By historic standards, the next president of the United States, should most definitely not be John McCain.
With an unpopular two-term president and a sluggish economy, the candidate from the incumbent party is typically dead on the campaign trails, the polls and the ballot box. But not this year.
Even though he is from the incumbent party and even though he has been in Washington for over 20 years, McCain is unique because he can still credibility claim to be a reformer and an agent of change.
A year ago who would have guessed we would be where we are today and that the race would be so close, so interesting and that the two contending candidates would be Obama and McCain?
A year ago, who would have guessed there would be a woman on a ticket but not on the Democratic side. Not even Sarah Palin would have guessed it would be from the Repulican party and that it would be her.
One thing has always been clear, this election is about change. Change is what the voters crave most. The nomination of both Obama and McCain make that perfectly obvious. Whoever can effectively sell his brand of change will win in November.
Both candidates have credible messages of change, both have build strong brands and both have avid followers.
This is a battle of Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi-Cola. (Neither is weak like RC Cola or Mike Dukakis.) About half of the people prefer Coke while the other half prefer Pepsi. It is the sign of two powerhouse brands when there is no room left for a third brand.
McCain is Coca-Cola. As part of the incumbent party that has dominated the White House for the past fifty years, he is the real thing. He embodies courage, duty and honor. As part of a legendary Naval family McCain has a long history serving our country, his fighting in Vietnam and years spent as a POW are legendary. His reputation has always been as a maverick. McCain's strength is his experience. His weakness is that he has been around forever; he is not new and different.
Obama is Pepsi-Cola. Obama is the choice of a new generation. Pepsi said, "You don't want to drink what your parents drank. You are the Pepsi Generation!" With a whole new taste and look, Pepsi stormed into the cola aisle just as Obama stormed onto the political stage. Obama is new, young, different and embodies the idea of change and hope. Obama's strength is that he represents the choice of a new generation. His weakness is that not everybody wants a new generation to take over.
How can either McCain or Obama become President? I'm going to lay out my best plan for each not as an activist or a supporter but as a marketing strategist.
What should McCain do?
Whether you are selling popcorn or want to be the next president the key to success is owning a word in the mind. McCain's word is "maverick." He needs to reinforce and repeat that word as often as possible. His signs, commercials and speeches should constantly and consistently talk about his maverick reputation and how Washington needs a maverick to deliver real change.
Consultants love "attack ads." But attacking your opponent and calling him/her names is not the way to look like a winner, you look like a whiner.
A better idea is to start your dialog with an idea that already connects with what's in the voter's mind. State the obvious, focus on your word, give your position then reverse it for your opponent.
"I'm for cutting your taxes. My opponent is for increasing your taxes."
"I'm for less government. My opponent is for more government."
"I'm for straight-talk. My opponent is for highfalutin talk."
McCain definitely picked the best possible choice for VP. Sarah Palin reinforces his maverick position, and comes from as far from Washington DC as one can get and did I mention she is a woman. What more could you want?
Well how about that fact that she is a fabulous speaker, a hockey-Mom, young, attractive and conservative.
McCain needs to stop talking about "Country First." This was the slogan of the convention and has been dominating the rally signs. Forget it.
A good slogan is one that can be easily and credibly used in reverse. Does anyone believe Obama puts "Country Last"? Or that Obama is unpatriotic? (Sure a few right-wing nuts might, but they were already voting for Republican.) The reality is: everybody that runs for president loves America.
McCain needs to stick to talking about being a "Maverick" in order to win.
What should Obama do?
You got to hand it to Obama. Through excellent branding strategy, he was able to bring down the greatest living political brand in the business: Clinton.
How he beat Hillary Clinton was simple. He focused on one word, one message, one sign: "Change." Hillary waffled from "experience" to "change" to "ready" to "solutions." She changed message as often as she changed her pantsuits. Not a good strategy.
Obama has become a political superstar. He combines charisma, presence, eloquence, style and message. His words inspire. His words give people hope. He has connected to the youth of America like no other leader of this generation.
Like McCain, Obama should refrain from negative attacks. And he should forgot about attacking Sarah Palin at all. Attacking the VP candidate just makes him look bad.
The key to running against the incumbent party's candidate is to say "Who wants a third term of this crummy guy's policies?" The problem is that McCain was not Bush's VP. The problem is that McCain is known as a maverick and has come out strongly against Bush so the third Bush term putdown has not stuck.
"No More Bush" gets people excited doesn't help Obama beat McCain.
Obama needs to run against the Republican party. Obama needs to say we CAN'T have four more years of Republicans in the White House. We have to get the Republicans out of the White House in order to bring about real change.
We need a new generation to come in and clean Washington up. Thank you Senator McCain, I look forward to working with you and praise your spirit of change, but now it is the Democrats turn to take charge.
Obama's word is "change." He has been so effective for so long because he uses change in every speech and every sign. He has been consistently and doggedly focused on change.
Obama needs to repeat his message of change but add the idea that electing a Republican would mean there is no change. In order to achieve real change we need to get the Republicans out of the White House.
Obama should say:
"I'm for change in Iraq. My opponent is for more of the same."
"I'm for having a Democrat in the While House. My opponent would mean just another Republican."
"I'm for changing the tax code to help the middle class. My opponent is same tax breaks for the rich."
Obama had a lose/lose/lose choice for picking a VP. If he went with Hillary, he might get the White House, but he would be stuck there with two people he cannot stand. (and who could blame him)
If he went with another young outsider, he would be labeled the ticket with no experience. If he went with (as he did) a respected, boring insider who has been around forever, he would get labeled as not being for real change.
I think he picked the best of three terrible options. With his choice of Sarah Palin, McCain exploited Obama's choice. But in the end the candidate at the top of the ticket is the one who wins or loses the race.
This year's race is a classic battle between Coke & Pepsi, between McCain & Obama. But unlike soft drinks, you can't have both. Only one man will win.