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[Washington Babylon]

Selling Toothpaste and Candidates

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Last June, when I was researching my story on Mitt Romney’s political consultants, I attended a conference sponsored by Campaigns & Elections magazine and held at a Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington. Hundreds of political consultants and candidates were on hand. Most were from the United States but participants from fifteen other countries, including Mongolia, attended as well.

Dozens of booths were set up near a ballroom where speakers addressed the crowd. There was a team from Marketouch Media, which places pre-election robo-calls; Miami-based New Link, which polls Hispanic voters to determine which issues are important to them and helps candidates craft messages to reach them; and Delk Products, which produces everything from personalized insect repellent badges to hand out at outdoor events to perks for big campaign donors, such as a hook-on-the-belt golf gadget that serves as a combination stroke counter, ball marker, divot tool and shoe brush.

Inside the ballroom, a parade of consultants regaled the audience with strategic advice and war stories. “We always say it’s not like selling toothpaste, but in a multi-candidate field it is like selling toothpaste,” Doc Sweitzer, a Democratic media strategist, said during one panel. “The voters are walking down the aisles to see which product cleans the teeth better and which one gives you better breath.”

A string of Sweitzer’s greatest advertising hits was projected upon a screen. One undisputed masterpiece was for underdog Michael Nutter’s winning mayoral campaign in Philadelphia. “My dad is the only candidate with a kid in public school so I know he cares,” the ad’s narrator, Nutter’s young daughter, says sweetly into the camera. Sweitzer beamed as the audience applauded his handiwork. “We’re talking to people who are consumers of TV,” he said. “They read TV the way we read books. High-concept, overly creative stuff doesn’t work.”

Michael Meyers led a subsequent panel on “microtargeting,” which, as one slide he showed put it, aims at “Sequencing a Voter’s DNA.” His firm, Targetpoint, was paid more than $3 million by the 2004 Bush/Cheney campaign and was credited with helping the GOP reach key swing voters the party traditionally has little success with, for example, lower income Hispanics in New Mexico, a state Bush won by less than one percent of the vote. “You never know where the next Florida or Ohio is going to be,” Meyers said in selling his firm’s services.

Targetpoint, which also works for corporate clients such as Wal-Mart and Pfizer, tries to obtain every piece of data it can find about individual voters: in addition to race, religion and ethnicity, where he lives, what car he drives, how he spends his money, what magazines he subscribes to. The firm uses that information to try to identify the most reliable attributes that predict political behavior. Another slide Meyers flashed on the screen divides voters into political categories. A person who likes basketball, mountain biking, fishing, tennis, and Apple computers is a probable Democrat. Fans of football, hunting, sailing, golf, and PCs are likely Republicans. “Microtargeting answers three questions,” Meyers told the crowd. “Who should you be talking to (if they’re a Pepsi drinker, don’t try to sell them Coke), why you should be talking to them, and what you should say.”

The Campaign & Elections 2007 directory of political consultants, which I picked up at the event, lists thousands of practitioners in categories that include events planning, crisis management, direct mail, fundraising, GOTV (Get Out the Vote), grassroots strategy, internet, mailing & phone lists, speech training, media buying, polling, voice-over talent and voter registration. Later, I talked to Jordan Lieberman, the magazine’s publisher, about the impact a good consultant can have on a campaign. “No consultant is going to take a lousy candidate and make him a winner,” he said, “but a good one can stop disasters before they happen and cause disasters on the other side.”

Media advisers, who generally offer strategic advice as well as coordinating political advertising, are typically the most highly paid consultants. The best ad produced in the current campaign thus far, in Lieberman’s view, was a 30-second spot prepared by Joe Trippi for the John Edwards campaign, which sought to minimize damage over reports that the candidate had spent up to $400 on haircuts. As the theme from the musical Hair plays, devastating images flash on screen from Iraq and New Orleans post-Katrina. The spot closes with the words, “What Really Matters.”

“Four years ago Edwards was cast as the ‘Southern moderate’ and now he’s been transformed into Howard Dean, the champion of the poor, the forgotten people, the outsiders,” Lieberman says. “That’s the influence of Trippi. Edwards’ opening against Hillary is to the left, and that’s why his rhetoric is moving to the left.”

Pollsters, who play a key role in messaging and research, are just as vital. “You’re looking for which words will elicit the strongest response from supporters and the weakest response from opponents,” Lieberman explained. “Let’s say a Democrat supports Roe v. Wade – but is he ‘pro-choice,’ ‘pro-abortion,’ or does he favor a woman’s right to choose? Republicans like to cut taxes but they’re looking for the best language. They’ve learned that the three best words to use are ‘keep taxes low,’ because you don’t need to cut taxes, just keep them lower than the Democrats. That’s a smart, safe use of wordsmithing and it’s the sort of phraseology that comes out of pollster research.”

I checked back with Lieberman today and asked him for his rough take on the consultants in the 2008 campaign. “On the Democratic side, Hillary has signed up most of the top talent, with the exception of David Axelrod for Obama and Trippi for Edwards. On the Republican side, Giuliani and Romney have most of the best-known people. They’re most important to someone like Romney, who has to cover the greatest ideological distance in running for the senate and governor of Massachusetts and now for the Republican nomination for president. McCain’s campaign is a shell of what it used to be and Thompson’s campaign is a laughing stock from a consulting perspective. Most of his people have quit, he’s not really out campaigning, and he’s the worst in the field in terms of his campaigning ability.”

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