The Invisible Hand of Political Brands

Posted: Oct 25, 2011 2:03 PM

Around the turn of the century I served as director of corporate websites for a large international tech firm. The legacy software we used to manage our websites was essentially unusable. We were ready to scrap the entire platform but first we planned a teleconference “smack down” with the software company that sold us the lousy stuff to begin with.

My colleagues and I put together a massive list of shortcomings to throw at them. We entered that teleconference room ready to rumble. Our chief marketing officer took us aside and said: “Here’s my advice. I know that telling these guys off will make you feel better – but it’s not going to help your cause.” I was floored: “But, we know we’re right?” He tried to calm us down: “You may be right, but if you rub the genie’s lamp, you’ll never get him back in.”

He was right. As we started through the litany of complaints they shot back with discounts and offerings which would have made it impossible to jettison the software. We quickly backtracked and tiptoed around the other angry tidbits we had ready to hurl at them. The conference call ended quickly, without incident and within a week, we had moved on.

I use this story to illustrate the current dilemma facing the Republican candidates for President: the red meat you throw at the base is so enticing but it can quickly come back to haunt you. In short: why would you go there?

Some examples:

1.) Perry’s insistence that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme is probably accurate but so easy to turn against him. Third-rail burns are the stuff of legend.

2.) Cain’s rhetorical whims of electrical fences at the border are fantastic fodder for those of us who abhor illegal immigration but this too can come back to shock him badly.

3.) Newt Gingrich calling for the prosecution and incarceration of sitting Democrat Senators brought huge applause but is easily turned into a black eye.

Like capitalism, an invisible hand oversees the transaction of political language. Why would you bite the hand that feeds you?

As Frank Luntz notes in his book, Words that Matter: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, “Language, politics, and commerce have always been intertwined for better or for worse.” He continues:

You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, and preexisting beliefs… How that person perceives what you say is even more real, at least in a practical sense, than how you perceive yourself.

Practicality, prudence and temperance are excellent pillars to build a campaign on but the trade-offs are also dangerous. Mitt Romney is acutely aware of this danger.

Take the issue of global warming. As a proud global warming denier I was taken back when Governor Romney declared his belief in the same. However, his reasoning and positioning is instructive for this discussion.

Each candidate is faced with a set of issues fraught with political danger. Picture this as a set of clubs – “damned-if-you-do” / “damned-if-you-don’t” clubs. In other words, you’re going to take a beating but you decide who gets to beat you up.

Case in point: the left-leaning press is hell-bent on beating up people for being global warming deniers. Romney believes in global warming but realizes that his base loathes this issue.

Mitt decided he was willing to get beat up from the Right and not from the Left. His approach is logical (affirm his believe in global warming – some conservatives, like Jonah Goldberg believe likewise) and strategic (lambast the current approaches to solve the problem). Results: the press have one less issue to hit him on and he can claim opposition to Obama’s nutty job-killing approaches.

Of course, the other side of the equation can lead a candidate to become overly “brand conscious.” He can quickly be thrown to the “egg-shell walking” RINO side of the spectrum.

Romney has avoided the manufactured stigma that haunts other candidates but his avoidance of the fight ferments distrust across the base. It’s a trade-off he’s comfortable making and on paper it may serve him well in the General election.

The invisible hand of politics is like the martial arts concept of “mind like water.” When a pebble is thrown into a pond the water reacts just as it should with small ripples to absorb the rock. When a boulder is thrown into the same pond the water reacts accordingly dispersing the energy of the stone with large waves and returning to a state of rest.

Every choice, mistake and foible is amplified ten-fold in this digital age. Some ripples take years to come back and bite you; others are felt immediately. How candidates choose to respond (or not respond) to the treacherous stones thrown their way will determine whether their political brand will return to a resting point or spill over the banks and empty their brand altogether.