The Republican Party’s Brand Problem
What is a “brand”?
A “brand” is a product or service or organization which has values, qualities or traits deeply associated with it. It is the “identity” of a product, service or organization, and it is reinforced by “differentiators”: those things which set the brand apart from its competitors. When you buy Coke rather than the generic alternative (and typically pay far more in the process), you do so perhaps because you prefer Coke’s taste (a trait) or (more often) because Coke’s marketing efforts have associated with their product values you favor or relate to. When you buy Pepsi instead of Coke, maybe you like Pepsi’s taste, or maybe you identify with Pepsi’s efforts to position their product as “younger”. At root, however, “brand” is a function of trust: when you buy a Coke, you trust it will consistently deliver whatever it is you’ve come to expect. Whether you are in Hong Kong or London or San Francisco, when you order a hamburger at a McDonalds, you trust it will taste the same and deliver the same experience. Being true to the brand promise is of extreme importance: if the burger you ordered at any particular McDonalds was completely different than the burger at any other McDonalds, or if each can of Coke tasted differently, the brand would instantly become meaningless: the brand promise betrayed, there is no longer any reason for you to pick the brand over a competitor.
What does the idea of a “brand” mean in the context of the Republican Party? And how’s the health of the Republican Party’s “brand”?
The Republican Party likes to brand itself as the party of small government, fiscal prudence, a free market and liberty. Their brand promise is lower government spending, less governmental intrusion into the lives of Americans, safety and the ability to transact business with limited governmental constraints, and minimal direct governmental participation in the economy.
How has the GOP performed on its brand promise? Are the party’s differentiators meaningful to their customers, the Amercian electorate? The answers, in short, are: poorly and no.
Many voters today see little difference between the Republican and Democratic parties: independent voters are now the largest segment of the electorate, and the fastest growing. Republican George W Bush, of the ostensibly “small government” party, increased government spending substantially: the rate of non-defense discretionary spending growth during the first term of his Presidency was over 3,500% greater than it was under President Clinton’s first term, and over 230% higher than President Carter. This was in following his father’s footsteps: George HW Bush increased spending over 6,800% faster than President Reagan. When it comes to “small government” and fiscal prudence, the Republican Party has lost, entirely, any ability to differentiate from the Democrats: for the period 1988 – 2004, Bush 43 (a Republican) grew government spending the fastest, followed by Clinton’s (a Democrat) second term, then Bush 42 (a Republican), and finally Clinton’s (a Democrat) first term. Going back a bit farther, President Nixon increased spending at a rate five times faster than President Carter did. There is no difference between the parties, and this undermines the Republican brand significantly (it doesn’t damage the Democrats nearly as much, as their branding has not often made fiscal prudence a brand promise).
On the issue of liberty and freedom, there is likewise little to differentiate the party brands: President George W Bush substantially reduced individual freedom by way of (among other things) authorizing warrantless wiretaps of citizens of the United States and effectively eliminated habeus corpus protection; President Obama (among other things) granted retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies who went along with these wiretaps, and subsequently extended his interpretation of a President’s powers to include the assissination of United States’ citizens without charge, trial or conviction. A Republican and a Democrat, with little to distinguish their stances on personal freedom and liberty.
In more recent times, the Republican party has also come to be the home of the “social conservatives”: that part of the electorate most pre-occupied with issues such as abortion, gay marriage and “Christian values”, and often identified as the “religious right”. This segment of the party has significantly diluted the Republican brand, and in focusing on “social conservative” issues, has dimished the core differentiators of the Republican brand we mentioned earlier: small government, fiscal prudence, a free market and liberty. And while 78% of those Republicans aged fifty-eight or older described themselves as “social conservatives”, 46% of Republicans aged eighteen to thirty-seven describe themselves as “social moderates”. The “social conservative” aspect of the Republican brand is a losing proposition for the party in the medium to long term.
The rapid growth and substantial number of independent voters is the consequence of the parties’ diluted brands: if Coke and Pepsi and the no-name brand all taste exactly the same and are the same price, what compelling reason beyond inertia is there to make a person pick Coke over Pepsi, or Pepsi over Coke, or either over the no-name brand? This is where the GOP finds itself in 2012. And things are going to get much worse for the Republican Party establishment: the younger the voter, the less likely that voter is to be a member of the Republican Party. 37% of the party’s members are fifty-eight or older, and 24% are between forty-eight and fifty-seven, but only 14%-15% of members are between the ages of twenty-eight and forty-seven, and just 6% are between eighteen and twenty-seven. The party is aging, and new voters do not find the brand compelling.
The conventional thinking is that the Republican Party is for people who have stuff (which they don’t want the government to take away), and the Democratic Party is for people who don’t have stuff (and want the government to give them stuff), and as people get stuff, they shift to the Republican Party. But that thinking is deeply flawed: the current generation of voters aged eighteen to twenty-seven have stuff, and they’re not joining the Republican fold (in 2008, 58% of voters aged eighteen to twenty-nine were either Democrats or leaned Democrat, while only 33% of that age group were, or leaned, Republican, a downward trend that has continued uninterrupted since at least 1992, when Republicans had a 47% to 46% edge in this age group).
The Republican Party has repeatedly betrayed its brand promise, and the party no longer has the core differentiators it once did. As such, it does not have a meaningful sales pitch for new customers – those people reaching voting age. The party’s brand has become “New Coke”.
What can the Republican Party do to reverse this slide and rebuild the party’s brand? And are they doing it?
Almost all the candidates currently competing for the Republican Presidential nomination are running on a platform based not upon the core Republican brand, but on relatively recent changes to that brand, which coincide with the dilution of party support among new voters – the “New Coke” of the Republican Party: social conservatism, military interventionism and big government. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is considered “conservative” because he is staunchly “pro-life” and wants to bomb Iran (while his history in office shows him indistinguishable from a Democrat when it comes to the “Classic Coke” version of the Republican Party: he voted in favor of increasing the debt ceiling, consistently voted in favor of earmarks, backed Arlen Spector in his run for Presidential nominee of the Republican Party (Spector, a pro-choice, pro-gay rights, anti-gun rights and pro-affirmative action candidate, subsequently switched sides, becoming a Democrat in 2009), does not believe United States citizens enjoy privacy protection under the Constitution, and believes the government should involve itself in private enterprise by picking certain sectors for special treatment (Mr Santorum would like to eliminate the corporate tax on manufacturers, and only manufacturers)). Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney implemented a government health care program while Governor, increased state spending by over 32% in four years and, in an effort to appeal to the “New Coke” Republican brand, switched from “pro-choice” to “pro-life”. Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, believes the federal government should be responsible for finanically assisting citizens’ home purchases, has signed a “New Coke” document entitled a “Pledge of Fidelity” promising not to cheat on his current wife, and wants to remove more personal freedoms by strengthening the Patriot Act. Texas Governor Rick Perry, who increased spending over 82% in Texas, focuses on the “war on religion” the federal government is supposedly waging. These candidates all believe that “New Coke” is a winning formula, and they are doubling-down on it. And this lack of differentiation has resulted in a fractured field: no candidate received more than 25% of the vote in the Iowa caucuses.
The lone candidate seeking to rebrand the Republican Party, to bring back “Classic Coke”, is Texas Representative Ron Paul: he proposes cutting government spending by one trillion dollars in the first year, eliminating five federal departments, increasing personal liberties by doing away with things such as the Patriot Act and permitting states to decide issues such as gay marriage and abortion. Mr Paul’s foreign policy, which calls for non-interventionism and only Congressionally-authorized wars, is materially different from the Democrats and every other candidate. And that rebranding, that original formula, is resonating with customers: in the Iowa caucuses, 48% of caucus goers aged seventeen to twenty-nine voted for Mr Paul, as did 43% of independents. These are the very customers the Republican Party desperately needs in the years and decades ahead.
For those efforts to rebrand the Republican Party, Ron Paul has been alternately ignored or reviled. The Republican Party doggedly insists that “New Coke” is the winning formula, and any suggestions that “Classic Coke” should be reintroduced is met with open hostility. Mr Paul has been called “dangerous” and more recently “disgusting” by his fellow Republican, Rick Santorum. Mr Paul’s foreign policy is dismissed out of hand: a non-interventionist defense policy is not even permitted debate. But as we’ve seen already, independents are the largest share of the electorate, and they are demonstrating a genuine taste for “Classic Coke”. And in hypothetical match ups against President Obama, Mr Paul’s “Classic Coke” matches Mitt Romney’s chances for victory in a general election.
The Republican Party establishment ignores this erosion of its brand at its peril: with nearly twice as many young people leaning Democrat rather than Republican, and with independent voters the deciding factor in general elections, “New Coke” is a strategy for failure. The Republican Party’s brand is materially and demonstrably diluted, and the party is going to need to engage in a serious rebranding exercise, building meaningful differentiators and building trust with new customers. Those customers are waiting, and they seem to have a thirst for “Classic Coke”.