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David Hill: Building name recognition

If Labor Day signals the beginning of the fall general election season, then the Super Bowl is the starting line for the season of name-ID building. 

All over America, at every level of government, candidates are starting to build the foundation of electoral politics: name recognition. For some candidates, the goal is simply to have people know the name, with a little ‘k.” For other, more advanced candidates, the objective is more ambitious. These higher-level practitioners of the name ID arts want voters to Know them with a capital “K” — that is, to really know something substantive about them, more than just the name. 

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When I got started in the polling game, at the old Tarrance & Associates in Houston, the firm’s standard practice was to count name ID only when a voter could say something, anything, about the name being polled. A simple statement that the poll respondent knew the name was not enough. He or she had to mention the person’s party, hometown or an issue position, or something that vouched for the recognition.

 Too many candidates appreciate too late that substantive name ID is what it’s all about in politics. I always say that the saddest lament of losers on election night is, “If everyone knew Joe like I do, they would all have voted for him.” Exactly. That’s the point — most of us don’t know good ol’ Joe like his closest confidants do. 

We have been reminded of this graphically in recent weeks with the release of “Mitt,” the movie about 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. It seems that the response of most viewers is amazement that the Romney of the movie is not the Romney they thought they knew. Some blame his campaign, saying that it should have communicated the candidate shown in the film.

Knowing what to do about name ID and then doing it can be challenging these days. Whether you are just starting out and simply need voters to recognize your name or are further down the path offering answers as to who you really are, the lack of interest in candidates and politics makes the game a tough one. 

And the fragmented channels of communication to the small number of voters who are interested presents a mind-numbing set of choices for the media plan. Do you rely on the old reliable, billboards and signs, or do you dive into digital and try to build name recognition online? Or do you choose pricier tools, like radio and TV? There is no simple answer. The answer, regrettably, may be “all the above” if you really want to be known.

Candidates without the financial resources and expert advertising assistance needed to pull this off can take solace in the fact that shoe leather plays a role, too. Voters are likely to say they know someone that they have been near. The candidate doesn’t necessarily have to shake hands with a voter — physically touching them — though that helps, but merely be around. I once asked a voter who claimed to have met a candidate how that happened. The voter back-tracked and said, “Well, I didn’t actually meet or shake hands with him, but he spoke at my daughter’s graduation and I nodded at him at the back door as we left the auditorium.” This encounter was personal enough though, to this voter, to claim he’d met the candidate. And my research consistently shows that the candidate who “meets” the most voters wins the election.

Short of guile and hard work, luck counts, too. Your parents might have given you a name or gender that just clicks in a race. Some voters always pick the feminine name among unknowns. Others choose names of their ethnicity. Or still others embrace simple names like Joe. Whatever works, embrace it.

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.