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Voters see political candidates as brands. Ever since the introduction of marketing techniques and consumerism in politics, the candidate has morphed into a product. In this politics-meets-marketing nexus, today’s voters are now consumers. Every election cycle, this new voter-consumer sifts through a barrage of political information (promises and policies) and learns about political brands in order to decide whether to vote or not vote, and which candidates and parties to support — in the same way consumers choose which products and services to buy. It is a monumental decision, a big purchase so to speak.
Although studies show that less than half of Americans have confidence in each other’s ability to make informed political decisions, voter-consumers do have some knowledge of political brands. Whether they are sophisticated, informed or even cynical, they are not only aware of a political brand, but also about perceived benefits and drawbacks of the brand — its image, their feelings towards it and their experiences of the brand in action. The failure or success of a political brand is therefore increasingly tied to its brand quality, i.e. how it positions itself in the electoral marketplace, but also, fundamentally, how it is seen and perceived by voters.
But how do voter-consumers make up their minds about a political brand? What matters most? Drawing on my 20 years of combined experience as a journalist covering political affairs, a political speechwriter with the Government of Jamaica, an international election observer with the Commonwealth organization and a political scholar, here are five things that I have learned that drive voter-consumer decisions before they cast their ballot.
Voters tend to buy into political brands whose personalities most resonate with them. Recent American elections have shown us that voters are drawn to political personalities that are exciting, bold, attractive and even a bit irreverent. They are also enticed by the affable candidate with whom they feel they can relate, have a drink or engage in a conversation.
In other words, voters consider likeability in a political brand and tend to qualify candidates on the basis of personality when making their political choice. Researchers Markus Koppensteiner and Pia Stephan support this theory. They investigated the relationship between first impressions and people’s tendency to favor others they regard as having a similar personality. In their findings published in the Journal of Research in Personality, they conclude that “people want a candidate to possess personality traits they believe themselves to possess, and which therefore have a very high value for them. When people don’t gather as much information about candidates and their positions, they tend to rely on personality characteristics.”
Voter-consumers put a high premium on the character and credibility of a political brand when making their political choice. Despite declining trust in government, voters largely desire to be represented by political brands of good repute. Like personality, they respond to political brands that share their fundamental beliefs, values and ideals and people who see the world as they do. For example, in the 2016 presidential election, voters placed a high value on trust and character and felt they could not trust Hilary Clinton. A significant section of the population instead voted for Donald Trump, even though he brought to the fore contrary values such as racism, sexism and bigotry. Contrastingly, many American voters were inspired by the character and candidacy of Barack Obama and shared his fundamental belief in the values of hope and change and his commitment to community and morality.
What does character look like? In a six-part essay published in The Washington Post, Colonel Eric Kail Kail, former Army field artillery officer and course director of military leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point says “leadership character” includes a combination of integrity, courage, selflessness, empathy, collaboration and reflection.” He argues that of all the facets of character, integrity is the most critical because it “involves our deepest issues of honesty and motive.” He sees empathy as far more critical to good leadership than knowledge, skill or ability. Character-based leadership matters to voter-consumers, so they tend to consider candidates who convey admirable ethics such as decency, civility, integrity, faith, conscience and empathy.
Equal to personality and character is communication skills and the brand story of a political candidate. Voter-consumers consider how well political brands “talk the talk” before deciding whether to buy into their political agenda. Voters respond to political brands with the ability to use excellent communication practices to earn their trust and confidence. For example, Barack Obama’s exceptional capabilities as a speaker endeared him to voters during the 2008 campaign and throughout his presidency. The success of Obama’s leadership communication skills was the extent to which audiences could understand his story, vision and how he was able to connect with people on a very human level, says political communications executive, Sarah Weber in an article for Quantum Communications.
“Audiences crave authenticity from speakers because it indicates that they truly believe in their message,” she writes. “In a landscape where transparency is more valued (and yet harder to come by) than ever before, audiences are wary of manipulation and spin from inauthentic speakers. Obama, however, has developed a knack for addressing an audience of thousands with the same genuine affect and tone he might use in a one-on-one conversation with a colleague.”
Voters also buy into the political brand with the best narrative, the one whose story manages to break through the noise. “There is no question that people can be seduced by a story,” says Mark McKinnon, filmmaker and chief media strategist for the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, as well as John McCain’s winning 2008 primary campaign, in a 2016 interview with the New York Times. McKinnon goes on to say that “the stakes of telling good stories in politics is winning or losing. Good stories win. Campaigns without a story lose.” In short, voters respond to political brands who clearly and simply communicate who they are, what they are about and whose narrative inspires them to care.
Platform and Agenda
Many voter-consumers consider the platform and agenda of political brands before casting their ballot. A political platform formally outlines the principal objectives and issues supported by political brands. A primary concern of voter-consumers is the focus of an election campaign and the goals and purpose of a political candidate — essentially what can be accomplished once in office.
For example, voters take deep interest in, and have a stake in, core platform issues that impact their daily lives. While many voters care about bread-and-butter issues such as education, healthcare and the economy, voter-consumers also care about bigger-picture concerns like climate change and social justice. They therefore tend to vote for those political brands they trust to resolve them.
Competence and Track Record
Competence weighs on the minds of voters as they go to the polls. Voter-consumers have a long list of concerns and they tend to seek out candidates they believe can competently tackle the nation’s most pressing problems. In short, strong, decisive, capable leadership is central to voters’ concerns. They want to know that their vote is going to political brands they deem knowledgeable and capable, and who have the intelligence, skills and experience to lead. They reward political brands whom they perceive will keep their promises and deliver results. Many voter-consumers see their vote as an investment and rightly expect a return on that investment. Yet unlike corporate CEOs who are obliged to produce quarterly reports to show profits, loss and market share, voters must rely on a candidate’s track record.
Paradoxically, having a long history in politics does not equate to competence and capacity. According to Frank Newport, author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders should listen to the wisdom of the People, political candidates often wave their long experience in political service, their understanding of how the federal government works and their ability to wade through the complexities of the bureaucracy in Washington as indicators of their competence. He argues, however, that this can be a double-edged sword, as voters perceive long tenure in politics as being part of the problem rather than the solution.
While history in politics may not be given much weight, gender seems to play a significant role in voters’ perceptions of competence and capabilities. Voters are seen to hold women political brands to a different standard. “Women who run for office are more vulnerable to information that casts doubt on their competence and experience than are men”, says Tessa Ditonto, Assistant Professor of Politics at Iowa State University, in an article for the Centre for American Women and Politics entitled “Candidate Competence”: Is There a Double Standard.” She argues that in the 2016 election campaign, Trump’s seeming ability to get away with saying and/or doing just about anything without losing support is a marked contrast to Hilary Clinton, who was continually attacked for things like her “lack of judgment,” not looking “presidential enough,” and not being “authentic.”
So as we near this November’s pivotal presidential contest between Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden, whose brand are you invested in?