Baseball and the GOP: To rebrand the party, think like a sports fan

Todd Winer Political Consultant
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This week’s GOP autopsy report, commissioned by RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, is a great start in the much-needed task of rebranding the Republican Party. As the chairman acknowledged, “the way we communicate our principles isn’t resonating widely enough” and “we have to be more inclusive.” The report contains 219 recommendations to “connect people to our principles.” To achieve that goal, the party will need a strategic vision of how voters think about politics, which is something that the report lacks. For that, the GOP can learn a lot from another American passion: baseball.

This year, about 75 million Americans will go to the baseball stadium to watch a ballgame, about the same number as those who will vote in next year’s election. We rarely think about why someone becomes a baseball fan, or why they root for a certain team. Nor do we usually think about why someone chooses to vote for a certain political party. But it’s actually a very useful exercise.

When it comes to baseball, fan loyalty has almost nothing to do with the brain, and almost everything to do with the heart. In all of history, there’s never been a baseball fan who rooted for his team because it had the lowest ticket prices, or because it had the most taxpayer-friendly stadium deal, or because its players did the most community service. For the vast majority of Americans, rooting for a baseball team — not to mention, voting for a political party — isn’t really a rational choice; it’s more of a statement of personal identity — a statement telling the world, “This is who I am.” And for most people, defining “who I am” starts with family and community, before branching out into areas like race, age, gender, and class.

Family is pretty straightforward. If your mom and dad are Yankee fans, you’re almost certainly a Yankee fan. The same is true in politics. If your mom and dad are Republicans, you’re almost certainly a Republican.

Community is also pretty straightforward. If you grew up in, say, Philadelphia, chances are pretty great you’re a Phillies fan. Likewise, someone who grew up in Republican territory like, say, suburban Dallas or rural Indiana is much more likely to become a Republican than a nearly identical person from Seattle or Santa Fe.

Cities with more than one baseball team, like New York or Chicago, show revealing breakdowns by race and gender. The racial split in Chicago between Cubs fans on the North Side and White Sox fans on the South Side is well-documented. In New York, there’s an intriguing gender gap between Mets and Yankee fans, with women gravitating a lot more to the Yanks. While there’s a few theories out there trying to explain that, one obvious answer leaps out: Yankees heartthrob Derek Jeter.

In sports, as in politics, people’s convictions can’t be conveniently reduced to who their parents are or what they look like. But those things are an important foundation, upon which more rational sentiments come into being. Once you’re attached to your team on an emotional level — seeing them as a personal reflection of who you are and what you care about most — a rational exterior comes into being through phrases like “the Red Sox are the best team because they have the most heart” or “the Republicans are the best party because they know how to create jobs.”

The Democrats understand this instinctively. In 2012, Barack Obama ran a content-free campaign in order to distract voters from the economic mess he created. Instead of running on his record, he deliberately tried to divide Americans by race (the “DREAM Act”), class (higher taxes on the rich), gender (the “War on Women”), and age (college loans and gay marriage). The Republicans tried relentlessly to steer the conversation back toward the economy, but their economic ideas — cutting taxes and cutting spending — drew mostly yawns. The politics of personal identity trumped policy.

We saw this most clearly with the “War on Women.” Democrats created this issue out of thin air to peel away women who might have voted Republican because of the economy. Despite Democrats’ best efforts, women knew there was never any crisis regarding access to contraception. Nor did women feel discriminated against when it came to health insurance. But that wasn’t the point. The point was, by running hard on these types of issues, the Democrats were giving women a powerful, unspoken message — “We, Democrats, respect and value women. We want to empower women. Republicans, on the other hand, are old-fashioned bigots.”

And for a lot of women, that was very important. The exit polls showed an historic gender gap between Obama and Romney. In fact, if Romney had managed to keep the gender gap at the manageable level John McCain did in 2008, he would have won the popular vote. That’s how powerful the Democrats’ “War on Women” was. Or more accurately, that’s how devastating the Republicans’ silence was. The Republicans simply refused to fight back. They didn’t feel comfortable talking about these types of issues. And they paid the price.

In the wake of their defeat, Republicans are starting to grasp the “politics of identity,” but only when it comes to Hispanics. When exit polls showed Hispanics voted for Obama by a 3-to-1 margin, many Republicans called for immigration reform. While there is merit to some reform, as with the “War on Women,” Republicans are overestimating the importance of policy, and underestimating the power of identity.

In this case, Republicans are essentially buying into the narrative that amnesty is “pro-Hispanic” and opposing amnesty is “anti-Hispanic,” even though polls of Hispanics show that immigration reform is usually a far lower priority than things like the economy and health care (where Democrats have huge leads). A better approach would be to fight the myth that being anti-amnesty is “anti-Hispanic,” establish a stronger grassroots presence in Hispanic communities, and make the entire Republican brand more appealing to Hispanics and all Americans.

What are some of the ways that tapping into the “politics of identity” could bolster the Republican brand? That should be its own article, but allow me to make a few suggestions:

1) Emphasize respect and appreciation for all Americans, regardless of background. The GOP is seen by too many Americans as being intolerant of women, racial minorities, gays, non-Christians, and the poor. While that might be an unfair stereotype, it’s the impression a lot of people have, especially young people. Moreover, the GOP doesn’t go out of its way to fight these impressions, and in too many cases, it legitimizes them. For example, June is known as “Pride Month” in the gay community. Last year, President Obama taped a message during Pride Month to show his respect for gay Americans. No Republican politician did the same. Maybe this year a few Republicans could join in.

2) Build a policy agenda — and a messaging strategy — around middle-class Americans. These days, the GOP’s policy and messaging seem mostly geared toward rich donors, rather than the 90 percent of Americans who consider themselves “middle class.” While middle-class Americans don’t hate the rich, they have a hard time understanding why the rich should pay fewer taxes. And they really do believe the mantra that the middle-class (not the rich) are the backbone of America. They look at the “Ryan Plan” — despite many of its positive attributes — and ask, “What’s in it for me?” The GOP needs to be more responsive to the “kitchen table” concerns of middle-class Americans, especially when it comes to education, health care, and retirement.

3) Be more “cool.” That might sound trite, but in some ways, it’s the most important advice I can offer. For just about everybody outside the Republican base, the GOP is hopelessly behind the times — on everything from science to popular culture to how human beings interact with each other. Meanwhile, the Democrats cultivate the image of being “in tune” with today’s trends while inspiring tomorrow’s progress. Republicans should stop going out of their way to pick fights with the symbols of what’s considered “fun” and “trendy” in modern America — whether that’s hip hop, Hollywood, or general concern for the environment. Instead, we should find strategic ways to use them to our advantage. America has always been a country geared toward the future. Ronald Reagan, for example, understood that. And so, there’s no real advantage — and a lot of disadvantages — in having a 1950s mindset in the year 2013, whether you’re a political party, a baseball team, or any other bedrock of modern America.

Like a behind-the-times baseball team, the GOP’s fundamental problem is that it’s not filling up the seats. Our fan base is shrinking, younger fans are flocking to other teams, and apathy is setting in. But despite all the challenges, we still have a rich tradition, the right principles, and a willingness to adapt. The key is to adapt to the times in the right way. The Republican Party has to reconnect with voters like a baseball team reconnecting with its fan base — building an emotional connection, tapping into the power of personal identity, and fighting threats to our brand, instead of ignoring them. If the GOP can do that, not only will we put more fans in the seats, we will win more elections and attain the necessary power to get America back on track.

Todd Winer is a political consultant with a focus on media and message development. He’s worked for many political leaders, including most recently, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chairman of the House Republican Conference.