01/15/2013 02:25 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2013

Conservative Messengers Need New Ideas

Former Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) who left Congress to head the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote a recent op-ed column for The Washington Post titled, "Conservative ideas need a new message."

In our opinion, the conservatives' problem nationally is not a problem of messaging but one of ideas. Conservative messengers need new ideas not new messages. And, we should add, so too do liberal messengers.

America is at a pivot point in a number of areas. We don't need tired partisan ideas from either side reframed and repackaged to address those pivot points. In fact, we don't need conservative ideas or liberal ideas at all. What we do need are fresh, good and original ideas and the willingness and ability to compromise in order to resolve the multiplicity of issues confronting us.

In his column, Senator DeMint asserts, "November's election results and exit polls suggest that a majority of Americans agree that government does too much yet still voted for more of it. The election taught conservatives that we can no longer entrust political parties to carry our message."

We're not certain what polls the senator was looking at. As far as we know, government was not on any ballot but candidates were. The citizens did not cast their votes for a government that does more or for a government that does less but for the individuals who they thought would do the best jobs in representing their interests and governing the country.

We don't understand Senator DeMint's mistrust of a political party "carrying" the message. It seems to us that since Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, the Republican Party has done an exceptional job of building its brand around the three big ideas the Gipper first articulated: Smaller government, stronger defense, and lower taxes.

The question is whether those three ideas are sufficient to move the Republican party forward and win future national elections. We don't believe they are because the Democratic party has also embraced the smaller government/stronger defense/lower taxes mantra. More importantly, the balance of power in national elections is shifting to the independent or "swing voter."

A Pew Research Center political values study in mid-2012 reported that 38 percent of Americans identify as independents, 32 percent as Democrats and 24 percent as Republicans. The study found that trends in "partisan polarization" on 48 political values have surged during the Bush and Obama with the average gap between Democrats and Republicans nearly doubling in the past 25 years.

The largest gaps between the attitudes of Republican and Democrats were in the following areas:

  • Social safety net -- 41 points
  • Environment -- 39 points
  • Labor unions -- 37 points
  • Equal opportunity -- 33 points
  • Government scope and performance -- 33 points

The study found that the swing voters were closer to the Democrats on value issues related to "unions" and "environment"; to the Republicans on issues related to the social "safety net" and "equal opportunity"; and about equidistant on issues related to "government regulation of business" and "government involvement in health care." The bottom line is that the swing voters are considerably different and much more ideologically complex than either the hard core Republican or Democrat voters.

While some of the ideas from the right will resonate with them so to will some from the left. That's why the combat for the unaffiliated voters will have to be a contest of ideas rather than rhetoric. No universal message or one-size fits all approach will work.

Marketing will be important and not selling. Let us explain the difference.

Selling is company-centered or in political terms party-centered. It focuses on the available product and service and tries to persuade the consumer/ buyer/voter that it is perfect for them.

Marketing is customer-centered or in political terms voter-centered. It focuses on the meeting the needs of the consumer/buyer/voter and tailors the product and service and message to them.

We believe that Professor Ted Levitt of Harvard was the person who originally made the distinction between marketing and selling in his classic 1960 Harvard Business Review article, "Marketing Myopia." In his piece, Levitt posed the famous question, "What business are you really in," and argued that if the railroad executives had seen themselves as being in the transportation business instead of the railroad business they would have redefined themselves and have continued to grow.

We won't be presumptive enough to define the specific policy parameters for the "business" the political parties should really be in. Let us use an analogy, however, that we think is relevant -- they can choose to be in the big tent business or the little tent business.

The big tent business is constructed based upon a broad range of ideas to appeal to a diversity of customers and to address a wide variety of needs. The little tent business is constructed based upon a few ideas to appeal to a narrow customer segment and a limited range of needs.

Ronald Reagan put the Republican Party and conservative movement nationally into the big tent business. The Tea Party has shrunk the size of that tent by closing the tent flaps to many. If it continues to do so, it may eventually be in the pup tent business.

One of our favorite marketing maxims is "Be something special to someone in particular." Based upon the most recent national election, the Republicans seem to have decided that someone is primarily "conservative, white, male and older." In contrast, the Democrats seem to have decided those someones include "females, youth, minorities (African Americans, Hispanics, Asians), and independents."

Given the nation's demographics and psychographics, the Democrats appear to be in the "growth business." The Republicans need to figure out how to get there.

Those are our ideas. That's our message. We don't expect everyone to agree with us. We ask those with differing perspectives from both sides of the aisle, in the interests of good will and bi-partisanship, please don't shoot the messengers.

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