Monday, January 21, 2008

 

Marketing a candidate: How Fred Thompson can win

Fred Thompson's political career might very well be over tomorrow. If so, take this post as a postmortem of his candidacy. It is obvious that Senator Thompson has squandered a great deal of good will during the interminable run up to the announcement of his candidacy and his less than stellar performance in the period September through mid-December. The easy analysis is that Thompson was lazy but I don't think it was laziness. I think it was a misguided attempt to run an issues oriented campaign.

Thompson's Socratic style of addressing those early crowds was a good way to discuss issues on a substantive level but a lousy way to run for president. Voters more attuned to snappy, one sentence solutions to the problems of the world coming from other candidates found that when listening to Thompson, they had to think, not react emotionally.

In this way, Thompson appealed to people more on an intellectual level. This was fine as far as it went but it brought him few converts and elicited nothing but contempt from the media.

The people and the pundits always say that they want a campaign to focus on the issues but they really don't. Like the girl who laments her inability to find a nice guy, the electorate whines for a serious candidate talking about substance but longs for a candidate who will ignite their passions while we lap up horse race media coverage. We lie when we say that substance is the only thing important to us. The people also want a candidate to fire them up with a rousing speech which touches upon the issues we care about. The dry lecture on the constitution is what Thompson offered at first and while important it sure wasn't worth drying miles for to sit in a crowded diner.

To his credit, Senator Thompson did change his approach and his stump speech became more impassioned. His message of being the Clear, Consistent Conservative is succinct and honest. Fred even began to contrast his message with Mike Huckabee's which paid dividends in SC. All this begs the question, why now?

On a number of occasions, the crowd — somewhere between 300 and 400 people jammed into the ballroom — interrupted with chants of FRED! FRED! FRED! And at one point, I heard the woman standing next to me — we had talked earlier, and she was a Thompson fan from the very beginning — say, to no one in particular, “Where was this six months ago?” A few minutes later, when Thompson made an especially powerful point, she said it again.


This is important because I think it holds a clue as to why Thompson got in the race and whether he will stay in. I think Fred got into the race with the idea that the field did not have a strong conservative and that his friend, John McCain, was effectively finished. I do not think Thompson likes campaigning, he has made this abundantly clear, so a field without a strong conservative voice probably looked weak to him and that much easier to sweep in and garner the support he needed without the retail politicking. But something happened on the way to the coronation.

The electorate, even conservative voters, like to have a candidate who is willing to do all the hand-shaking, baby kissing, and speechifying that most other candidates are willing to do. Without a willingness to make a fool of yourself even a conservative in a field of moderates will not catch fire. Add to this the Republican tendency to reward those who have put in their time then a late comer really was a huge hurdle to overcome and you can't do that while playing Professor Conservative lecturing the plebs.

What does work and can still work for Thompson is good, old fashioned hardball politics. Thompson has got the speaking skills. If you caught any of his South Carolina talks you would have been impressed. That is not Thompson's problem. Thompson's problem is his unwillingness to contrast himself with the other candidates in a consistent manner. It is ironic that Fred is the consistent conservative because he sure hasn't been the consistent candidate. Fred started in on Mike Huckabee at the South Carolina debate and it won him plaudits from the media and punditry. He kept it up enough to sting Huckabee who made time to attack Fred for doing nothing while in the Senate and for being a lobbyist. Fred must have been over the target. But that was it. Fred never went after John McCain about immigration other than to mention it in passing in the debate.

All is not lost for Thompson, not by a long shot. The field is still weak. Conservatives are still clamoring for a candidate. Thompson could win. However, the only way this is going to happen is if Fred is willing to throw away his inhibitions about retail politics and continues his campaign by taking the attack to the other candidates in the field. Politics is marketing ideas and Fred has failed to market his ideas by repeating his message over and over again and by contrasting his views with the other candidates. I want to hear from Fred Thompson that he is the only candidate who can be trusted to secure the border. I want to hear that 20 times a day until the Florida primary. Call the other candidates RINOs. Take the heat and give it back to them by quoting their records. Hardball does not mean dishonesty, it means brutal honesty. Fred has the facts on his side.

Right now some conservatives are thinking of 2008 as a rebuilding year they are that disgusted with the choice of candidates besides Fred. A lot of people are disgusted with the media and/or the voters for not seeing in Thompson what they see. I don't. How can you blame the people for acting like they always have and demanding to be entertained as well as lead by their candidate? We all know the game and how it is played.

No, I blame Thompson. Fred is a good and loyal friend and that is really what is holding him back. Fred has not decided to do whatever it takes to win. The road to the nomination has a huge yellow stripe over John McCain's back. I supported Thompson because I liked his record but I am not blind to the fact that he has not given his full effort. So all of the talk of Fred staying in the race is for nothing unless Fred is willing to crawl his way to the top. I think he knows this and I think he is likely to leave the race. What a shame.

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