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Survey Links Presidential Candidates to Consumer Products - 2004-10-14

A study that attempts to interpret voter behavior by linking the presidential candidates with popular products says likely voters associate President Bush with so-called mainstay brands, such as Folgers coffee, while they see Senator John Kerry as a Starbucks type of new, upscale candidate.

If John Kerry were a car, he would be a BMW. If George Bush were a car, he would be a Ford. That is what likely voters think, according to a recent study by two market research firms.

Researcher Michael Berland says, "It was very interesting. President Bush was associated with mainstay brands, so in the coffee category he was associated with Folgers, in the car category he was associated with Ford, in the computer category he was associated with IBM, all very reliable brands that have been around forever. Kerry was associated with premium brands, so he was associated with Starbucks and BMW and Dell, all sorts of upstarts and challenging brands who have recently come on to the scene that are interesting, but have not been around as long as the other brands."

The survey asked 1,200 people to associate the two candidates with popular brands, then asked them to describe those products.

Among undecided voters, Senator Kerry appeared to have an advantage. For instance, many associate Senator Kerry with the discount store Target, then use the positive term "value for everyone" to describe their perception of Target. On the other hand, President Bush is associated with the older chain, K-Mart, which survey-takers describe as "irrelevant."

But that does not mean Senator Kerry came out on top. Mr. Berland says translating "interesting" into "useful" is an uphill battle for the best new products, and President Bush may have an edge because he represents stability in a time of war.

"The brand that you like and feel comfortable with gives you a certain feeling (of) certainty and reliability," Berland says. "On the other hand you can get bored. As Kerry has been saying, 'More of the same.' I think the challenge for Bush will really be to offer something new and different. He cannot just say 'Judge me on the past.' He is going to actually have to give voters something in the future. So the new and improved Bush I suspect is coming."

The researchers say their intent was not to support either candidate, or to provide marketing tips to either campaign.

Allen Adamson, who helped designed the survey, says presidential candidates are often marketed to the public the same way products are, by emphasizing their strong points and their usefulness to consumers. The idea behind this survey, he says, was to determine how voters think about this highly contested presidential race.

"People often have difficulty articulating what they feel about people or candidates," Mr. Adamson says. "If you give them the ability to sort brands it allows you to get a little deeper into what they are feeling, because they can express themselves using brands far better than they express themselves using words sometimes."

The most widely publicized voter poll is conducted each week by the Gallup organization, which directly asks voters who they would vote for if the election were held today.

Prior to the three televised presidential debates, President Bush held a slight lead. However, polls conducted during and after the presidential debates have indicated an edge in favor of Senator Kerry.

Frank Newport is editor-in-chief of the Gallup poll. He says Americans have long been eager for information about which candidate is ahead since the early straw polls were conducted in the 1800s. But he says polls themselves rarely influence undecided voters.

"It has not been documented scientifically that polls have a dramatic impact on how people think they are going to vote," Mr. Newport says. "That thesis has been around for many years, the so-called 'bandwagon' thesis, that if one candidate is ahead in the polling then everyone will want to be with the winner and that candidate will pick up steam. It does not happen that way. Many times candidates lose steam. George Bush was way ahead in the polls in September, yet that did not seem to make a difference when people decided they wanted to shift more back to Kerry, as they did in early October."

So whether Senator Kerry is classified as the hip, elite Starbucks coffee or George Bush is thought of the old reliable cup of steaming Folgers, Mr. Newport says no one can forecast for sure what will happen on election day. His only prediction, he says, is that because of the tight race, more voters will come out to cast their ballots.