Friday, February 15, 2008

Tactics and Political Brand Names

Kyle has an interesting post today that is a continuation of a discussion we had yesterday. In recent days, Obama has been responding to increased attacks that he lacks substance by giving more substantive speeches that tone down a lot of his more inspirational rhetoric. As Kyle points out, Obama was initially criticized early last year for being too heavy on the substance and too light on the inspiration in his speeches. When he changed his tone to replicate his legendary 2004 convention speech, he began to get traction and closed the gap with Sen. Clinton. As Kyle also recognizes, it is this style which has carried Obama from longshot to favorite.

But with the increased vigor of the attacks by the Clinton campaign on the substance issue, Kyle thinks it wise of Obama to respond with more substance and points out that Obama needs to figure out how to combine the style with the substance. As I argued yesterday, I'm not so sure, at least not at this stage of the game. I analogized it to switching to a prevent defense with too much time left on the clock when you've been dominating the defensive side of the ball all game and you just need one more turnover or sack to put the game out of reach.

Thinking on it a little more, I think there's another element here that shouldn't be overlooked. At this stage of the game, the highly informed and moderately informed voters have made up their minds and are unlikely to switch sides. Obama has pretty clearly won that battle as much as he's going to. The voters who are left to persuade - and there are a lot of them - are the low information voters; Jay Cost argues this fact explains a lot of the polling discrepancies we've seen this year. As Cost further explains, in a primary campaign low information voters are left to judge the candidates on personality and name recognition, since actual policy differences are usually so small. For the low-information voter who only gets to make their decision once, what matters most is the politician's "branding."

Although Obama has made up huge ground in terms of his name recognition and the reliability of his "brand," he cannot possibly compete with the Clinton "brand" on name recognition and reliability in the mind of the low information voter. By taking a more "substantive" tone, though, this is exactly what he is trying to do. (Of course, what passes for "substance" in political speeches is really just a litany of false promises made to sound impressive by peppering in nice, beautiful, round numbers).

By taking this "substantive" tone, Obama is selling himself as essentially a "me-too" product. That is a battle he cannot win because he isn't giving the voters a reason to give up their loyalty to the Clinton brand name. It's analogous to why people are willing to spend the extra 30 cents to buy the name-brand soda instead of the store-brand soda, even though they're exactly the same thing- they trust the name-brand, and don't trust the less-familiar brand.

When Obama takes his more inspirational and preachy tone, though, he is giving voters a reason to change brands. Instead of selling himself as another, less well-known cola, he is selling himself as something completely different...suddenly, he's Dr. Pepper rather than RC Cola. Sure, he won't be able to convince the cola die-hards to change brands, but he wasn't going to be able to convince them to switch anyways since he wasn't giving them much incentive to change brands. But he will convince all the people who are bored of cola to try something a little different.

It may be that Obama has already won over enough people that he can afford to go back to this substantive line of debate and "play prevent defense" or start his own line of cola. But I'm not sure that he's reached that point; regardless, I think his uptick in the polls will stall out if he tries to beat Clinton on her terms. This thing's not over yet.