A Party Like Toyota: A Marketing Analysis Of John McCain’s Ascendancy

Looking at the election returns this morning, I note that most of my sources have not distributed many delegates from California yet. But a look at the Fish Wrapper’s graphic illustration of county-by-county returns tells a couple of interesting stories — on the Democratic side, a rather close-seeming race, but on the Republican side, because of the district-by-district winner-take-all rules here, a powerful victory for McCain. Congressional districts are not the same as counties, but comparing the district maps to the county maps, it still seems to me that McCain has a plurality in every district in the state. Romney has very small pluralities in only three counties. Romney took Shasta County by about 650 votes. Shasta County is part of the second district, which also includes seven other counties and portions of two more. Looking in those other seven counties, McCain’s net margin of victory is far greater than Romney’s in Shasta. Romney got the plurality in Sierra County by a mere 14 votes. McCain’s margin of victory in the other six-and-a-fraction counties in the fourth district are substantially more than 14 votes (although El Dorado county is not yet reporting all of its precincts). And Romney was, as I thought he would be, relatively successful in the Central Valley, taking a plurality of relatively populous Fresno County, by about 500 votes. Fresno County, however, is split between the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st districts, and the neighboring counties within those districts were all for McCain with numbers big enough to swamp Romney’s win. It would take a more detailed analysis, precinct-by-precinct, to see if the exact permutations of where Romney was able to squeak by McCain to determine if he will carry even a single district here. For that, I will await official results from the Secretary of State, since that data is both hard to find and more tedious to compile than I care to look at.

The upshot, however, is that McCain looks likely to walk away with all 170 of California’s delegates that were up for grabs yesterday. Right now, my favored delegate tracker on CNN is indicating that McCain won here, but has not allocated any delegates to him. I have awarded McCain those delegates in my delegate counter. I do not have as much knowledge about other states, so I’m relying on CNN, Fox, the Green Pages, the NYT, the Fish Wrapper, and MSNBC to supplement the other delegate counts.

Adding the 170 delegates to McCain puts McCain near 800 delegates right now. That is very close to the margin of delegate distribution that would appear to make a McCain candidacy inevitable. And as we have seen, this will produce no shortage of caterwauling on the part of the “conservatives,” whose invective has become more heated rather than less. I’ve seen plenty of Sour-Grape Republicans musing on the Internets about sitting out the general election rather than voting for McCain — almost as though they want Hillary Clinton to be elected our forty-fourth President. Hugh Hewitt seems to have reached “acceptance” stage of his process of mourning the imminent loss of the Romney campaign, but he’s relatively advanced in that regard.

If our next President must be a Democrat, as I am no longer so certain must inevitably be the case, I would prefer to see Obama than Clinton. I discern few meaningful policy differences between the two, but Obama seems to have both more honesty and character and he brings a different attitude than Clinton does. Clinton is very Establishment, and it’s Establishment Democrats who really turn me off. Don’t get me wrong, I’d prefer to see a Republican, which now means McCain, but in a forced choice between Clinton and Obama, I’d pick Obama.

Still, I continue to be confused about all the right-wing angst about McCain, as I have been for more than a year. I’m not alone in that regard. He’s flawed, to be sure, but he’s also pretty darned conservative on a bunch of important issues. He’s been the most pro-war candidate out there for a long time. He’s made waves and not been afraid to throw stones around within the party – but then again, that can be said of just about all of the Republican candidates for President still in the race. Romney never had a problem attacking McCain, Giuliani, Huckabee, or Thompson. Huckabee’s been laying into Romney for a while now, too – especially using Christian code words to rally evangelicals to his camp, a tactic that I note with some pleasure has not been entirely successful. (This, by the way, speaks well of the majority of evangelical voters, who have proven themselves well able to look beyond a candidate’s religion and support someone like Romney, despite what they surely feel are significant religious differences.) He’s in favor of immigration reforms that do not involve hunting illegal aliens for sport, but the fact is that guest worker immigration reforms have a strong conservative pedigree. So in terms of the kind of product he represents being given the Republican brand, objectively, he ought to be a perfectly acceptable choice.

One thought by Rick Moran at Right Wing Nuthouse is that McCain’s ascendancy means that the Republicans are reinventing themselves, and I think that if he’s right, that’s probably a net improvement for the GOP. But even he is getting lots of generally unarticulated whining about McCain being “liberal,” which means the people who have been getting their way for the past, oh, ten years or so find themselves forced to either accept half a loaf or cede power to people who are willing to bargain for half a loaf. This, it seems to me, is simple denial that the Democrats have managed to take the majority in Congress and they did it for a reason – the public doesn’t like what George W. Bush has been selling since 1999. Not a surprise that people who have some power are reluctant to part with it.

But when your product isn’t selling and the competitors are taking your market share from you, the solution is not to put more of the same product that people aren’t buying on the shelves. You may really like it, and it may have sold well in the past. But if that’s not where the market is, you need to move to that place rather than hoping automotive marketing will make the market come to you. Remember New Coke? Pepsi Crystal? Inflatable hightops? The market got over all of those things pretty quickly – and the manufacturers of those products did not respond by putting more of those products on the shelves, as if to tell customers, “No, you really do want clear cola, here buy more of it.” Instead, they stopped selling something the public obviously didn’t want, and either tried something else (Slice) or went back to something that had worked (Coca-Cola Classic). They recovered from their missteps and have only used their past mistakes as learning exercises.

Now, consider what Ford did when gas prices started to go up about five years ago. Ford increased its production of sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks, even as demand for them decreased. GM followed suit. But foreign manufacturers (who aren’t really foreign anymore, any more than GM or Ford are “American”) like Toyota and Volkswagen put smaller vehicles on the market instead, and their market share increased at the expense of Ford and GM. Ford responded by making still more SUV’s and trucks. To move these vehicles, they had to slash their prices and minimize their profits. Ford found that demand for SUV’s pickup trucks had hit the floor; it would not go any lower than where it was – although once that happened, Ford’s market share increased so that now more trucks than ever are Fords – but there are still fewer trucks and SUV’s being sold than there were before.

In political terms, Ford achieved greater ideological purity in a diminished voter pool. This is not to say that money can’t be made there, but not nearly as much money as in other segments of the market. Ford is no longer the #2 auto manufacturer in the world – it’s #4 or #5 now. But if you want a truck, you’ll think Ford first. But if you want a regular passenger car, chances are you think Toyota first. Toyota has won because it build and sells cars with broad appeal, has acquired a reputation for quality, and manages to get those cars to market at competitive prices. Toytoa and Nissan figured out that there was a market for station wagons, and had the good sense to not call them that. It doesn’t dominate any particular segment of the market, but it does dominate the market as a whole by having big shares of every segment of the market.

The Republican Party should not become a party like Ford. It should become a party like Toyota. It should not become the distilled source of ideological purity and uniformity, at the expense of having broad electoral appeal. The point of a political party is that it present a sufficiently broad amalgamation of different interests that most voters be able to get behind it. Of necessity, it will involve making some compromises and deals between its interest groups, and as such, it can also reach out to interest groups not within its core coalition – particularly when it is in the minority, as it is today. And of course, the other party will be doing the same thing since it is subject to the same pressures. That is, when you think about it, Madisonian pluralism at work — exactly as contemplated in Federalist #43. For the life of me, I can’t see that as a bad thing, even if it means that my side doesn’t always win.

But in the meantime, all those people who really, really like the political equivalent of those Ford trucks are doing a tremendous amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth. There is, so far as I can tell, absolutely no profit in it. That is to say, the right wing gains no more profit from disavowing McCain than a spoiled child gains by throwing a temper tantrum when denied a piece of candy or a toy — which is what the right-wing punditocracy is starting to resemble more and more each day.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.