John Kennedy was the first U.S. President to become a brand. Kennedy’s team understood the power of the media and approached it with the strategic and tactical gusto of a new product launch. What they did not know then – but happily we know now – is that the behavior of voters could have been accurately predicted – had they possessed the loyalty and engagement-based research techniques.
We conducted this kind of research when Bill Clinton first ran for president and came within three percentage points of predicting the winner in that election. The approach uses a combination of psychological inquiry and higher order statistical analyses to “fuse” emotional and rational elements.
Things like issues, imagery, change, positioning, debates, catastrophic financial meltdowns, change, benefits, the benefits of change, TV commercials, interviews by Katie Couric, imitations by Tina Fey, and a gabillion hits of both on YouTube. It provides us with insights as to how voters view the presidency (or vice presidency), how they will compare candidates, and, ultimately, how they will vote on Election Day.
The technique is more accurate than traditional polling if only for the fact that we include a sample of cell-phone only respondents in the assessments. Beyond that, however, it measures what voters think – as opposed to what they say they think, a more important aspect of this year’s election than ever before.
Consider why we vote for a particular candidate. Do we rationally compare his or her position on an issue to our own and then vote for the candidate who comes closest to our own rational views? Is it the state of the economy or the war in Iraq or women’s rights? No, it’s not just the rational aspects of our life and philosophies and the candidates’ stated positions. Just look how the media skirts around issues of race, gender and age. And if you are perfectly honest with yourself, you likely have certain opinions about the presidential and vice presidential candidates you wouldn’t articulate to some pollster on the phone or to some focus group moderator.
As with any category, the methodology determines the electorate’s concept of the Ideal Presidential and Ideal Vice President and each candidate’s perceived qualities are measure against that ideal. Effects of speeches, debates, TV commercials, sound-bites, and smears can be measured, revealing significant changes in the perception of a candidate. At the end of the campaign trail, the candidate that best meets or exceeds the qualities of the ideal always wins. (With the exception of the intervention of the Supreme Court, we’ve been on the money every election since 1992.)
The four drivers that define the Ideal President and Vice President are (alphabetically):
Action: Does the candidate have a comprehensive, realistic, well-considered plan for solving the problems facing the country?
Compassion: Does the candidate care about all the people?
Perception:Does the candidate have a deep understanding of the problems facing the county?
Resolve: Does the candidate have the strength and leadership to guide the country?
Or, in the vernacular of the consumer, “Job skills,” “Love,” “Smarts” and “Guts.”
And just like consumer packaged goods customer segments, while the drivers apply equally to self-described Republicans, Democrats and Independents, voters claiming loyalty to each party rank the drivers differently in terms of what’s important to them, hence different party affiliations, convictions, and philosophies.
So when we apply loyalty and engagement assessments to the presidency, here’s how the parties rank the drivers. An asterisk next to the value indicates that’s where that voter group have the highest expectations regarding the candidate.
It was called to our attention by a professor in the political science department of Duke University that the way in which the parties “saw” the ideal presidency explained a lot about voting patterns. Independents were more like Republicans in how they saw their ideal president and, therefore, were, as history has shown, more likely to vote for a Republican candidate.
As regards the vice presidency, there are, as one might expect, some slight variations in how the Ideal #2 is envisioned and with different aspects with high expectations.
We note for the record that as regards the ideal vice president, Independents are precisely in line with Democrats, which may make the #2 running mate more important in this election.
We are able – just like B-to-B and B-to-C brands – to calculate an index of how well a candidate meets – or even exceeds – the expectations that the electorate hold for the office of the president and vice president. The indices are benchmarked against 100. Higher is better. Some things in research never change!
As of the first week of October, aggregate Democratic, Independent, and Republicans ratings are as follows:
Ideal President: 112
John McCain: 107
Barack Obama: 111
Ideal Vice President: 110
Joe Biden: 107
Sarah Palin: 104
So, on the basis of loyalty and engagement assessments, this week it appears that Mr. Obama is going to be the newest White House resident. But we are also alert to the fact that, just like the consumer marketplace, how a brand is perceived can change quickly.
For sure, there will be winners and losers and they can take solace in the observation of President Ronald Reagan, “Politics is not a bad profession. If you succeed there are many rewards. If you disgrace yourself, you can always write a book.”
Robert Passikoff is founder and president of Brand Keys.