Democrats Look to Madison Ave.

Election-Year Message Search Runs Through Hollywood, NYC

Posted February 27, 2004 at 5:00pm

By Erin P. Billings Roll Call Staff

House Democrats, frustrated by their near decade in the minority, will turn to the advertising hub of New York’s Madison Avenue to help them fashion a catchy slogan for the 2004 election.

Democratic leaders have been holding high-level meetings for the past month in an effort to come up with a “bumper sticker” style theme to market themselves to the electorate, something they believe they’ve failed to do effectively in recent cycles. The slogan will center on broad themes of “security and prosperity for the American people” and “it’s time for a change,” according to a senior aide to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).

Pelosi, who has vowed Democrats will not enter the 2004 elections without a message, decided that to translate party themes into electoral wins, she needed to go beyond the Beltway for help, the staffer added. The Minority Leader doesn’t plan to hire a specific firm, sources said, but in the coming weeks she will consult several Democratic contributors, including big-name retailers, Hollywood executives and major advertising firms in New York for their ideas, leadership sources said.

“These are people who are donors in that world who say we need a Democratic brand,” the leadership staffer said, declining to provide specific names or firms. “They’ve asked to help, and she thought that was a good idea.”

Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.), who has helped lead the message-crafting, said the plan is for House Democrats to take the “core essence of what we want to communicate” and then ask the advertising experts for suggestions about how best to package it. He said Democrats are working on developing an idea under which their core issues of emphasis — national security, health care and the economy — fit and around which Democrats of all stripes can rally.

“We’re not just going to say, ‘What would sell and we’ll sell it,’” Menendez said. “We want to say, ‘This is what we want to sell and communicate to voters. Tell us the best way to accomplish that.’”

While many in the Caucus see the idea as forward-thinking, it isn’t necessarily novel. In 1999, Republicans looked to Madison Avenue marketing experts to advise the National Republican Congressional Committee on how to package their agenda, and in the mid-1990s then-Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.) met with executives from the Anheuser-Busch beer company to get advice about how to approach advertising.

House leaders say that before the July Democratic National Convention in Boston they will have the makings of their overarching slogan. They say they don’t want to move too fast and are eager to coordinate with Democratic Senators and the presidential nominee.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) said Democrats feel they need a slogan that sells but also has staying power, pointing to 1994, when then-Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich (Ga.) unveiled the GOP’s “ Contract with America.”

“I think if Madison Avenue can sell soap, it ought to be able to help sell politics,” Hastings said.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) said Madison Avenue aside, the party seems to have “lost its way” and over the past two decades neglected its message, while Republicans have focused on theirs and done a good job defining themselves to the electorate.

“We need to do that too,” Matsui said. “We need to renew the vigor of our party.”

Matsui said Democrats need a theme that is simple and all-encompassing, such as the 1980 GOP message: “Republicans for a change.” The DCCC chairman said that theme resonated with voters and helped vault then-GOP presidential candidate Ronald Reagan into the White House.

“That’s the kind of thing we need to do,” Matsui said.

Democratic House Members and aides said they welcome input from any arena to help polish their message, adding they are frustrated by an inability to sell their ideas to voters. As part of that, Democratic leaders have put together a list of the top 13 policy arguments for why Democrats are better than Republicans on the issues.

“It’s not that we don’t have a message, it’s about a strategy. We need to consolidate our message and guarantee that Republicans don’t hijack it,” one leadership aide explained.

An internal House Democratic leadership document outlines the party message summary, saying the party is focused on security and prosperity and expanding opportunities for middle-class Americans. It says Republicans are abusing their power to reward the wealthy corporate interests and concludes: “Democrats have a better way.”

But privately some Members and aides worry the party has taken too long formulating a message, and advertising executives lacking political insight may not be the answer.

“It probably isn’t the place to go to develop a message,” said one well-placed Democratic staffer to a moderate Member. “If you are a major corporate business entity for Fortune 500 companies, you can sell to urban America. Unfortunately, House Democrats don’t need to appeal solely to urban America. They need to appeal to middle America.”

“We need ideas, and thinking outside the box is good,” said Maryland Rep. Albert Wynn (D). “But we don’t want something that’s too cute or too slick.”

Rep. Charlie Stenholm (Texas), a leader of the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition representing mostly marginal Members, said he’s willing to see what leaders come up with before passing judgment.

“Let’s wait and see what it is we’re talking about,” said Stenholm, who faces a tough re-election battle in the wake of his state’s redistricting. Stenholm said he believes any slogan should revolve around credibility and fiscal responsibly, two areas in which Republicans have faltered.

“The makings are out there,” he said. “It’s going to play out loud and clear and in living color.”