Thursday, April 9, 2009

Cost Lost in Translation

How do we weigh the price of a candidate?

In a chapter of my thesis (just drafted) I discuss some of the difficulties involved with translating the ideas of branding into the political sphere. One big problem is how to deal with the issue of cost. Money and votes just simply aren't the same and shouldn't be treated as such. An often-made assumption that, conceptually speaking, the monetary the cost of a product in the context of a consumer market can be understood as the equivalent of a vote in the political sphere is both overly simplistic and (dare I say) wrong; product cost = x does not correlate to candidate cost = one vote.

Consumers may vary on their willingness to purchase a specific brand based on several factors, one of which is how much they are willing or able to spend. Elections, on the other hand, create a level playing field where every citizen is afforded the same amount to spend. Further, with monetary transactions, there is an implicit exchange of value; a seller provides a product or service in exchange for its equivalent value in money. Yet, how can the cost of support in exchange for a vote be similarly evaluated? Therefore, the perceived cost of voting for a candidate must be derived from an entirely different set of criteria.

While it is certain that no candidate will line up with voters' on the issues a hundred percent of the time, most voters are still able to choose a candidate to support. Potential voters must weigh the aspects of each candidate’s platform, considering what positions they may agree or disagree with against the issues most important to them. This trade off, I believe, is where the true cost of a candidate is determined. For example, an undecided voter may disagree with a candidate who has come out against specific energy alternatives such as offshore drilling and nuclear power. However, social issues may be of much greater salience to the voter in question, causing him or her to continue supporting the candidate if their stance on social issues is in alignment with theirs. The voter is thus willing to bear the "cost" of dissatisfaction with the position on energy policy in exchange for a similar position on social issues that they value more. That is, voters weigh cost based on what they perceive as the “lesser of two evils” – though I hate this axiom and it certainly oversimplifies the point.

In some instances voters may feel that the cost of either candidate is to high when compared to the issues that are most salient to them, and in these instances may become disenchanted with the political process or explore 3rd party alternatives.

One benefit to explaining (political) price in this way, is that it opens the door for another application of brand theory. Like strong brands, well-developed political brands may exercise greater flexibility in terms of position preference the minds of consumers. Consumers with favorable feelings toward a candidate may be more willing to forgive or overlook paying a higher position cost for that candidate. That is, brand credibility has the power to decrease sensitivity to price, (Keller, 2003). Therefore, if a consumer is loyal to a particular candidate they will be more willing to accept the cost of unfavorable issue positions.