Obama: Can the Marketing Master Avert Dem Disaster?

President and Party Must Find the Right Message. (Psst! It's the Economy)

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Republican Scott Brown's victory over Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts special election last week makes President Barack Obama an unimpressive zero for three. Since taking office, each time he's tried to help a Democrat secure an election victory -- the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia being the other two instances -- he has come up empty.

It's a pretty stunning turnabout for the man named Ad Age's Marketer of the Year in 2008, when his masterful campaign infected a nation with a fever for change and the Democratic party rode his coattails to the kind of majorities in the House and Senate that all but guaranteed approval of key party policies.

Now, undoubtedly, Brand Obama is tarnished. Some political analysts and consultants believe he fell victim to a common marketer mistake: being too slow to react to a new environment.

According to Hank Sheinkopf, president of New York-based political consultancy Sheinkopf, what got President Obama elected was the combination of the right message in a very specific emotional moment. But he said the country is in a "very different" state of mind now and has little patience for speeches.

Especially if those speeches were about health-care reform when voters increasingly showed signs they wanted his focus on the economy. With unemployment still high and the benefits of high-ticket stimulus bills and corporate bailouts either intangible or invisible, many voters became skittish about the price tag of health-care reform. Still, the Democratic message seemed to be all health care all the time. And Mr. Obama's natural allies, progressive voters, didn't like the shape the reform had taken.

And voters on both sides of the aisle were quick to point out that in some cases -- government transparency, to name one -- the product did not live up to the original marketing.

"If you look at the Coakley vote," Mr. Sheinkopf said, "these are angry people down the line who live in the suburbs and are concerned about their relative lifestyles, their job prospects, their children's job prospects and don't feel they got what they needed from the administration, and they sent them a message."

Obama's not the first brand to struggle to alter its message when a changing environment necessitates it. Indeed, George W. Bush provided a similar example with his push at Social Security privatization in the midst of a war he'd already declared "accomplished."

Mr. Sheinkopf said for the president to admit he misread the temperature of voters and heard their message isn't going to cut it. "You have to do something, and they want to see proof positive that things are changing. They want to know that something is happening; they're not interested in rhetoric anymore, and that's a different situation than during the presidential campaign."

But Vinny Minchillo, creative director at Scott Howell & Company, said brand Obama remains strong in the eyes of the voters because they separate the person from the administration's policies "and like him regardless of policy." He feels the Democratic Party has taken the bigger hit but added that the political class has come to realize that Mr. Obama isn't invincible. "It has been proven now that he himself can not save elections and sway voters the way he once did," Mr. Minchillo said.

Themselves to blame
Robert Shrum, an adviser at independent PR agency Edelman and a veteran political consultant, said the Obama and Democratic brands haven't sustained any major damage to this point, certainly nothing that can't be overcome. He said there is cause for concern, but said it's not the Republicans they have to worry about it, it's themselves.

"The solution to this is not a wholesale retreat or even a half-disguised retreat from big purposes and big ideas," Mr. Shrum said, adding that the Democrats should take a page out of former President Ronald Reagan's playbook. "Reagan and the Republicans at the end of 1982 were in terrible shape after the midterm elections. His popularity was 35% and Reaganomics was suddenly very unpopular with people. But he never wavered and as the economy got better he reaped the benefits. He not only got re-elected but created a new political era in America. The right thing for the party to do is stay the course."

Mr. Shrum said any form of retreat by Democrats would make it look like a party unable to govern. "They'll lose the battle for consequence and for the political future," he said.

As far as who has the more powerful brand, Mr. Shrum said, "Any Democrat who thinks their key to survival is to separate themselves from the president, if he chooses to push ahead on a progressive agenda, are going to be surprised in November."

Joe Erwin, president of Interpublic company Erwin-Penland and former head of the South Carolina Democratic party, said that one thing Democrats have on their side is time. Political brands, he said, differ from retail brands in that there is more ebb and flow in their approval and disapproval. "It changes very dramatically and very quickly in the political world, so damage to a political brand doesn't have to be long-term," Mr. Erwin said. "People get angry with a party, but they see ideas and leadership change, so the issue doesn't have to be a permanent." Despite the recent setbacks Mr. Erwin said Democrats have been presented with an opportunity. "It's an opportunity to change the way they reach out to Republicans and other voters in a way that is more inclusive," he said.

All agreed that recent developments will undoubtedly lead to record spending in the November elections -- and that Republicans need to tread lightly in their attempts to capitalize on the moment.

Nick Ragone, a partner at Omnicom Group's Ketchum and presidential historian, said, with the wind currently at their backs, the Republicans need to do everything in their power not to overplay their hand. "They have a history of getting in their own way," Mr. Ragone added. "They need to keep quiet and be constructive and let the Democrats sort out this mess."

Mr. Erwin said Republicans would probably have preferred better timing. "I'll bet Karl Rove would much rather have seen this happen in October or November than in January, because a lot can change between now and the November elections," Mr. Erwin said. "Democrats now have a chance to learn from this and right the course."

While there was already likely to be record spending in November, the Supreme Court's recent ruling that will allow for increased ad spending by unions, special interests and corporations puts that on steroids. Mr. Erwin said events like these three Republican victories are rallying cries for both political parties. "I have already seen the e-mails. They fly out overnight," he said. "This now becomes an arms race in terms of fund raising and neither side will pass up the chance to optimize fundraising."

Mr. Sheinkopf said the Republican wins and Supreme Court ruling ensures that the voters will be overwhelmed with TV, web, radio and direct-mail marketing of all kinds, making life harder for politicians and their consultants. "It will be a very cluttered environment, and we will have to find new ways to make it interesting and help citizens make heads or tales of everything," Mr. Sheinkopf said.

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