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US Presidential Candidates Use Commercial Marketing Tactics in Campaigns

Voters in the United States are presented with a number of so-called "purchase decisions" in the course of the presidential election process. In this segment of "How America Elects," VOA's Jeffrey Young looks at how campaigns mold and package their candidates for their White House bid.

U.S. presidential candidates market to the public their personal integrity and their policy positions, much the same as selling a consumer product such as pizza or a car. It's political marketing.

On February 10, 2007, Senator Barack Obama announces his bid to be the Democratic Party's presidential nominee this way: "This campaign has to be about the reclaiming of the meaning of citizenship."

The event in Springfield, Illinois has been turned into a campaign video. Everything seen in that video -- smiling faces of many colors, cheering crowds, the Senator speaking stirring words -- is deliberately put there to build enthusiasm and support for his candidacy.

One Obama supporter says, "I will walk to [the state of] Iowa, if I have to, to help this man [Obama]." Another supporter says, "We need this guy. Our nation needs this guy."

The process of persuading voters is outlined by analyst Brian Darling at the independent research group The Heritage Foundation in Washington.

"One [level] is making the candidate likeable -- making the candidate someone the voters would want to vote for because they like the candidate. But also, it is very important that these candidates voice principles that are very interesting and acceptable to the voters," Darling said.

And package those positions in straightforward ways voters can easily remember, says Democratic media strategist Peter Fenn. "It should be clear, it should be concise, it should connect with voters, it should contrast with your opponent -- your strengths over your opponent's weaknesses. It should be continual. It should be repeated and repeated and repeated." he said.

In order to generate excitement for a candidate, strategists fashion slogans that are catchy and convey the candidate's positions -- and can fit on a car bumper sticker.

Brian Darling cites examples from present and past elections, "You look at President Bill Clinton, [and the phrase was] 'It's the economy, stupid.' You look at President George [H.W.] Bush the first, and it was 'Read my lips - no new taxes.' So, you have all these catchy phrases. And, Barack Obama is using a phrase now -- 'Change," he said.

Political marketing has to create and carefully manage that wave of excitement to crest at the moment when voters make their purchase decision. "Timing is everything in politics. It is true with the giving of speeches. It is true of the rallies [for the candidate]. It is true of your 'get out the vote' operation. It's like a graph. You just want to build, build, build, build, build, and then hit your peak on Election Day," Fenn said.

But to win the White House, both the Democratic and Republican parties have to do more than march their own motivated members to the polls.

The parties must also reach out to people who are independent and vote for whomever they see as the best candidate. Ultimately, it is the people in the middle, not the left or the right, who will determine the next president.