June 26, 2019

To Beat Trump, Dems Need New Strategy

“Hey, let’s talk to people who were always going to vote for us anyway!” That seems to be the sum total of the Democratic Party’s strategy to beat President Donald Trump’s Republicans in recent elections. 

Political parties are brands as much as Coca-Cola and Apple are. Like them, parties can squeeze only a minimal amount of growth from existing fans.  

To thrive, Dems must persuade those who aren’t current supporters. Whether indifferent, lapsed party loyalists or those actively voting against them, Democrats’ brand is in poor shape with these segments. 

Fortunately, there’s a simple — if not easy or quick — way to fix this. Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the first psychologist to win the Nobel Prize in economics, has provided the blueprint.

Kahneman delineates two modes of thinking: System 1 decisions, driven by instinct, memories and engrained learning, yields instantaneous decisions. System 2 decisions, based on deliberation and logic, need more time to form. Although we like to believe our choices are rational, System 1 biases and intuition often pull the levers.

The ultimate goal for any brand is to be selected without the decision-maker doing much thinking at all. Democrats would love to be the no-brainer choice. But those gut-level voting decisions can happen only if Dems start capitalizing on System 1 brain processing and stop preaching to their existing fans. 

That means three things: Stop throwing valuable resources into campaigning to the already-convinced. Plow that money into persuading those who aren’t. Finally, cast off naïve ideas about the influence of facts and figures. 

This doesn’t mean going all-in on emotional marketing. All emotional responses originate in System 1, but not all System 1 thinking is emotional. 

“The left is not a monolith, despite what many conservatives imagine. Most Americans aren’t invested in politics. They’re intensely practical people.”

Brushing your teeth doesn’t require strategic thinking. “Auto-pilot” and muscle memory are nothing but System 1 — not emotion — at work. You also probably don’t deliberate much before buying your usual newspaper. Your brain knows better than to perform a critical audit of all your options for that one. It’s a System 1 decision devoid of emotion. 

Likewise, Democrats can’t win elections with “We’re not the evil GOP” as their brand identity. Leveraging what people used to love about their party would be more strategic. 

For example, alienated voters might be swayed by seeing Democrats embrace the notion that the white working class, especially males, deserve a shot at the American dream. But liberal extremists won’t go there — even though it helped Dems win elections for decades. 

The left is not a monolith, despite what many conservatives imagine. Most Americans aren’t invested in politics. They’re intensely practical people, focused on their families, local communities and minding their own business. If the Democrats can find what resonates with those individuals, they can become a party that such people believe people like them vote for. This would take Dems one step closer to becoming the no-brainer election choice.

This doesn’t mean abandoning fact-based overtures. In consumer marketing, purchase of pricier items or those with lengthier consideration periods is often triggered by System 1 beliefs layered with System 2 data. If you’ve always loved Nikes and need new cross-trainers, information about the brand’s political activism can give you permission to buy what you wanted all along.

But factual details about a brand can go only so far. If individuals simply don’t think of Democrats as candidates for “people like me,” they won’t vote for a certain candidate just because she has impressive degrees or experience.

This makes it all the more imperative for Democrats to build a brand that can poach voters from Trump’s base and beyond.


Jackie Danicki is a business consultant and media contributor.