The Election Strategy of Splitting Hairs
By Barry Frye
Political strategists and astute politicians acknowledge the core of any political campaign is a product – namely the candidate – and his or her positioning in the market they wish to reach – the voting public. Today’s challenge facing the professionals in Washington and Boston is to identify the underlying motivation of those voters most likely to exercise their right to be heard at the polls and formulate a plan to leverage those public perceptions. Unfortunately, understanding brand identity from the perspective of the American public has never been a simple task whether the product is Classic Coke or Michael Dukakis.
Dependency on voter preference polls provides reluctant hints imbedded in fickle voter segments. Public opinion teases campaign staffs with a consistency many would best describe as doughy. Trying to survive in such a world of unpredictability, campaign leaders live in constant fear their candidate may take the tumble from today’s fair-haired darling to tomorrow’s scorned and jilted.
Little wonder that Election Day and its acceptance or rejection of a carefully planned product position leaves legions of the so-called experts with ulcers, broken careers, and soon to be polished resumes.
This election year the macho factor has become a key ingredient in the brand identity of our presidential candidates. It has become the product differentiator that both candidates seek. The reason for such ardent attempts to stake out this position is recited with ecclesiastical fervor as conventional wisdom across the country.
During a war, the macho factor always prevails.
It hardly matters that no one quite knows what the macho factor really encompasses.
Despite such vagueness, the bravado ratio is climbing faster than either presidential hopeful’s approval rating. The staggering number of staged leisure activities involving the two candidates leads one to believe that both have more free time and less common sense than the average American voter.
We are afforded the opportunity to witness sixty-year old Senator Kerry kite surfing and rollerblading with the zeal and abandon of a teenager. That he stayed upright during the entire photo op while rollerblading assures us at least of his sense of balance, a not altogether bad attribute for a potential president.
We see President Bush, now nearing his fifty-eighth birthday, riding with the sure handedness of John Wayne in True Grit -- resplendent with western jeans, fancy belt buckle and boots. The only missing props were the eye patch and the yellowing pistol handle, shortcomings we can expect to be pointed out soon by the Kerry campaign staff. Yet, the tingling thrill of our modern day cowboy President ridding the world of bad guys in the fashion of the Duke is unmistakable.
President Bush apparently is winning the macho contest as recent polls show a significantly higher percentage of men favoring our current Commander in Chief than Senator Kerry. Despite the unfavorable position, the challenger has responded in recent weeks by compiling a mountain of photo opportunities displaying that he, not President Bush, is the virile candidate. Kerry speeches and retorts to questions are peppered with references to a “real” war record. His supporters poke fun of President Bush’s attempt at playing and prissing about in military garb. Who among us will soon forget the sight of John Kerry throwing a football with surprising accuracy and pace to members of the press or brandishing shotguns to take down game bird?
The strategy of the Kerry campaign has become clear. They will position their candidate as the vanguard of virility.
However, a more subtle and perhaps more critical move, is underway in the Bush campaign staff. Even if Bush duplicates his 2000 performance and wins lopsided votes from white male voters, his victory is not assured. What about the women?
Independent analysts project that more women are likely to vote in the national election this year than men. Although some women may respond to the comfort and sense of security identifiable with a strong, male candidate, others may not find the macho factor appealing. A backlash is conceivable and perhaps likely.
Sources now indicate the formulation of a more subtle but surprisingly sagacious strategy brewing in the back offices at the White House.
Rumors emanating from high placed sources indicate weeks of planning sessions involving renowned historians, sympathetic to the Bush presidency are nearly complete. From these sessions, position papers on historical traditions involving male political leadership and the challenges of women increased involvement in politics are near completion. Insiders from the Bush campaign leadership circle, perhaps even President Bush himself, feel these position papers contain within them the final critical pieces of a blueprint for success in November. That missing component – facial hair.
Long considered a primal male reaction to women’s political demands for equity, outrageous sideburns, moustaches and beards have been an integral part of American political tradition for more than a century and a half. First used in the mid-19th century, men have used outlandishly overstated facial hair as a means of establishing evidence of a substantial gulf between the sexes. Social historians have even interpreted the inundation of hairy faces as a male constructed social barrier designed to keep women removed from more influential roles in the public arena.
Beginning with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and for nearly two decades afterwards, women chipped away at the male controlled political arena with an aggressiveness that startled men throughout the country.
Male leadership at all levels of government found themselves faced with granting women unprecedented input in the operations of government or formulating a strategy that would hold off the tidal wave of feminine demands. They responded to this landmark women’s rights movement with an outburst of mutton chop sideburns, handlebar moustaches and full beards the likes of which had not been seen since the glory days of ancient Greece. It is little wonder that during the single most important decade of women’s rights, the term sideburns became part of the American lexicon.
A second notable wave of women’s rights initiatives picked up steam in 1966 with the formation of the National Organization for Women and crystallized later into the push for the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 70’s. Although few linked the subtle change in hairstyles among men during that period, the tried and true strategy emerged with the efficiency of the razors which lay idle. Even President Nixon is reported to have tried unsuccessfully to grow sideburns. Unfortunately, his efforts produced spotty, bald spots, forcing him to rely on members of his inner circle to carry the torch.
Once again, the efforts to hold off the surging numbers of women succeeded and the movement throttled back. The Equal Rights Amendment died a quiet death in 1982 and sideburns again receded and moustaches shrank to earlier quantities.
With position papers in hand, speculation is that the Bush campaign is preparing an exciting, different perspective to this old, but effective strategy. Morale among staff and campaign workers appears to be on the upswing as first indications of this new approach is beginning to leak out. Animated conversations about the fresh, dynamic Republican Party are heard around water coolers replacing discussions of the latest American Idol voting outrage.
It is believed that with a single master stroke, the Bush campaign group will extend an unprecedented welcome to women voters in one of the most traditionally symbolic acts in American political history. In a bold stroke which does not compromise any stands on pertinent issues, the Republicans have opened their arms to women across the nation in a gesture that cannot be misinterpreted.
Directives from leadership are being drafted to direct all males to shorten sideburns, eliminate moustaches and beards and trim excessively hairy eyebrows. Precise measurements for the sideburn length have been issued but are kept in private and confidential files.
Years ago an acclaimed political scientist wrote of the derailment of American political traditions during an earlier watershed of our history. Values held dearly such as the supremacy of the public will and the virtue of the people were being compromised or ignored.
With these new strategies from the Bush administration, perhaps our fears have been premature.
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