In a world of immensely complex and sophisticated political analysis, Steve offers a maddeningly simple way to think about how the overloaded field of Democratic candidates will be winnowed out.
And they’re off!
With the recent announcements from Senators Warren and Klobuchar, the field of Democratic candidates for President swelled to eleven, including “spiritual advisor” Marianne Williamson, who serves to make South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg seem legit. This means there are now more Democrats running for President than there are disgraced Democrats in Virginia, although both situations remain fluid. Many likely candidates have yet to commit: we’ll soon hear from big names like Biden, Bernie, Bloomberg, and Brown. Beto late than never.
For all the complex sociological, demographic, and political philosophy explanations of voting trends in the United States, there is one way to think about how Americans vote that could not possibly be simpler. And yet for all its simplicity, there is actually a deceptive logic to it.
Over the past 70 years, there has been a tendency for political parties to remain in power for exactly eight years. Since 1952, there have been only two exceptions: Jimmy Carter’s single term in 1976, and the Republican run of twelve years from 1980 to 1992, which was the only instance in this span when a party retained the presidency after an eight year term had ended.
All of which is to say that Americans generally tend to tire of or become alienated by the party in power and periodically crave a new direction. This does not necessarily mean that people change their minds, perhaps so much as it indicates that the party out of power grows much more passionate about the need for change, and its voters turn out in greater force than those of the incumbent party.
But there is perhaps an even more intriguing element about the eight year cyclical change that may be helpful in assessing the huge field of contestants for the Democratic nomination.
A case can be made that what people generally look for in the personality of their new president is the exact opposite of the dominant personality trait of the incumbent, a trait which may have once been the exact nature of their appeal, but one that has gone stale and become downright alienating with time.
Think about it.
Ike was elected because he represented stability, wisdom, restraint, and caution to a nation weary of war. But over time, those traits transitioned from ripe to spoiled, and Ike began to look old, boring, cautious, and bland. Who did Americans elect in 1960? The dynamic, energetic, youthful, and immensely charismatic John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, made a horrific mess in Vietnam, so Americans were eager to sign on with a man who was viewed to have great depth of foreign policy experience, Richard Nixon.
Nixon proved to be a crook, and when he resigned, the elevated VP Gerald Ford was badly damaged when he chose to pardon Nixon. Weary of scandal and political dealing, Americans turned to squeaky clean Boy Scout Jimmy Carter.
Carter appeared weak, indecisive, and pessimistic, so Americans swooned for the macho, cowboy, optimistic bravado of Reagan. Reagan was succeeded by his V.P., George Herbert Walker Bush, who was viewed to be an old, loopy, patrician wimp. After one term, Americans fell for another a youthful charismatic, the hip sax-playing Bill Clinton.
Clinton was popular but he slid from over-saxed to over-sexed, causing Americans to seek the comforting down-home family values projected by George Dubya Bush.
Bush proved to be an intellectual featherweight, an ignorant, lazy, shoot-from-the-hip dolt who was in way over his head. So Americans sought the intellectual prowess and thoughtful restraint of Barack Obama.
By the end of his term, Obama was viewed by many as too cerebral, too cool, too clinical, too tentative in foreign policy, and perhaps a bit too, ah, diverse for much of America, so here we are with the Big Orange Stupid – the polar opposite of Barack Obama.
Sure, it seems to be an overly simplistic view of our presidential selection process, but on the other hand, there is a logic that is supported by the facts. Americans jump from one side of the boat to the other, from party to party every eight years, and from one personality type to its polar opposite.
We’ll call this theory the “Polar Opposite Vortex” in a tribute to the raging maelstrom that will soon engulf the Democratic Party as it desperately seeks its anti-Trump artillery for 2020. Today, we pose the question: which of the dozens of announced or soon-to-announce Democratic candidates is truly the polar opposite of Donald Trump?
Right off the bat, we have a problem: Donald Trump has so many serious faults that the hardest task is figuring out which of Trump’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities is viewed by voters to be the most egregious. Donald Trump is a veritable Sybil of dysfunction, a man with so many flaws -- of governance, of character, and of ignorance -- that Democrats may well actually do the worst thing of all: try to talk about all of his liabilities, and in so doing, fail to successfully damn him for any single one.
But, given the 70 years of reliability in the “polar opposite vortex” theory, we owe it to ourselves to take our best shot, starting by identifying the spectrum of Trump liabilities that Dems could latch onto.
1.Corruption and criminality. The monumental graft, deceit, corruption, and criminality in Trump’s administration might suggest that Americans would be once again drawn to a Jimmy Carter type: high integrity, honesty, and faultless character to restore faith in government.
2. Divisiveness and polarization. Others might argue that the single most powerful identifying trait of the Trump presidency is its divisiveness. For two years, Donald Trump has been President of roughly 40% of the United States, focusing his every effort on keeping a largely white, rural, under-educated, and male base squarely in line behind him. Trump has been brazenly unconcerned with all who are not under the spell evident in his base. Trump’s shameful vilification of immigrants, his misogyny, and his racist stances are calculated to reinforce his standing with his base. The practical result: a nation so polarized that everyone gets mad and nothing gets done. If this is the identity of the Trump administration that most angers Americans, one might expect a politically moderate but passionately committed “unifier” to have a strong lane to the Presidency, and clearly amplifies the opportunities for candidates who represent the full spectrum of diversity.
3. The abusive and insulting twitter warrior of the right. Then there is the dimension of the Trump White House defined solely by rage, cruelty, and vitriol. This aspect of Trump is seen in his belligerent and angry tweets and his insults and petty nicknames designed to degrade and diminish his “enemies.” Many political pundits are already assessing candidates by the measure of whether they can be as in-your-face as the president, able to take his withering personal attacks and give it right back. One might expect that the “polar opposite” of this Trump behavior is a tough street fighter for the left… a person who is willing to go toe-to-toe in the wild verbal battles that will characterize the 2020 campaign.
4. The destroyer of Obama policies. At face value, it may seem that there is no underlying philosophy of governance in the Trump White House, but most of it can be explained quite simply. Trump has a knee jerk reaction to every policy decision: do the opposite of whatever Obama did. There is a very clear lane for a Democratic candidate who is solely focused on the restoration and amplification of the progressive agenda. It is clear in the rapid emergence of AOC that there is a deep hunger in the far left wing of the Democratic Party for a candidate who is intensely committed to implementing a progressive policy agenda.
5. Incompetence and ignorance of governing. The argument can be made that Trump – as the ultimate “outsider” – has given renewed life to the idea that our President should have a deep knowledge of how government actually works. Candidate Trump promised to bring the expertise of a private sector “deal maker” to bear on the dysfunction of government, and yet he has somehow managed to make the molasses of gridlock even worse. This opens up the possibility that a Washington “insider” could make an urgent appeal for a return to knowledgeable, experience governance.
6. Dangerous and impulsive foreign policy. A fundamental component of the Trump administration “brand” is its rejection of the traditional role that the United States has played in the global community. Trump has abandoned or undermined long-standing alliances and treaties and sought to position the United States as a more isolationist state that involves itself in global affairs purely for self-interest and with no desire or will to project a moral vision. The “polar opposite” of this aspect of Trumpism might be a seasoned internationalist who centers his or her message on rebuilding America’s stature and respect on the global stage. This would be a clear lane for a John Kerry.
7. Compulsive lying and rejection of fact. Yet another on-ramp for a candidacy: we suspect that when the history of the Trump administration is finally written, the primary theme will be the fungibility of fact and fiction in this White House. Donald Trump has effectively brain-washed his base into believing that whatever appears in The New York Times is by definition not true, and whatever Donald Trump says, by definition, is. The opportunity is there for a candidate to rest his or her entire candidacy on the urgent need to return government decision making to fact-based analysis and scientific method.
We suspect that there are many more “Trump identities” Democrats could use as the center of their candidacies. But these seven seem to be the major corridors of discontent with Donald Trump. And there is ample opportunity to “mix and match,” where candidates find proprietary ways to integrate several of these messages into a unique and coherent whole. But let us issue a marketer’s fair warning: the candidate who tries to be all things to all people will be nobody to no one.
Quite apart from the specific messages that a candidate may choose to focus on, there is the equally important issue of possessing a strong personal style that is well suited to a specific message. Beto O’Rourke’s natural style is uplifting and idealistic. He tried to go “negative” on Ted Cruz in a crucial debate, and it simply did not fit his brand. He was uncomfortable, and it showed. The brand message and the brand personality must fit tightly, or neither will resonate.
According to the “Polar Opposite Vortex” theory, the winning formula is to determine which of these Trump liabilities is the most alienating to the most people, and then to organize an entire campaign on that idea. It is the golden rule of marketing… the leading brand in any given category is inevitably the one that figures out what the consumer wants most, and then delivers it best.
All of which brings us to a frozen park in Minneapolis, an outdoor square in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the public plaza in front of the Oakland, California City Hall, and the set of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Let’s focus on the four female Senators who have formally announced: Warren, Gillibrand, Harris and Klobuchar. (Said another way: we have not gotten a strong sense of Cory Booker’s candidacy from his announcement and efforts to date, and the other announced candidates appear to be engaged in vanity exercises).
Warren seems to have jumped into the lane for the “attacker” – the candidate who is most willing to go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump in a ferocious battle of words, accusations, and insults. Her platform is centered on an aggressive wealth tax, a revolutionary action echoing the long-standing Bernie Sanders theme of “income inequality.” But it may be the strength and fire of Warren’s anti-Trump tone that is the most distinguishing aspect of her candidacy. Warren is making her bet that her party wants a leader who can and will take the battle directly to Donald Trump.
Warren, of course, has a significant liability: her handling of her past claims to Native American heritage leave her vulnerable to Trump’s singular skill of relentlessly exploiting an opponent’s vulnerability. This is a significant issue as Warren pursues the lane as the “attacker:” it is problematic to center your brand on your willingness to enter a barroom fight if there is a clear weakness that your opponent can use against you.
Kamala Harris had an extremely impressive launch, with 20,000 followers turning out for her event in Oakland, California. Her messaging, however, seemed to lie more in symbolism – held on Martin Luther King day and evoking the graphics of Shirley Chisolm’s campaign – than on specific objectives for governing. Her campaign theme – “Kamala Harris, for the people” – cleverly leverages her background as a prosecutor and California Attorney General into a branding device for her presidential bid. Her speech, however, seemed to list a wide array of progressive issues without creating a clear sense of priorities. The risk is that her campaign line and her identity may lack specificity. She is undoubtedly an immensely appealing and powerful candidate, but it is not entirely clear which “lane” she intends to pursue. She cannot attempt to be “all of the above,” as that will risk failing to convey any single idea clearly and powerfully.
Of these opening four major candidates, Gillibrand’s announcement on CBS's The Late Show was clearly a “miss.” There is no doubt that Stephen Colbert is an immensely popular destination within the Trump-loathing population, but the glitzy trappings of show biz, celebrity, and a studio audience undercut the seriousness of the moment. It failed to convey the populism and enthusiasm of the outdoor rallies held by the other three senators. The New York Senator seemed nervous and even a bit unprepared… failing to smack Colbert’s softballs out of the park. Her messaging seemed to wander, and that lack of clear focus will be costly as the field grows ever more crowded.
On Sunday, Amy Klobuchar joined the field with a rally in a frozen, snowy park in Minneapolis. It is clear that she is intent on owning the lane for a return to bipartisan comity, civility, and making government work again. "We are tired of the shutdowns and the showdowns, of the gridlock and the grandstanding. Our nation must be governed not by chaos but by opportunity." You won’t find many policy specifics on her website homepage… the themes are about practicality, functionality, and getting government to work.
Like Warren, the tone and style of her presentation are every bit as significant as the policies themselves. Klobuchar exudes a Midwestern decency and cooperative, open-minded manner, which links organically and powerfully with her call for unity.
But also like Warren, Klobuchar has a vulnerability: the Huff Post reported that she is known to be an extremely demanding boss who routinely upbraids her staff with sharply critical feedback that borders on abusiveness. This is a particularly thorny accusation, as it undercuts the very imagery of teamwork, bridge-building, and positive collaboration that she is advancing as a key credential for her candidacy. Indeed, it the exact same problem as Warren’s: Klobuchar’s perceived vulnerability may undercut the very identity that the candidate seeks to project.
In the end, however, Klobuchar’s decision to launch her campaign in a blizzard in a Minneapolis park may have been the most powerful visual image of all. A picture is worth a thousand words, and the visual of a candidate standing undaunted and resolute while promising determination and grit in the midst of a blinding, freezing, swirling Minnesota snowstorm may have been the best metaphor for fixing a nation that is blinded by partisan bias, swirling with anger, and frozen in inaction.
Four candidates, four opening salvos… and four very different outcomes. Give them all credit for moving quickly: another truism of marketing is that the first brand to articulate a specific consumer benefit can pre-empt that idea, making it virtually impossible for other brands to promise the same thing. Fair warning to all the “B” boys… Beto not tarry, or the women will already own all the positioning ideas.
From where things stand today, the candidate who appeared to get the most mileage out of her launch was the Minnesota Senator. The simple fact that she is not one of the many coastal candidates, but a true Midwesterner, alone separates her from the crowded field. More important, it seems that she may have intuited a very potent “polar opposite” positioning to take on Donald Trump. Many Americans loathe Trump, but it is entirely possible that we are even more disgusted with the polarization, anger, inflamed rhetoric, and a zero sum world in which one side must lose in order for the other to win. They want government to work again, without shutdowns, lawsuits, protests, filibusters, acrimony, carnival sideshows, and politicians who spend more time preening for MSNBC and Fox than tending to the business of government.
Both Warren and Klobuchar seem to realize that the first step toward winning the nomination is simply to be one of the few candidates who is still standing after Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and California. Owning a distinctive and important “lane” is the way to accomplish that. With two dozen candidates, voters will eagerly grab onto simple, powerful messages and visual imagery in order to sort out the candidates and cull the field to a manageable number.
And with so many voices vying for television coverage and donor dollars, candidates simply cannot afford to squander a moment of their day in the sun. Candidates beware: with so many choices, voters will be equally quick to grab onto perceived significant negatives as an easy reason to winnow candidates. Elizabeth Warren needs to figure out how to put an end to the controversy surrounding her heritage claims, or it could be considered a disqualifying liability in a field where other candidates do not have such a clear and problematic flaw. Amy Klobuchar would be wise to tackle the allegations of her mistreatment of her staff immediately and decisively, or it will sap the authenticity of the personality she projects, a personality that will be absolutely crucial in order for her to succeed.
Most of all, when faced with two dozen opponents, the candidates must have -- from the very first instant -- a clear and persuasive message, and a unique style of self-presentation that lends credence to the message.
The winner will be the candidate who figures out what the voting population wants most, and then delivers it best.
It may well be as simple as finding the true “polar opposite vortex” among the countless flaws of the most flawed president in history.
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