First Lady, Senator from New York, presidential candidate, Secretary of State. Hillary Clinton has a long history in politics, which Marco Rubio was quick to use against her as he launched a bid for the Republican nomination earlier this week.
“Now just yesterday, a leader from yesterday began a campaign for president by promising to take us back to yesterday,” he said.
How does Clinton avoid this “yesterday” role with voters? How does she get people to listen again and listen anew, perhaps even change their minds? Getting voters or consumers to take a second look at a candidate, a company, a product — something they already think they know — is tough work, says Scott Davis, the chief growth officer at Prophet, a brand strategy firm.
“One of the most important things in this campaign process is that there’s a lot that people think they know, and a lot they don’t know, about Hillary Clinton,” says Karen Finney, a Clinton campaign spokesperson. That’s why Clinton is starting small and slow, touring in a van she calls “Scooby,” having one-on-one conversations with potential voters.
It’s important Clinton be authentic and very clear about her purpose, Davis says. It helps if she can give other people the tools to advocate on her behalf. She may also need to plan something big, bold or innovative to shake people from their preconceived ideas.
Howard Belk, co-CEO and chief creative officer at Siegel+Gale, says Clinton might reference something about her history in a way that won’t alienate her supporters, but with fresh ideas and programs. After her supporters, Belk says the second group Clinton should be targeting is the “switchers.” In brand terms, they’re the people who may open the product, even if they don’t use it. But he advises against trying to pander to a third category, detractors. They’re a lost cause.
The New York Times recently reported that the Clinton campaign has hired Kristina Schake, former communications chief to Michelle Obama, who was in charge of the current First Lady’s image and appearances on”Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and the Oscars.
But Clinton is only one of many prominent politicians who have undergone a rebranding. We called up a couple of political scientists to ask them about other notable political reinventions, and how successful they were.
Like Clinton, Nixon was very much a known commodity when he ran for president in 1968. He was a congressman and a vice president before famously losing to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, and he went on to lose the California gubernatorial race in 1962.
Generally, in today’s political environment, “if you lose a presidential general election you’re done, you don’t get a chance to reinvent yourself,” says Vincent Hutchings, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan.
Nixon worked on several other campaigns, taking some cues from Barry Goldwater and George Wallace and earning favors, Hutchings says. By the late 1960s Nixon reemerged as a “law and order” candidate. He also made a bid for likability by hiring a joke writer and appearing on “Laugh-In,” notes UCLA political science assistant professor Chris Tausanovitch. He finally won the presidency in 1968.
“He wasn’t ever going to pull off the same kind of persona as a Kennedy, be that Robert or John F. Kennedy,” Hutchings says. “But he seized upon this growing unease in some sectors of the American electorate regarding the progress of the civil rights movement, urban unrest, [and so on].”
Specter changed parties at the beginning and end of his political career — two reinventions in two very different political climates with two very different results.
“Voters don’t like it when people appear to be switching their views,” UCLA’s Tausanovitch says. “In fact, voters like it so little that they would prefer a candidate who sticks to their guns, rather than a candidate who switches their views in a way that [the voter] might even favor.”
Specter pulled of a party switch in 1965 and went on to enjoy a 30-year career in the Senate as a moderate Republican. When he ran as a Democrat in 2009, Specter lost in the primary, in part because partisan lines were far more rigid, Tausanovitch says.
“These days the legislative parties are incredibly sorted out. Liberal Republicans are still a lot more conservative than conservative Democrats, which in the ’60s was not true,” Tausanovitch says. “There were Rockefeller Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats and boll weevils and all of these moderates … that could fit in either party.”
Gore’s problem was similar to Hillary Clinton’s, Tausanovitch says: he came off as arrogant, stilted, and his plain blue suits were bland.
“[The blue suit] conveys dullness, convention, safety and, ultimately, boredom,” the Washington Post wrote in May 1999. “In other words, the Blue Suit-ness of the suit underlines the Al Gore-ness of Al Gore.”
Gore was told to loosen up by none other than embattled departing President Bill Clinton. Gore tried brown suits and polo shirts, but just got made fun of.
Instead Gore came into his own after losing to George W. Bush in 2000. Gore became an environmental advocate and appears far more at ease in public, Tausanovitch says, though it doesn’t appear his politics have changed much. Instead, it seems getting out of politics gave Gore the re-brand he needed during his campaign.
“It looks like he has come into his own as an authentic and better public speaker, but his problem to begin with was not that he was hiding something,” Tausanovitch says. “That’s not an experiment that we don’t get to run with Hillary Clinton, but it’s certainly something that people will speculate about.”
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