Mark Penn, a former strategic adviser to President Bill Clinton, and then Hillary Clinton in her 2008 presidential run, derided the marketing messages of the field of 2020 Democratic candidates as too “fuzzy-wuzzy.”
Appearing on a panel on politics and media at CES in Las Vegas, Penn explained that in his experience as a pollster and strategists, he has found that there must be “five things you can clearly see or recall about a campaign. Does it have a memorable theme or slogan? Does it have a story, a biographical story, that incorporates its values? Does it have a clear target that it’s going after? Does it have a set of issues that it really stands upon? And, does it have edge against the competition?”
Donald Trump had all five of those objectives covered in 2016, Penn said. “Any grade-school student could have told you: ‘Make America great again.’ Here he was, a billionaire businessman who would fix things and take an unconventional view. He had issues, clearly, in trade, immigration, crime and taxes. Clearly, he had edge against the competition, calling them ‘crooked’ everything under the sun. And he had a target: working-class America.”
For even the most successful of the Democrats working to unseat Trump, by contrast, “nobody’s got more than three” of the five items on the checklist, Penn said. “They’re kind of fuzzy-wuzzy. … They’re still looking for that home-run campaign.”
Elaborating on the field, which faces a major test this month at the Iowa caucuses, Penn continued, “Nobody’s got slogans that anybody can remember. Nobody’s really talking about them. There are a couple of people with issues, there’s some biographical information. [Joe] Biden’s got his experience as vice president. [Elizabeth] Warren’s getting her bio out there a little bit, and I think she’s got her issues, like Medicare for all. Bernie Sanders has his socialist positioning. Biden isn’t as clear on some of the issues.”
Being “fuzzy-wuzzy is not good,” Penn added, “and that’s why there hasn’t been a lot of movement in this campaign” as the months have gone on.
Last year, Penn met with Trump to discuss the impeachment effort and has voiced some views in recent months that have been seen as sympathetic to the president. In addition to the Clintons, Penn has previously advised former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates. He is now president & managing partner of Stagwell Group and chairman & CEO of MDC Partners, whose operations include film and TV research.
Joining Penn on the panel, which was moderated by Axios co-founder and executive editor Mike Allen, was Rick Ridgeway, VP of Public Engagement at Patagonia. Ridgeway didn’t weigh in specifically on the 2020 race or media more generally, but detailed the company’s efforts to remain true to its outdoor-sports roots by supporting environmental causes. “I don’t even call it ‘climate change’ anymore,” he said. “It’s climate crisis.”
Given the setting at the gadget mecca of CES, the 45-minute session was surprisingly light on tech talk, never touching on topics like the role of social media in elections. But Penn did manage to work in a strikingly impassioned complaint about voice technology and creations like Amazon’s Alexa. “When you ask a bot to tell you the weather,” he groused, “you never know if it’s telling you the answer as information or because it wants to sell you an umbrella.”
He urged the audience to “ask tough questions” of Alexa, Siri and their ilk. “I always ask Alexa, ‘Are you male or female?'” Penn said. Technically, he explained, Alexa “is an ‘it,'” but often conceals its gender identity, which Penn described as being part of an ominous approach by large tech companies on the prowl for revenue.