When clever words can’t save you

Background for those not up to speed on American politics:

Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, has been making waves not just as a potential presidential candidate in 2016, but also because he got caught playing a bit too much hardball. People from his office appear to have ordered a few lanes on America’s busiest bridge to be redirected away from a local bedroom community, throttling off it’s population’s commute to New York, and unleashing several days of gridlock so bad that it even seems to have caused the local emergency services trouble. His motives for this remain a bit murky, but seem to be payback for some kind of scheme or political machination.


The marketing angle:

An investigation is now unfolding as to what exactly happened, and whether his denials of direct personal knowledge will pan out, but the political attacks and defences have already started. This is an area where politics is really just a specialised version of marketing, and follows a lot of the same principles.

The main line of apologia for him (other than “it wasn’t me”), is that… Well, take it away David Brooks:

[Christie comes across as] a little bit of a bully… [but] it could be that people want a bully to go to Washington. If they’re going to vote for Christie, they don’t want a charmer. They want a big bully. And this will not hurt him, I think.

I think some politicians would be hurt by this kind of scandal. He will not be hurt, because his image, as a big, tough, bully, that is what you are hiring him for if you are going to elect him president. And so this is consistent with that image, I think.

It’s the old “take your weakness, and make it into a strength”! Sure your medicine tastes awful, but that’s how you can tell it works! Or in this case, ok, Christie may be a bully, but that just means he’s a tough guy, and voters like that!

The problem with this kind of repositioning is if your new position is going to stick in consumers’ minds for more than a few minutes, it can’t just rely on clever semantic flips, but has to fit with the core of what they know about the product / candidate. This spin fails that test. Sure it might be a good thing for a candidate to be seen as strong and ruthless, but only if they are ruthless in promoting the voters’ interests. But Christie allegedly did the opposite of that here. His closing the bridge ruthlessly hurt voters, and was done for Christie’s own profit. Use your strength on my behalf and I cheer. Use your strength against me, and that makes you a bully and an enemy. And why would I vote for an enemy?

That is why I think this defence falls flat, and why it is taking Christie’s poll numbers down with it.


2 thoughts on “When clever words can’t save you

  1. David Plotz on the Slate gabfest had a good take on Christie and politics as the art of the possible and getting things done. To sum it up, pork, earmarks, bullying, and a little bit of corruption helps to get things done — which could be a relief in the currently constipated Washington, DC.

    We’re way too far out for poll numbers for president, even with Nate Silver type black magic, (remember Herman Cain!). Christie has the benefit of already having been known as a bully, but what makes this act so ridiculous was that it was so petty. It’d be nice if there were more bullies on the left, methinks.

  2. Again, someone who uses a bit of pork and bullying to get things done is one thing. Someone who uses the pork and bullying to enhance themselves at the expense of the electorate is a villain. Although with the current congress I don’t think it would make a difference; the gridlock isn’t because of negotiating tactics, it’s because there is a scorched earth, salt-the-fields, political campaign going on over there. But that’s a whole other topic.

    As you say, it’s far too early to know what election day returns would look like, but at this stage the wannabe candidates are starting to line up supporters, resources, and operatives. If you look like you’ve got a dead weight hanging off you (ongoing investigations, bad media narratives, and a public image problem), then that makes it very hard to do well in this early game. A donation to the losing candidate is a poor investment, and the best operatives all want to work for the guy who ends up winning, because that’s where the career rewards lie.

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