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Marketing and the midterms

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Marketing and the midterms

Dec 02, 2022 | 8:20 am ET
By Sheldon Clay
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Marketing and the midterms
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Gov. Tim Walz. The author argues that solid governance is the shrewdest political move of the moment. Photo by Michelle Griffith/Minnesota Reformer.

The 2022 midterm vote, and vote counting, are finally behind us. The people have spoken. 

Now that we’ve had a moment to breathe we can start arguing about what exactly they said. For some useful nuance, I’d suggest a marketing perspective.  

The wounded elephant in the room is the underwhelming performance of the Republican juggernaut vs. expectations. One of the more succinct takes on the general evaporation of the looming “red wave” came from New York Times analyst Lisa Lerer, who wrote, “In the end Republicans appeared to have generated no more than a red ripple.” 

Here in Minnesota the Democrats further defied the odds by winning every statewide office and both branches of the Legislature, a genuine blue wave even if it’s a localized one.

It’s hard to count all the factors contributing to yet another big surprise in a nationwide election, let alone provide an accurate accounting of how important the effect of each might have been. Abortion rights, certainly. The endless antics of the former president and his Big Lie. Student loan forgiveness. Infrastructure! A little luck with the redistricting maps. “Candidate quality,” according Sen. Mitch McConnell. The emphasis on crazy over substance by many of those Republican candidates. A Democratic re-emphasis on door-knocking. The war in Ukraine. The threats to our own democracy. The diligent work of the January 6 Committee. The grotesque hammer attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband.

Analysts will be busy for weeks digging into the data to try and figure out what really made the difference in the minds of voters. Already it looks like the overturning of Roe v. Wade continues to be a much bigger deal than the polling of September and October led us to believe. Election denial was clearly not the winning formula its author had imagined, and credit is due President Biden for insisting that saving our democracy be a central part of the electoral conversation. 

Brand marketing has some useful lessons here because it’s good at combining strands into a larger narrative. People like me try to find the biggest market for good ideas. Politics often works the opposite way, with its more narrow focus on core believers and their agenda.

A week before the election the New York Times ran a story about Democratic leaders and strategists in panic mode over the party’s “kitchen-sink approach” and how it had kept them from coalescing around one effective message. When I look at the election through a marketing lens, I think the kitchen sink approach may have been the party’s secret sauce. 

Governing is often a kitchen sink enterprise. You succeed by solving the problems that come at you, and I would say midterm voters had an accurate understanding of the sheer number of problems on our plates right now. Candidates who grossly oversimplified this — who offered just fear and blame with no idea of how to accurately define the problems let alone address them — came across as neither authentic nor honest. 

I’m reminded of a great line from Game of Thrones. Tyrion, the ne-er do well scion of the Lannister family, is sent to the seat of government at King’s Landing by his formidable father and asks what he is supposed to do when he gets there. “I want you to govern,” his father replies. 

If you ask me, that’s the message sent by midterm voters.

There’s a rare opportunity here for both parties to shore up brands that are looking rather frayed after years of zero-sum politics. They can do it by attending to the actual work of governing. In time the messages will become more clearly defined, certainly as the 2024 presidential race heats up, and my instincts tell me truth and trust will be central themes. But right now it’s more about what you do than what you say.

An emphasis on governing may be problematic for the Republicans, and not only because they don’t control all the levers of power. They have a Trump problem, which only gets worse now that he’s in the race for 2024. I once wrote that breaking up with Trump is like trying to leave a dangerously abusive relationship, and that is proving accurate. There is also the question of whether a narrow House majority under Rep. Kevin McCarthy will be interested in much beyond investigating Hunter Biden and threatening to crash the economy. 

The “marketing” challenge is different for Democrats. It mostly boils down to resisting the urge to return to arguing about the same old policy battles using the same words — the “unfinished business” that often gets mentioned in progressive opinion pieces telling Democrats what they should do now that they’ve survived the election. 

This would be a good time to play the long game, especially in places like Minnesota where the party is newly empowered. Think hard about the issues that a few short weeks ago were terrifying to Democratic strategists. That means the economy, gun violence, improving education outcomes that suffered during the pandemic, immigration policy at a time when the worker shortage is driving up inflation. And it means getting creative about crafting new legislative strategies that might appeal to at least the more rational elements of the opposite party. 

In other words, be cautious about governing too narrowly, and relentless about dangling smart opportunities in front of a Republican Party that’s in sore need of moderation.