Crafting ID between the commas

It’s a crucial time for molding images of emerging candidacies. The most important task for first-time candidates is to control what I call their “between-the-commas” identification, those magic few words that follow their name, telling voters who they are, as in, “Today on the state capitol steps John Doe, 45, a businessman from Boise, announced his intent to run for governor.” There it is, his moniker, “businessman from Boise.” This may seem simple. The reporters merely tell us his age, occupation and place of residence. But it’s more complicated than it might first appear. Candidates who understand the stakes will work for every advantage in establishing their between-the-commas personas.

At his best, John Doe might have sought to be identified as a “small-business owner-operator” or as a “successful entrepreneur,” two more specific labels. Or opponents may have wished that Doe be branded a “corporate CEO” or “corporate executive,” two colder, less appealing identities. All these labels might technically be accurate, but some put the candidate in a better light for those learning about him for the first time. In my experience, the stakes in this fight are high enough that candidates should battle early and hard to get the best possible ID. Reporters behave like herds, so once the lead reporters converge on a particular label, it sticks and everyone adopts it, leaving you stuck with their branding until Election Day.

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The most interesting example of this I have encountered involved Pat Robertson, back in the 1980s when he was first contemplating a run for president. I was a member of the team assembled by a conservative activist to poll on Robertson’s viability. At that time, the press widely referred to Robertson as a “televangelist,” so we tested that construct and found that Americans were reluctant to elect a televangelist to the Oval Office. Robertson characterized our findings as flawed because we had miscast him. He was not, he said, a televangelist; rather, he was a “religious broadcasting executive.” I remember chuckling at the cleverness of this unlikely-to-be-accepted recasting of the nation’s most visible TV preacher. I was told that Robertson thereafter hired a flack to call every reporter who described him as a televangelist, suggesting that instead he should more accurately be labeled a “religious broadcasting executive.” You’d think such a quest would fail completely, but I later saw it used in Reuters and AP stories.

The struggle to control your identity can even touch longtime incumbents. For example, Mark Udall decided to upgrade from a Colorado congressional seat to the Senate. Udall simultaneously chose to upgrade his between-the-commas ID from “Boulder Democrat” to something that would not be so chilling to voters statewide, especially those meeting him for the first time. So Udall moved six miles down the road to become “Mark Udall, an Eldorado Springs Democrat.” See how much that helped.

There are even practical, semi-official manifestations of your between-the-commas identity. For example, in California the party primary ballot affords the opportunity to put your own label on the ballot, beneath your name. I once did research for a candidate and found that “independent family businessman” was the best-possible label for his primary candidacy, better than small-businessman, family business owner, and a host of other alternatives we tested.

Some candidates, it can be argued, won solely on their ID versus their opponents’. For example, “veterinarian” Wayne Allard bested “lawyer-lobbyist” Tom Strickland in two consecutive U.S. Senate contests in Colorado. Someone in Illinois recently parlayed “community organizer” into a fairly successful career. But if you can’t get a DVM degree or organize a whole community before the campaign, other good labels to try on these days might be “economic expert,” “taxpayer watchdog” or “ethics reformer.” We need those.



Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.