Here's a recent case of pundit-supported political fiction: the addition of Paul Ryan to the GOP ticket means that the Obama and Romney campaigns can have serious, wonky discussions about issues rather than engaging in superficial politics as usual. But there is a catch: elections aren't won by the power of wonkery.
An overwhelming majority of voters will cast their presidential ballot based upon group identities. Despite widespread claims of political independence, less than ten percent of voters are genuine independents who might vote either way in a presidential election. These voters also tend to be less informed and less interested in the details of politics. They don't care about complex, wonky discussions.
Among highly-invested, identity-driven voters, there will of course be some who engage in serious discussion, but even the most well-informed policy wonks will vote based upon group and subgroup identities. Since campaigns can't change some 90+ percent of the votes, team Romney and team Obama are left with some combination of three avenues to victory: 1) win over true independents, 2) motivate under-motivated parts of the base to vote come Election Day and 3) keep the opponent's base away from the voting booths.
To reach independent voters, a campaign must engender both conscious and unconscious positive identifications with the candidate. Symbols, gestures and superficial appearances rather than facts or complex arguments are what will encourage these identifications. In other words, it's about positive image branding and negative counter-branding of one's competitor.
This is why candidates suddenly love sausage and develop regional accents that come and go. They roll up their sleeves; they put on a hardhat; they drink a Bud, throw darts and go bowling. Speeches are crafted not to be deeply informative, but to support the desired identifications. Meantime, agents for the candidates promote potentially viral smears that are intended to transform the opponent into a detestable, alien brand.
Branding and counter-branding examples:
Romney was an extremely successful businessman. He understands what it takes for Americans to be successful and to get our economy going again. Obama never worked a real job.
Obama wants to make sure that no American will die because they lost their health insurance after their company folded. Romney was a greedy, predator who used tax tricks to get rich. He bought companies and dismantled them for profit. Because of Romney, Fred Smith lost his job and his pension. Fred's wife, Alice, died because the Smiths lost their health insurance.
I'm a serious budget wonk; my opponent is a detached professor lecturing us from a podium.
This isn't serious discussion of the issues. This isn't wonkery. Wonkery only enters the picture to the extent that it can be positively or negatively leveraged for branding purposes.
Next, let's consider the other ways a candidate can gain electoral advantage: a campaign can work to get less enthusiastic members of the base off their butts and into the voting booths on Election Day. They can also discourage voting among less-motivated members of the opponent's base, and they can make it more difficult for targeted members of the opponent's base to get the polls.
Again, in the numbers game, serious wonkery isn't an effective campaign tactic. These voters already know which side they're on. Now it's about selectively motivating and discouraging potential voters. Wonkery doesn't make it harder to get to the polls; it doesn't raise enthusiasm for voting; it doesn't make people angry enough at the opposition to make them vote. Wonkery doesn't make people act or stop them from acting.*
So given all of that, are the campaign teams ready to engage in serious discussion of the issues? Conservative columnist Cal Thomas also wonders:
Is America ready for a serious discussion of issues, rather than the superficial approach that has defined so much of modern politics? We're about to find out.
Sounds like a man hoping for some serious discussion of issues, instead of superficial, branding and counter-branding. No?
Later in the same column, Thomas writes:
The Obama administration has done nothing to warrant a second term. If Ryan and Romney can force Americans to pay attention to the need for real change, instead of the unaffordable snake oil President Barack Obama has been selling, they will win handily [...] Ryan will wipe the floor with Vice President Joe Biden in their one debate in October.
Did Cal Thomas just answer his own question about discussing issues with a resounding NO? Perhaps in addition to being a deliberate and effective campaign tactic, branding is an almost irresistible impulse once people who care start talking about politics.
Then there's Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass. Earlier this week, Kass delivered a perfectly-timed, negative counter-branding column about Joe Biden, complete with accusations of racism and allusions to sexually-transmitted diseases.
Now take a look at Jonathan Chait's negative counter-branding of Paul Ryan's serious, er... 'ostentatious' wonkery:
The Ryan brand is rooted in his ostentatious wonkery. Because, unlike the Bushes and the Palins, he grounds his position in facts and figures, he seems like an encouraging candidate to strike a bargain. But the thing to keep in mind about Ryan is that he was trained in the world of Washington Republican think tanks. These were created out of a belief that mainstream economists were hopelessly biased to the left, and crafted an alternative intellectual ecosystem in which conservative beliefs the planet is not getting warmer, the economy is not growing more unequal can flourish, undisturbed by skepticism. Ryan is intimately versed in the blend of fact, pseudo-fact, and pure imagination inhabiting this realm.
That's negative counter-branding. The serious manTM is counter-branded as the ostentatious, wingnut man who's detached from reality.
Let me add, by the way, a functional definition of the term Political Gaffe: a) something said or done that tarnishes a candidate's brand. b) an error that can be used to tarnish the opponent's brand. Examples: dressage, arugla. (see the bonus, alien-branding image at the second link).
Finally, my point isn't whether branding and counter-branding are truthful or even resemble the truth. The point is that branding influences that relatively small number of truly independent voters that will, along with voter turnout levels, determine who our next president will be.
* Campaigns must also walk a motivational tightrope. Rousing greater turnout of one's base using inflammatory symbols and gestures can make a candidate appear to be more of an alien to independents, so calculations about net gains or losses must be made. For example, letting Sarah Palin speak at the GOP convention might marginally improve Romney's brand identification among some her enthusiasts, but it will also tarnish his brand among some independents. Apparently, the branding calculus excluded her from the convention podium.