The Brand

I was thinking today about how brand loyalty is established in politics. Most voters are not independent, their pretensions not withstanding They typically break for the same party year after year. Voting is much easier when you can identify a party that you will always vote for or that you will never vote for.

However, while this brand loyalty is fixed at any one moment in time, there are historical events than can cause millions of voters to either establish or break their loyalty. Given the general closeness of elections, this can shift the balance of power dramatically.

For example:

  • Growing up in the South, most people I knew voted Democrat without exception. The reason was that, in the wake of Reconstruction, their parents and grandparents and great-great-granduncles once removed had sworn that they would *never* vote Republican, no matter what.
  • Most of my grandparents’ generation would vote Democrat. This was especially true (and still is true) for Jews. The reason was FDR. Although I think his achievements were somewhat illusory, millions worshipped him and would always vote Democrat, no matter how far leftward the party drifted.
  • As a kid, my teachers voted Democrat without fail. While general liberalism and loyalty to the union played a part, Vietnam and Watergate were the watershed events that pushed them out of the Republican camp for good. They would never vote Republican because of Nixon. In a similar vein, millions of blacks will not vote Republican because of the way the GOP embraced the segregationists and race-baiting.
  • Six years after Nixon, millions more shifted to the GOP. The combination of Jimmy Carter’s horrid reign and Reagan’s great presidency made many swear that they would always vote Republican. I was a part of the Reagan Revolution. I have voted for two Democrats in my life (Ben Jones and Sam Nunn) and, until recently, was a reliable Republican vote.

    For me, it wasn’t just Carter and Reagan and their policies. It was the excitement of the 1980’s — the feeling that you were part of something great that was happening to America.

  • That’s why I worry about this election. I worry that we have seen another 1980 — both an Always Moment and a Never Moment.

    Young voters broke massively toward Obama and the excitement of being part of something so historic is going to cause millions of them to always vote Democrat, no matter what. They will feel about Obama the same way I feel about Reagan. They will always remember the excitement and thrill of 2008 and connect that with the Donkey Party.

    At the same time, millions moved into the Never Republican category. Between the Iraq War, the economy, torture and the culture war, the Republicans have driven young voters away in droves. The only demographic McCain won was seniors. That’s not something to build on because, in twenty years, the Republican “base” will be literally dead.

    I suppose we can hope that Obama has a Carteresuqe reign that turns the brand loyalty over in six short years. But I think that’s unlikely. Obama isn’t as idealistic as Carter, the country isn’t as leftist. Moreover, the GOP does not have “the next Reagan” — hence the bizarre enthusiasm that many conservatives have shown for Sarah Palin despite her lack of … anything other than good looks and a sharp tongue.

    I also suppose that the enthusiasm could fade quicker than expected. Eight years ago, after all, it was the Republicans who supposedly had all the excitement and brand loyalty. They had the droves of young Christians who were going to create a permanent majority.

    The stunning collapse of Bush’s support is, however, unlikely to repeat itself. Obama would be hard-pressed to alienate the American voter as thoroughly and effectively as Bush has.

    No, I think we’re in for a long dark teatime of the soul.

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