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Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Selling Us Candidates Like Soda Pop
Here is a very in-depth article from the New York Times about polling and focus groups. The reporter, Matt Bai, shadows Dick Gephardt's pollster to see what he does for the big bucks the campaign pays him.

The pollster, Ed Reilly, spends most of his time working for corporations, like phone and insurance companies, telling them how to sell their product. He tells Bai that figuring out how to sell candidates is pretty much the same thing, likening candidates to selling Coke or Pepsi. "There's almost no difference," he says "but hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in marketing to do this."

But things may be getting more difficult for pollsters like Reilly. He's noticing that people in his focus groups are starting to act more like the experts they see on TV, talking about a candidates electability and dismissing some candidates because they aren't "polling well." Its getting harder for pollsters to tell what voters really think, perhaps because its harder for voters to know what to think of the candidates. When candidates avoid staking out clear issues that they believe in and when media reports are filled with pundit opinions on who's winning the horse race but contain little substance about candidates, its no wonder voters will start acting the same way.

I suppose there is nothing inherently wrong with candidates wanting to know what voters think. After all, its their job to represent us, so its good they care about what we think. But when things have devolved to the point where winning elections depends upon a candidate's ability to come up with the right advertising campaign based on focus groups, politics becomes less meaningful and true. Big money currently gives the edge to candidates who can market themselves like Coke or Pepsi, but hopefully this won't always be the case.

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