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Politics & Current Affairs

How to Sell a Candidate Who Has Lost Before

Many past campaigns have tackled unique problems that come with running a repeat candidate. Hillary Clinton, who was defeated in the 2008 Democratic primary by Barack Obama, is the most notable example heading into the 2016 presidential election.

Richard Nixon served as U.S. Vice President for eight years under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Nixon went on to lose a close presidential election in 1960 to John F. Kennedy. Two years later he was embarrassed in the 1962 California gubernatorial election by incumbent Pat Brown. The national media declared Nixon’s political career over. Nixon himself announced he was done with politics. 

We all know the rest of the story.

He kept a relatively low profile for a few years. He gained favors as a loyal campaigner and re-emerged on the national stage as a candidate during the strain of Vietnam. Ostensible presidential favorite Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in the summer of 1968 and Nixon rode a rebrand all the way to the Oval Office.

Nixon is one of America’s most notable repeat candidates, much of that notability stemming from the fact that — unlike Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 — Nixon emerged victorious. Yet throughout his 1967-68 campaign, Nixon’s team had to strategize around an unavoidable truth. Nixon had run before; he had lost. In fact, Nixon hadn’t won an election in over a decade. How do you sell a candidate who had previously been rejected?

This is a relevant question now because Hillary Clinton shocked absolutely no one this week by entering the 2016 presidential race. Unlike Nixon, Clinton’s previous presidential run ended before the general election. Like Nixon, she was defeated by a younger and more charismatic underdog who appealed to voters in ways Clinton couldn’t. (She also ran a terrible campaign, but that’s another story.) Eight years later, Clinton is back in the driver’s seat and the party’s nomination is hers to lose. 

Over at APM’s Marketplace, Tracey Samuelson and Tony Wagner explore the tactics and strategies necessary for a campaign built around a repeat candidate. They use Nixon as an example, as well as Al Gore and Senator Arlen Spector. The common thread is a rebrand, a character reinvention. In 2012, when Mitt Romney tried a second time for the Republican nomination, he was billed as the responsible businessman, the adult in the room who could bring a savvy executive’s perspective to the White House. For Nixon, the key for his handlers was to sell him as a solid emblem of stability during a time of volatility and strife, as well as to boost his accessibility to the public.

It’s all advertising, really. Clinton’s 2016 campaign is going to be chock-full of brand managers, marketing gurus, and savvy campaigners who know they need to make their candidate more relatable:

“It’s important [for Hillary] Clinton be authentic and very clear about her purpose, [says Scott Davis, the chief growth officer at Prophet, a brand strategy firm]. It helps if she can give other people the tools to advocate on her behalf. She may also need to plan something big, bold, or innovative to shake people from their preconceived ideas…

Howard Belk, co-CEO and chief creative officer at Siegel+Gale, says Clinton might reference something about her history in a way that won’t alienate her supporters, but with fresh ideas and programs. After her supporters, Belk says the second group Clinton should be targeting is the ‘switchers.’ In brand terms, they’re the people who may open the product, even if they don’t use it. But he advises against trying to pander to a third category, detractors. They’re a lost cause.”

There is one particular difference between Clinton’s current situation and those faced by many repeat candidates: She can’t claim to be an outsider. When Nixon ran in 1968, he represented a return to a time before the instability of the 1960s. Romney’s 2012 campaign tried to market him as the opposite of Obama. Each was able to frame themselves as alternatives to the current state of affairs where during their previous runs, they campaigned on the heels of a two-term Republican administration.

Clinton is in a different boat. She can’t run on a “Change” platform. Instead, her candidacy is similar to Gore’s in 2000. A vote for Clinton is — whether she likes it or not — a vote for a third term of Obama. It’s an endorsement of his policies and a continuation of the status quo. This isn’t a strong foundation for a political or professional rebrand, which is why the reinvention of Clinton has to come on a personal level. 

There’s no point in rebranding Hillary the politician. There’s a ton of incentive in rebranding Hillary the person.

Read more at Marketplace.

Below, psychologist Paul Ekman offers advice for identifying liars… a useful skill to have when approaching another major election.

Photo credit: Orhan Cam / Shutterstock


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