“Lincoln” and Party Images

December 3, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

I saw “Lincoln” over the weekend.  The period-piece aspects of the movie were easy to slip into – the clothes and speech, the hair style and whiskers – except for one.  It was the Republicans who wanted to end slavery; the Democrats were the party of the racists.  I couldn’t get today’s party images out of my mind.  Yet this wasn’t some bizarro world.  It was US history.

Brand images are sticky.  In the late 20th century, Oldsmobile tried to shed its codger image.  “Not your father’s Oldsmobile,” they said.   You don’t see that ad anymore.  You don’t see any Oldsmobile ads at all these days.  Or Oldsmobiles.  Efforts to change the brand don’t always go well.

Some Republicans are now calling for the party to change its image – “not your rich white uncle’s GOP.”  John Sides at WaPo’s Wonkblog  has discouraging data for those hopeful Republicans.  In the 1950s, the public saw the GOP as the party for the rich.  
Consider this poll question: “When you think of people who are Republicans, what type of person comes to mind?”   . . .  31 percent picked words like “wealthy” and “business executive” while only 6 percent chose “working class” and its kindred. 
Sixty years later, that image has not changed.  In a 2012 poll
most (54 percent) said that the Republicans were better for Wall Street; only 13 percent said this of Democrats. 
In the 1860s, the Republicans were the party of civil rights.  With help from strategists like Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater,* they managed to succeed in changing that image, but it took a century.  It seems a bit optimistic of conservatives to think that they will lose the Mr. Moneybags image in a few short years.

*The link will take you to an audio of the famous 1981 Atwater interview where he discusses the strategy of finding issues that, while not explicitly about race, still attract anti-Black voters.  In the good old days, says Atwater, you could simply say, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.”    Nowadays, you have to be more creative.

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