Political campaigns have been compared to marketing campaigns for products where the candidates market themselves to the voters using modern marketing techniques such as market research, advertising, branding, product differentiation, product placement, and often, disparaging Brand X, the other product. The successful sale of the product depends in large part on marketing. Long ago, Republicans accepted and perfected this reality as did Obama in the last presidential election. Progressives, on the other hand, just do not seem to understand this concept.
Federal and state laws say you cannot misrepresent your product or deceive the buying public and, in some cases, the law requires you to substantiate product claims. "Puffing" or the exaggeration of the good points of a product is legal unless the puffery includes outright lies or has no basis in fact. In politics, we rely on the opponent, the media, or political organizations to set the record straight as to the veracity of candidates' claims. But often these false or deceptive claims are not disputed fast or effective enough. Remember, the Republican-funded group attacks on John Kerry's war record and how effective they were. Republicans know that when you tell a whopper -- the larger the better -- often enough, most people will come to accept it as the truth.
Consider the election and reelection of George W. Bush. The Republicans took a not-too-bright, unremarkable, rich Yale preppie and turned him into a winning candidate. Twice. Remember, Bush in a flannel shirt clearing brush on his Crawford ranch talking "straight" to the Mexican people. Bush wasn't a rich Yale preppie anymore; he became Joe Sixpack and his "Bushisms" actually resonated with the voters. Never mind that voting for Bush rather than Al Gore or John Kerry was voting against the self-interest of most Americans. It wasn't an intellectual choice for voters. Rather, the Bush campaign just told a better story and connected emotionally with them. Republicans were selling morality, Jesus, national security, lower taxes, and freedom in 30, 60, and 90 second soundbites. Oh how we laughed at Bush, but he laughed last all the way to two election victories.
In the last presidential election, Barack Obama's "call for change," the fact that he is a Black American, and some wishful thinking, gave him a progressive or at least a far-left look to some. His marketing strategy won him the presidency. Yet, even a token investigation of Obama's record as an Illinois state senator (1997-2004) and his short time as a U.S. Senator (2005-2008) would have shown little or no evidence that he was a progressive or a far-left liberal. Obama just told a better story than John McCain and Sarah Palin. He connected emotionally with voters.
Progressives just do not understand or accept the concept of the political candidate or his or her ideology as a product to be sold to the American voter. Progressives for the most part still believe that electing a candidate is an intellectual exercise that requires nothing more than a reasonable, intelligent argument. Watching progressives compete in the political marketplace is like watching our local high school basketball team compete against the Los Angeles Lakers.
I have used "progressivism" and "progressive" in this article. But what does "progressive" mean? "Progressive” sounds so forward thinking, new and modern. So positive. (And I do not mean the 1912 Progressive Party of Teddy Roosevelt.) Is "progressive" just another word for far-left liberalism or socialism or just the opposite of conservative or reactionary? Or are progressives just far-left Democrats like the late Ted Kennedy, Dennis Kucinich, Barney Frank, Alan Grayson, Bernie Sanders, Al Franken, John Conyers, John Lewis, and Maxine Waters? The average voter probably cannot name five progressive politicians or the top five goals of the progressive movement. Yet, they can name Conservative Republicans like Bush, Dick Cheney, and Sarah Palin.
According to a January 2011 Rasmussen survey, being described as a progressive is a positive for only 22% of voters and a negative for 34%, with 41% seeing it in between. But in a previous survey, voters were evenly divided, with 29% saying progressive was a positive description and 28% describing it as a negative. This marks a continuing downward trend for progressive which little over three years ago was slightly more popular than conservative.
Perhaps, it is time for the progressive movement to re-brand itself so American voters can better understand what "progressive" means.