To reclaim middle ground, Dems must own the color purple

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Eight months ago, the ideologues from the coasts were shocked that they couldn't move Ohioans to vote for a change in national leadership. Since then, they have analyzed and pontificated on cause and effect, attempting to divine an exact explanation for what happened.

Of course, even with hindsight, there is no strong consensus. (Perhaps that, in itself, says a little about the problem-the Democrats have no single, clear position-but let's not get ahead of ourselves.)

The Democratic Leadership Council is holding its national conference July 23-25 in Columbus, Ohio, the place they consider the scene of the crime. Presumably, they are coming to learn how they can win in 2008.

Against that backdrop, Esquire called for Ten United in Columbus, as well New York's Kirshenbaum Bond and Goodby Silverstein in San Francisco, to come up with their "cures" for the Democratic Party. The assignment asked for a slogan and a logo. While no one would presume that these elements alone could deliver the Democratic Party from its current challenges, Ten United embraced the opportunity to apply our Ohio perspective to this marketing dilemma.

The Democratic Party is no different than any other brand that desires a meaningful and lasting connection. And the only true measure of that connection is what our agency calls the "moment of truth"-that moment when a customer chooses your product or another, when they vote with their actions or their wallets.

It is no surprise to those of us who live and work in Ohio that the party's moment of truth was right here. We have always been a microcosm of America: That's why Columbus has historically been a robust test market for the country's biggest brands, and it's why we spend so much time in the homes of heartland consumers studying the behavior of Middle America.

LOST PERSPECTIVE

Marketers can easily fall into the trap of being so close to their products that they lose perspective-the Democrats are probably guilty there. And they also need to realize that consumers will often say one thing and do another. They say they will buy financial-service products based on price, but time and again we see they are actually driven by a relationship with their bank. They say they eat healthfully and exercise regularly, but they actually need nutritional energy bars because life's not perfect and few have time to prepare and eat meals.

What is Middle America telling us?

Political parties have left people disenfranchised, disinterested and even disgusted. This is true across the country. They fight and claw to the narrowest of victories (Ohio went "red" last year by a mere 108,000), and even those are disputed.

Although the United States continues to grow more diverse, there is actually more common philosophical ground than we are often led to believe. An overwhelming majority believe in freedom-collectively and individually. Today, 74% of Americans are telling us that people should be free to look, dress and live the way they want, without interference from others (Yankelovich Monitor 2004-2005).

Often the denizens of this common ground are called moderates. Moderates by nature are not advocates of their cause. Their jobs and families and lives take priority over any political advocacy. So, this powerful majority is not as noisy as the minorities who have more fringe views. But that is changing: People are fed up that those speaking out on their behalf do not represent their views and their feelings, and they are starting to express those views and feelings more clearly.

Distill these sentiments and you have a fairly obvious cure for what ails the Democratic Party: It should make a clear return to its roots and re-emerge as the party of the people, reflecting the common ground. It's not about red states vs. blue states; morality vs. immorality; safety and security vs. vulnerability. It's about a political party reflecting what people feel and want-protecting the rights of all people, celebrating diversity.

So there's the strategy, but how to demonstrate the abandonment of this false, politically created antagonism and divisiveness? Answer: By embracing purple-the fusion of red and blue. This will be the acknowledgment that true political power lies in bringing people together, not keeping them apart.

the purple concept

"Power to the Purple," is the message for the Democrats. It's the power of common ground. It's the power of our frustration in lawmakers who are focused on each other's destruction instead of our nation's construction. This is the power of wanting a government to fuel opportunity and help us realize our dreams rather than interfere with our personal choices. It is also, incidentally, the power of a simple message. (The Republicans know about driving home a simple message, having won the last election talking by refocusing everything on the importance of decisiveness, strength and safety.)

The pundits want us to believe we are a polarized nation. It makes for a great sound bite to say that 50-50 means a people divided. But the truth is we are a people that share so much in common. We are not simple primary colors, but interesting shades of nuance and ideas and beliefs.

In 2000 and 2004, it was the Republicans who owned purple power. Although arguably one of the more conservative administrations in decades, they effectively positioned themselves early on as "compassionate conservatives," a truly purple concept.

The Republicans found a way to own a conservative middle, yet the Democrats did not package themselves as a progressive middle, even though most of their policies on security, economic development, taxes, minimum wage, the environment, education, stem cell research and others are supported by the majority of Americans.

Since the Esquire piece in which we advocated "The Power of Purple," there have been numerous references regarding the notion of the Democratic Party and the purple concept in the nation's newspapers, on the Internet and from Democratic politicians themselves. Mere coincidence or a tipping point? Only time will tell. But if you spend some time in the homes of Americans watching listening and learning you can see how purple power could re-ignite the Democratic Party.

But if they continue to use the same myriad, policy-obsessed, narrow strategies followed in 2004, then they will once again find themselves on the outside ... looking in ... wondering ... why they still can't win us over.

Rick Milenthal ...is chairman of Ten United, an agency with offices in Columbus, Pittsburgh and Orlando. Ten United’s recommendation for the Democratic Party was published in Esquire’s June 2005 feature "The Cure for Everything."

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