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The power of candidate branding

NBC's Chuck Todd reveals why Barack Obama and John McCain have political brands that their competitors would fight over.
McCain 2008 New Hampshire
Republican presidential hopeful John McCain campaigns at a rally at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Monday, Jan. 7, 2008. Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: NBC News

If the current spate of polls are on the right track then we're going to see two of the most organically branded campaigns of all time defeat two of the most well-tested (and re-tooled) branding efforts of all time.

Barack Obama and John McCain have political brands that some would kill for right now. For Obama, the brand is a unifying change agent; For McCain, it's a straight shooting, gritty, experienced hand.

And their brands have only become stronger thanks to their respective opponents -- Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney -- who have attempted "new and improved" re-branding campaigns throughout the last six months to seemingly no avail.

Perhaps the best way to compare McCain and Obama vs. Romney and Clinton is to look at their announcement speeches and judge their relative campaign consistency.

Here's Romney in his announcement speech last February:

"Throughout my life, I have pursued innovation and transformation. It has taught me the vital lessons that come only from experience, from failures and successes, from the private, public and voluntary sectors, from small and large enterprise, from leading a state, from being in the arena, not just talking about it. Talk is easy, talk is cheap. It is doing that is hard. And it is only in doing that hope and dreams come to life."

If memory serves, the announcement was a semi-dud for Romney; the backdrop was horrible and the speech mundane. The excerpt above, when looking back at it after 11 months of campaigning, can be picked apart by even the least cynical observer. The word that sticks out to me is "transformation."

And that's what cost Romney his brand. He spent more time trying to prove he was a status-quo Republican instead of proving he was a competent innovator.

Now, he's trying to go back and prove that he's the closest thing to a change agent the GOP has right now. The sad thing for Romney is that, arguably, that was true 11 months ago. But now, after all the re-branding campaigns to prove that he was a conservative, a Reagan-Bush Republican, Romney's lost the credibility to argue that he can be a change agent.

He attempted to run two simultaneous bio campaigns, one on the Republican front and one on the personal front. Romney's opponents had a field day finding contradiction on the Republican front and it drowned out his attempts on the personal front.

And this explains why he's struggling in New Hampshire. These voters thought they knew Romney; he was a neighboring favorite son; a moderate, pro-business Republican. Many in New Hampshire probably don't know this new Romney, and since this new brand is different from the inital brand these voters were exposed to six years ago, they've simply raised an eyebrow to both pitches.

Now I was going to bookend this Romney-Clinton branding problem with a look at Clinton's announcement speech. And then it dawned on me, she never gave one. This is so symbolic. Think about it, she never gave a rationale for her candidacy -- other than she was "in it to win it," making losses more devastating since she didn't "win it."

Ok, that's harsh, she certainly had a rationale for her candidacy, but to not herald it in a traditional announcement speech really does lend to some head scratching.

Did they at least have an announcement speech laid out for themselves to follow as their rationale? Could that be the reason they seemed to change messages or mantras so much these past six months; because they never answered the initial "why am I running for president" question for voters or themselves?

Talk about the ultimate Roger Mudd moment (see Ted Kennedy, 1980) -- Clinton never told voters in that big setting -- the one roadblock of media coverage every candidate gets -- why she was running for POTUS and why she wanted to be POTUS.

The closest thing Clinton gave to an announcement speech was her exploratory YouTube announcement video.

In that video, here's the passage that seemed to outline what she planned to campaign on:

"As a senator, I will spend two years doing everything in my power to limit the damage George W. Bush can do. But only a new president will be able to undo Bush's mistakes and restore our hope and optimism...Only a new president can renew the promise of America -- the idea that if you work hard you can count on the health care, education, and retirement security that you need to raise your family. These are the basic values of America that are under attack from this administration every day."

Some form of these issues have been a theme throughout her campaign, but a bigger rationale underscoring her brand never materialized. It appears Mark Penn believed the Clinton brand was about working hard to do the little things; something that most voters would believe of a Clinton. But this isn't a "little thing" election; it's a "big thing" election; The above rationale in the video announcement is something somebody runs on if running for a second or third term, not a first.

Now, let's contrast these Romney and Clinton announcements with McCain and Obama.

Here's an excerpt from McCain's April announcement:

"I'm not running for President to be somebody, but to do something; to do the hard but necessary things not the easy and needless things. I'm running for President to protect our country from harm and defeat its enemies. I'm running for President to make the government do its job, not your job; to do it with less and to do it better. I'm not running to leave our biggest problems to an unluckier generation of leaders, but to fix them now, and fix them well."

McCain's saying much of the same thing now; nothing's changed in his rationale for a run; it's experience and grit and straight talk. The only time McCain's hit bumps in the road is when he was trying to veer from his core brand, when he tried to become the establishment candidate, he bombed; Now, he's back to being "McCain Classic."

"New McCain" didn't sell and to McCain's credit, just like Coke, he tossed that brand aside and re-pitched the classic.

And here's an excerpt from Obama's announcement speech; in fact, it's the second paragraph:

"We all made this journey for a reason. It's humbling, but in my heart I know you didn't come here just for me, you came here because you believe in what this country can be. In the face of war, you believe there can be peace. In the face of despair, you believe there can be hope. In the face of a politics that's shut you out, that's told you to settle, that's divided us for too long, you believe we can be one people, reaching for what's possible, building that more perfect union."

He said this in February and could have easily have said this today in Nashua, N.H.

I accept the fact that this is an easy Monday morning quarterbacking-like column to write, but it's amazing how much one can learn about the ability of candidate to keep their brand by examining what they said at the start of this race and what they are saying now.

No doubt a good politician can react to events of the day but not in the absence of their core rationale for their candidacy.

Clinton never really offered one; Romney offered one but immediately veered from it in the intervening months and is only now trying to go back to that intial brand idea. Meanwhile, what McCain and Obama said they would do and be at the start of this campaign is what they said six months ago, six weeks ago, six days ago and six hours ago.