each side has a clear challenge: while the Republican electoral coalition doesn’t have the raw numbers of its Democratic counterpart, the Democratic base is less reliable, only turning out in winning numbers in big presidential election years.

The party that breaks the stalemate will be the first one that figures out how to improve its brand beyond its core. And while Republicans’ new Senate majority is still committed to wasting time, there are two potential bright spots for Democrats coming out of their 2014 shellacking.

Ray of Democratic Hope #1: More Natural Cohesion

Look which Democrats lost this month: candidates from relatively conservative states like Alaska, Arkansas, Montana, North Carolina, and South Dakota.

Some others lost, too, but these ones are particularly significant because, coming from red or red-ish states, this is the type of senator who would triangulate between their party and in-state voters by basically trash-talking party leadership.

Journalists usually use the polite term “creating distance” to describe this attack on a candidate’s own political brand — but that distance is counter-productive in the big picture. Everyone in the president’s party benefits when he’s more popular.

It can take a lot of effort to recover after you distance yourself from people.

As bad as that is, though, it’s only the passive version of this pernicious triangulation. There’s a more active version, too, and plenty of reason to think it might have harmed Democrats in 2014, particularly in states that could have used more Latino turnout.

According to the New York Times, President Obama was set to take action to limit deportations of some immigrant families, which, in addition to being good policy and a compassionate thing to do, would have likely helped motivate many Latino voters to show up — but then he didn’t:

As Election Day drew closer, nervous Democratic senators in a few states told White House officials that Mr. Obama’s actions could cost them victory. Those conversations culminated in the decision to delay immigration action.

Needless to say, just about every one those nervous senators lost anyway. But what can you do about it when individual incentives often align in a way that’s actually harmful to the group? It’s a legitimate challenge of managing a political brand, which often has diverse stakeholders.

And while successful commercial brands almost always have a chain of accountability that ensures a unified approach, it’s difficult to exercise that authority in a voluntary federation like a political party. Sometimes the president can do it, but usually only when he’s got better poll numbers than Barack Obama does.

But even if Democrats can’t solve that structural cohesion problem once and for all, at least having a more naturally cohesive Senate caucus should reduce damaging attacks on leadership from within the ranks and reduce pressure to dilute powerful brand statements.

Ray of Democratic Hope #2: Some People Are Starting to Get the Inspiration Thing

They say “prevent” defense in the NFL, which is supposed to allow yards but prevent scores, really just prevents you from winning. It really just takes away your aggressiveness.

In politics, prevent defense means campaigning to keep people from voting against you. Winning campaigns give people a reason to vote for their candidate, but Democratic pollsters came away from this election concluding that their candidates didn’t do enough to inspire votes:

These pollsters argued that this was above all the result of a failure to connect with these voters’ economic concerns. At the root of these concerns, Mellman says, are stagnating wages and the failure of the recovery’s gains to achieve wider, more equitable distribution. Democrats campaigned on a range of economic issues — the minimum wage, pay equity, student loan affordability, expanded pre-kindergarten education — but these didn’t cut through people’s economic anxieties, because they didn’t believe government can successfully address them.

Each one of the solutions Mark Mellman talked about in that paragraph would be nice, but each of them is really little more than tinkering around the edges of a bigger problem with stagnating standard of living for most of the country. And, as Mellman says, people don’t think Democrats can pass them anyway. So yah, what is the point of voting for these candidates?

Think the Democrats had a little confusion with their political brand in this election?

Here’s where it gets better.

Outspoken Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is contemplating a serious run for the Democratic nomination for president. If Democrats’ problem is a lack of inspiration undergirding their brand, then a Sanders run could be just the shot in the arm they need:

[O]ne problem Democrats face is that they don’t have a coherent story to tell on the economy that explains what they’ve done right, connects with people’s current displeasure, and shows a way forward. If by focusing on the economy Sanders forces [presumptive frontrunner Hillary] Clinton to articulate that story and support it with a specific agenda that she could implement if she wins, he will have done her a great service.

A strong Sanders candidacy will do something else: make liberal Democrats feel that their opinions and their concerns are getting a fair hearing in the 2016 process. Sanders is an eloquent and unapologetic voice for liberalism. His presence as a real contender on the campaign trail would assure liberals that their party can still be a vehicle for their ideology, even if the candidate who triumphs is the more centrist establishment figure. And that’s something they could use right now.

In the end, as the old saying goes, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. Democrats just learned that the hard way. But with fewer red-state members working against the party brand, and with a key potential intervention, Democrats could break the logjam and acquire a more lasting dominance over Republicans — even in mid-term elections.

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