By J. Randolph Evans
In politics, it is called the ‘gel’ moment. It happens when thousands
of little dots floating around in American voters’ minds all connect to
create an image. In political terms, a ‘brand’ gets locked in and can
be almost unshakable.
For former Democratic Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, it was a
picture of him sitting in an army tank with an over-sized helmet. For
President George Bush, it was his surprised look at a price scanner when
checking out at a grocery store. The list goes on.
When a ‘brand’ kicks in, it is virtually impossible to shake. Indeed,
most high-priced consultants just recommend moving on as opposed to
trying to go back for a couple of good reasons. First, voters never go
back once something has happened, especially when they have not paid too
much attention to begin with.
Second, for those who try, changing a brand (especially a political
brand) is very expensive. Once the brand kicks in, it gets assumed as a
part of every following conversation, news report, and decision. It
moves from being opinion to being fact. Changing facts is expensive.
To have any chance of changing a political brand, paid advertising has
to completely saturate the public consciousness. Of course, the costs
of saturation (television, radio, newspapers, magazines, the internet,
and repeated ‘voter touches’) are simply astronomical. Worse yet, most
efforts at ‘brand correction’ just do not work, no matter how much money
Probably the best illustration for Georgians was the 2002 gubernatorial
race between incumbent Governor Roy Barnes and then former State Senator
Sonny Perdue. There came a moment when an image of Governor Barnes got
‘locked in’ and he could simply never recover – not even eight years
later after having been out of office for two terms. Money (indeed,
lots of money) could not change it – Governor Barnes raised and spent
over $20 million to Purdue’s $3 million. Not even a cooperating media
intent on helping could change it.
(It is not just a Democratic phenomenon. Republicans in Congress faced
a similar plight in 2006 when their brand got tarnished with spending
and ethics problems. Neither money nor a sitting President could save
them. Democrats recaptured control of the Congress.)
So, branding happens. The question is whether that moment has come for
President Barack Obama. No one seriously questions that he has suffered
politically as a result of the continuing slump in the economy and the
mounting casualties in Afghanistan. It has been a steady decline as bad
news streams endlessly across the airwaves day after day, interrupted
only by Osama bin Laden’s death.
Yet, pundits note that a qualitative and quantitative change in the
President’s dwindling support has happened in the last two weeks.
Basically, two things appear to be converting bad news into a tarnished
First, there is a growing sense that things have gotten worse since
President Obama took office. This is an especially challenging shift
for a President whose political fortunes have been so dependent on
blaming politicians before him. If things are worse, then it really
does not matter how bad things were before. Things are worse.
Second, there is a growing sense that things will not get better under
this President. Americans have tried an all Democratic controlled
government (control of the White House and the Congress) and a divided
government (control of the White House and Senate, but not of the U. S.
House). Neither worked out so well. With this as a backdrop, messaging
in 2012 becomes a real challenge.
But these thoughts are not the end for American voters; instead, they
are the beginning. Voters actually want to make it all fit. It is not
so easy when many voters, notwithstanding Republican denial, actually
think the President is a nice man with a nice family.
So, how do all of these dots get connected in the heads of American
voters? Typically, there comes a moment when it just clicks. For
instance, Senator John Kerry on a surfboard.
On Friday, July 29, 2011, President Obama angrily stormed to the podium
in the White House Press Room as the deadline for a default loomed. A
tentative agreement to solve America’s default crisis had fallen
through. The President was visibly upset. And, the country watched.
At that moment, President Obama forcefully asked Americans to call or
tweet their Member of Congress. Say what?
There was mild amusement by cable news talk show hosts, and lots of
partisan rhetoric about leadership. But, at that moment, something much
bigger happened. Something clicked in the minds of Americans and then
it all made sense. He really is just a community organizer. Americans
said, “okay, got it” and moved on. Since that moment, his presence has
not been the same. Branding is such a tricky thing.