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The Positioning of David Duke BY JAMES PRESLEY Texarkana E’VE HAD THE EARL of Louisiana, as A.J. Liebling so char acterized the flamboyant Earl Kemp Long toward the end of his career in the 1950s, and now we face the prospect of having the Duke of Louisiana, a.k.a. David Duke, on the American political scene for some time. How did it happen that Buddy Roemer, the former Democrat switched. to the Republican Party and the incumbent governor of Louisiana, didn’t even make the gubernatorial runoff? How did state representative David. Duke pushed Roemer out of the runoff? Duke had several things going for him that the pollsters seem not to have measured early in the race. Here are the Duke advantages: He benefits from the Four-Letter Factor. That is, his surname has only four letters. Easy to remember, easy to advertise, easy to say. In a local or even a statewide election this is often not a huge factor, for name recognition can be achieved by other means over a limited geographical space. But it’s always politically better to have a short name than a long name. The name DUKE loomed larger on political placards and on the TV screen than did ROEMER and EDWARDS. Duke is relatively young, telegenic, photogenic, and thus appealing to those who rarely trouble themselves with deeper issues anyway. There are a lot who vote like that. Duke may have gained name recognition for the wrong reasons in some minds, i.e., because of his Klan connections, but the fact remains, he has name recognition. Everybody in Louisiana and millions well beyond that state, it seems, know his name. His negative baggage is spruced up by the Six-Year Rule, which says that the voters’ memory slates are wiped reasonably clean every six years, changing the significance of even embarrassing losses and other unfortunate past history. Thus, under this rule, Duke’s dark past is ignored by many who once might have penalized him for it. Duke’s name recognition was enhanced by a losing, but respectable showing against the senior Senator from Louisiana, J. Bennett Johnston, in Duke’s earlier statewide race. Though Duke was only a state representative, the race against Johnston “qualified” him in the eyes of many as a figure of statewide stature and thus deserving to run for governor. Though his “law-and-order” and anti-welfare stands are little more’than veiled or transparent appeals to racist emotions, of white against black, they have proved effective for others in the past, as R. Reagan and G. Bush have demonstrated. Finally, Duke profits immensely from an advertising approach that has become one of the more dominant factors of the 1980s and 1990s not only in business but perhaps even more in politics. This is the concept of positioning. The Positioning of David Duke is a major factor in his swift climb from relative obscurity. Let’s examine it more closely. The concept of Positioning in advertising refers to “positioning” a product or a candidate in the mind of the buyer or the voter. If the candidate has no “position” in the mind of the voter, he will get no vote. It doesn’t much Matter what the candidate has done or will do if he doesn’t gain top rank in the voter’s mind by election day. To “position” himself at the top, he must have a quality or qualities that the voter likes, and he must communicate this simply and forcefully. The easiest way is to link his own image with a favorable image already in the voter’s mind, by comparing himself with that image already in place. We live in an over communicating society, where we are bombarded with ad James Presley is a writer who lives in Texarkana. 44 JANUARY 17 & 31, 1992 vertising constantly. Making a place in the voter’s mind is far from easy. Piggyback rides facilitate the solution. In one instance Duke hitched a ride on another politician’s place in American minds. When Duke proclaimed himself to be “the Boris Yeltsin of American politics,” he was doing more than making an outlandish claim to link himself with the Russian foe of Old Guard Communist Politics in the Soviet Union. He was trying to say: ‘That Klan business is all behind me; I’m really rebelling against the stagnating, oppressive system like that man over there is doing, so when you think of me, think of what he is doing instead of what I used to do.’ In effect, Duke is trying to reposition himself in the public’s mind, wiping out the older images, white sheets, swastikas and all, and replacing them with the reformer’s symbol, ready to do battle with Mean 01′ Gov’ment that’s Keeping the People Down and Taxing ‘Em. Now, in the process, nobody and surely least of all Duke and his advisers expects the voter who liked the Courageous Klansman image in the first place to bother shedding memories of those now-controversial ties. After all, Klan leader Duke is the one that attracted them in the first place. In the play for the Boris Yeltsin role, those voters assuredly will go along with the charade, for most of all it gives them a perfectly respectable rationale for supporting him, even lending respectability to any of their own prejudices. He is in no danger of losing these voters. But he stands to gain most by cosmetically blurring racist policies with code names that most Americans by now understand all too well they go beyond vintage Reagan. Then by rechiseling his image to position himself in the public mind as a defender of the forgotten middle class well, there’s a bonanza of votes there. Then there is a minor positioning ploy, a kind of defensive backup for those not impressed by the Yeltsin image. Duke has also been compared to Huey Long, the man who once controlled the state lock, stock, and barrel. The plays upon many emotions in Louisiana, including those who still revere the name and those who still vote for the one most likely to wear the mantle of the long-dead Kingfish. Politically positioning has proved effective time after time, apparently ‘often without its victims’ being aware that it existed. For instance, George Bush repositioned Michael Dukakis, and to some extent, the Democratic Party, with, among other things, the Willie Horton ads in the 1988 campaign. Racism aside, the ads sought to reposition Dukakis and his party as caring not for the safety of middle-class white constituents, but for the wellbeing of criminals and black criminals, to boot. In an ironic twist of justice, Duke himself was repositioned by the Edwin Edwards campaign, Which dredged up his American Nazi and Klu Klux Klan past. The publicity may have given him a level of national. exposure almost impossible for a lowly state representative, but it also put him in a hole in Louisiana he could not dig out of in his race for governor.. One may be certain this repositioning of Duke that was begun by Democrat Edwards will be expanded by Republicans Bush and Buchanan, while Democrats will use Duke to reposition the Republican Party. The Duke factor has triggered panic, much of it unjustified, in both parties. The professional, well-coordinated Duke campaign, using the most sophisticated techniques of modem advertising, may not have been deeply understood by the Louisiana electorate, but the voters there are not much different in this respect from their counterparts elsewhere. Relatively fe.w too few Outside their state recognize the refinement that positioning has brought to American politics, and how effectively it may become, often to the detriment of the political process, without the average voter’s conscious knowledge. We have become a nation of consumers, with advertising agencies calling the shots. Our ultimate tragedy will come when the politics that we “consume” has been devalued to merely another manufacturer’s “product,” with the voter a manipulated minion of the slickest, often subtle thinking of ‘consultants” who care little about anything but winning.