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Dropping the Ball
An insider ponders the failings of Bill Bradley’s campaign


On March 7th, Bill Bradley lost his bid to be the presidential nominee for the Democrats.

He lost because he was seen as a cerebral, double-chinned, private, nonflashy, blandly dressed, uncompromising, unpolished, risk-taking, noncombative candidate who emphasized ephemeral issues, such as “goodness,” and nonmaterial values. At the same time, he concentrated on the disenfranchised and refused to indulge to the cameras.

On the other hand, if he would have been as a cerebral, double-chinned, private, nonflashy, blandly dressed, uncompromising, unpolished, risk-taking, noncombative candidate who emphasized ephemeral issues, such as “goodness,” and nonmaterial values, while concentrating on the disenfranchised and refused to indulge to the cameras, he could have won.

No, you are not reading double. The sad fact for Bradley was that his campaign—that includes his advisers, aides, staff, the candidate himself and the people responsible for his advertising (that includes me)—could not or would not turn negatives into positives.

Instead, they chose to gloss over the nonslick nature of the man rather than shine a spotlight on him. That way, everyone could clearly see how gloriously antithetical he was to the politician-as-usual role.

The politician-as-usual will let focus groups dress him. The politician-as-usual will reinvent himself on a regular basis. The politician-as-usual will not be afraid to lie, but will be terrified of telling people what they don’t want to hear. The politician-as-usual will change his message depending on the group he talks to. The politician-as-usual would probably opt for liposuction on a dangling chin.

Bill Bradley is not this person, nor did the people want the politician-as-usual. But with all the political nonsense and slimy politicos who intrude into their lives annually, it’s hard to tell the wheat from the chaff. If you can’t differentiate between the two, you’ll probably go the safe route. And that’s precisely what the voters did.

The Bradley campaign needed to help the voter see the differences between Gore and Bradley. It didn’t. And that’s where the Bill Bradley campaign failed.

The failure wasn’t caused by a lack of insight. The campaign knew the electorate—Clinton fatigue aside—was sick and tired of the ways of Washington. Sick and tired to the point of absolute cynicism. From there, you don’t have to be a genius to know that a candidate who can offer the hope of lifting this weighty cynicism from the voters’ shoulders can win. The campaign understood this.

They also knew that Bradley could have been a yoke remover. They just forgot to tell that to the public. Their sin wasn’t one of ignorance; they simply forgot the first step. They assumed that running with a traditional bio spot, a couple of issue ads and a debate here and there would suffice. The electorate would lovingly jump to the conclusion that Bill was just the man they were looking for: real, honest, sincere and genuinely caring. And Gore wasn’t. Obviously, the conclusion jumping never happened.

It takes hubris to believe that the public is hanging onto every word; that they’re attending to the nuances and the deeper meanings. That they’re getting it. Wrong!

It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling soap or a presidential candidate. The fact is people have better things to do than expend a whole bunch of mental energy on your message. So if you have something important to say, say it!

Say it in an interesting way, but say it. If you think Bradley is more honest, more sincere, more human, more caring, more insightful, less manipulative, less plastic, etc., then let the people know.

Don’t hide it or disguise it or assume people will get it through deductive reasoning or some kind of osmosis. If you think it helps your cause that your candidate is not a fashion plate or a great performer or a polished debater, that he is not your politician-as-usual, then share that conclusion.

For crying out loud, why in the world would you want to keep it to yourself? Why wouldn’t you want to frame or position Bradley so people could get a chance to see him in the same positive light you do?

This all became painfully obvious watching the first Gore/Bradley debate. The room we were in was filled with Democrats, mainly Bradley supporters and undecideds. As the debate went on, the Bradley people were ecstatic.

To them, it was clear that Bradley was the real one of the two—not the politician-as-usual. He was human, honest and trustworthy. He was inspiring in his own special way and believable. Bradley projected a confident air, the next president of the United States. It was a no-brainer.

But alas, the undecideds, who were far from brainless, weren’t convinced. To them, Al and Bill were more alike than different. They both seemed to be pretty good guys.

What! Can’t you see the difference? Can’t you see? What’s the matter with you? Well, nothing’s the matter. They just didn’t see Bradley through our lenses. And the pity of it was that in the ensuing months, nobody saw it our way.

The campaign did not clearly illuminate Bradley in terms of character. If it did, the ads, the issues and the debates that followed would have been bathed in the warm glow of victory’s beacon.

Perhaps nothing would have changed the outcome.

The fact is Bradley was a long shot from the beginning. He was up against a sitting vice president, who not only had the soaring economy and the establishment on his side, but is one of the most relentless—if not ruthless campaigners—around.

Add to this the fact that McCain sucked up almost all of the press coverage after New Hampshire and the odds for the long shot got that much longer.

Yet it’s interesting to consider what could have happened if the campaign was able to establish another way of thinking about Bradley.

What if the campaign had gone a bit farther in positioning Bradley as a “different” candidate? What if it opened the door a little wider so the voters could clearly see a man who did not let polls tell him how to think or what to say; a man who refused to allow focus groups to dress him.

What if the voters had gotten to know a man who would not just tell them the things they wanted to hear? What if they were opened to the possibility that there was a candidate who didn’t speak only in sound bites; who cared more about the issues than how he looked on TV?

Would any of that have mattered? We’ll never know. The question we wrestled with throughout the campaign was: “Should we remain positive or go negative?” Well, that was the wrong question.

The question was: “How do we best differentiate the two?” And the answer to that question was standing—in a nonalpha male suit—on the stage in Manchester, N.H., during that very first debate.

All we had to do was shine a light on him. But we never did.

 

Marvin Waldman, Adweek—March 20, 2000

Copyright © 2000 Adweek and BPI Communications Inc. All rights reserved.