Hard sell or selling out?

National | Focus-group tested and market-sensitive, Republicans launch all-out campaign to repackage agenda

Issue: "Gunpoint evangelist," Oct. 9, 1999

in Washington - During August and September, in thousands of ribbon-cutting speeches and radio call-in shows, the GOP message to voters was the same: Republicans want to cut taxes, save Social Security, improve education, and strengthen the military. A voter driving cross-country, picking up one AM radio station after another, might have thought he was hearing the same speech over and over again. In large part, he would have been right. With all 435 House members up for reelection in little more than a year, Republicans are clinging by their fingernails to one of the slimmest majorities in history. Party leaders are determined to present voters with a clear choice next November, but that means communicating a unified message-not an easy feat in a chamber where, according to one member, "you've got 200-some vice presidents of marketing." Before the recess, most of those VP-wannabes received their pink slips. In their place, a 16-member committee known as the Communications Working Group (CWG) was charged with crafting a 15-month marketing plan that would carry the Republicans to victory. The briefing books that members carried home with them were the result of CWG efforts. So were the town hall meetings. So were many of the GOP replies to the president's weekly radio addresses throughout the summer. And that's only a start: If all goes according to plan, almost every message coming from the Republican Party for the next 15 months will bear the fingerprints of the CWG. For the Republicans, such a comprehensive communications effort is unprecedented. A spokesman for the House Republican Conference would not reveal the group's budget, but congressional sources familiar with the market research walked WORLD through the CWG's first six months of work. That work resulted in a plan that is comprehensive, thoroughly researched-and potentially controversial with rank-and-file conservatives who fear the party is promoting flash over substance. At the root of the entire communications strategy is a sophisticated program of market research. Wirthlin Worldwide, a Republican research firm, conducted a series of focus groups to gauge the image of both political parties among voters. The key finding: Many Americans perceive a trade-off between freedom and security. With their emphasis on individual liberties, the GOP is seen as winning on the freedom issue. But the Democratic Party gives voters a greater sense of security, thanks to its promise of government solutions to every problem. In the words of CWG co-chair Jim DeMint (R-S.C.): "We understand better that what the Democrats have been doing over the years is giving this false sense of security in exchange for more money, more decision-making back in Washington. Without meaning to, Republicans have made people make a choice between security and freedom. What we want them to know more than anything else is that they're most secure when they're most free." To that end, Republicans intend to inject the theme "securing the future" into whatever issue they happen to be debating. In their view, improving public schools secures the future. So does saving Social Security. And cutting taxes. And building a stronger national defense. In the ongoing budget debate, for instance, Republicans will refer constantly to "securing retirement" by not dipping into the Social Security trust fund to create new government programs. A pocket-sized "message check list" issued to every GOP House member urges them to discuss the issue in terms that are "positive, reassuring, and hopeful" and that "make people feel safer and more secure." Critics will see all this talk of government-sponsored security as a sure sign that Republicans have caved in to the soccer mom vote. Indeed, GOP sources admit that the primary market for their communications effort is swing voters who rely on the government for retirement income, or for services such as health care and education. But key members of the CWG insist that they are not merely holding up a finger to gauge the direction of the electoral winds. "These focus groups aren't telling us what to do or where we should be philosophically," says chairman Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.). "They do tell us the kind of work we need to do so that the American people come along with us and understand and support our agenda." "We don't use polling or research to tell us how to feel," agrees Republican conference chairman J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), "but we do like to have an idea of how much work we have to do." Mr. Watts says the Republican effort to sell its tax-cut plan is a good example. When members left Washington for a month-long recess in early August, polls showed only 36 percent of Americans wanted to use the budget surplus to reduce taxes. "We went home and drove our message over the month of August," Mr. Watts says. "Now the numbers are 65 to 72 percent" in favor of a tax cut. To critics who fear that Republican marketing efforts will weaken the party's philosophical resolve, Mr. Hoekstra says the tax issue proves otherwise. "If we would have just listened to polling, we wouldn't have done tax cuts," he says. "It only had 30 to 35 percent of the people in favor. But we said, 'It's the right thing to do.' Our job is not to take a look at the poll. Our job is to go out and educate the American people as to why the tax package is the right thing to do for the country." According to Mr. Hoekstra, House Republicans will be similarly single-minded in upcoming debates. Sub-groups of the CWG have been assigned to each of the four priority issues laid out by House Speaker Denny Hastert-education, taxes, Social Security, and defense. One by one, those issues will get their moment in the spotlight, backed by a communications effort stressing how Republicans are "securing the future." "We recognize that if we're going to be successful, we have to be focused," Mr. Hoekstra says. "That's why you hear us talking about our four key issues. In the past, whatever we were doing this week, we'd throw it up against the wall and hope something sticks. And after 12 months, we'd wonder why we hadn't made any progress-we were all over the map. "We've put together a longer-term perspective on this. So often, because of the very nature of the House-the 218-member, mob-rule mentality-there was no long-range thinking. It was, 'How do I get through the afternoon? How do I get through the evening? Maybe, How do I get through the week?' What we're trying to do is put together a blueprint that says, 'Here's what we are going to be doing for the next three months and the next 15 months,' so that it's all put into a context." That 15-month plan is nothing if not ambitious. Marketing pros are training up to 40 House members-from Speaker Hastert on down-in the fine art of political communication. Private polls have been commissioned to chart progress in each of the four key areas. Today, for instance, Republicans trail Democrats by more than 20 points on their handling of education issues. The goal: parity by October of 2000. And, early next year, look for slick, Madison Avenue-style ads promoting Republican accomplishments on taxes, education, Social Security, and defense. No agency has yet been selected to produce the spots, but the Republican Conference is looking at proposals. CWG is also working with the Senate, Republican governors, and GOP presidential candidates to unify the message further. Members of the CWG admit they're putting on a hard sell, but they insist they're not selling out. "Some of my corporate clients had a great product, but they put it in a bad package," recalls Mr. DeMint, a former advertising executive. He says the GOP's problem with swing voters is much the same: "We believe our policies are right, but we haven't translated that into benefits for people." The new marketing effort certainly rectifies that failing. "You will be richer, freer, and more secure with a Republican Congress and a Republican President," goes the so-called Republican Promise. No word on whether that comes with a money-back guarantee.

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