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March 18, 2005

Bad Marketing, Good Products - Part I

Chris Charuhas

The Democratic Party, seen in business terms, is like a company with weak marketing but strong products. Think of it as the Honda Motor Corporation of politics.

The Democratic Party's marketing has been awful. Its national strategies have been supplied by consultants who don't know how to win. For instance, John Kerry's campaign manager, Bob Shrum, worked on - or managed - five losing presidential campaigns. The only candidate who won during that stretch - Bill Clinton - refused to employ him.

The Democrats' overarching message has been supplied by these same lousy consultants. For 20 years, Mr. Shrum has had presidential candidates, including Al Gore, deliver the message that they're "fighting for the people against the powerful." But as journalist Joshua Shenk astutely observed, "Americans don't want to fight the rich and the powerful. They want to be rich and powerful."

The party's marketing methods have been inefficient. Until recently, it has been organized according to a belief that television ads win elections. Its former chairman, Terry McAuliffe, raked in millions for large-scale TV advertising. But as cable channels and advertising itself have proliferated, TV ads have lost much of their power: more ads now compete for less attention from fewer viewers.

But although its marketing is weak, the Democratic Party's products, or public policy proposals, have been consistently strong. A good example is the health care plan that President Clinton proposed in 1993.

The Republican Congress blocked Clinton's plan not because it was a bad idea, but because it was too good. Republican strategist Bill Kristol advised that if the plan passed, it would "revive the reputation of the (Democratic) party." The plan was endorsed by most doctors and nurses, and three Republican health experts said that the plan would have saved the average family over $1000 a year.

A more recent example of strong Democratic products was the education plan that Sen. John Kerry (D., MA) put forward when he ran for president. Mr. Kerry proposed federal grants for school districts to raise the pay of teachers whose students perform better, addressing the problem of poor teacher pay. At the same time, Mr. Kerry's plan would have made it easier for schools to fire bad teachers, removing an impediment to school improvement.

Democratic products are appealing across the board. In a recent poll by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, most Americans want their government to spend more on education, job training, development of renewable energy, veterans, military personnel needs, and support for the United Nations. In other words, most citizens like what Democrats want to do for our country.

When the Democratic Party's marketing becomes as good as its products, it will dramatically increase its "market share." In next week's article, I'll suggest a marketing plan that might make that happen.

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