Publication / DecodeDC/ Scripps
June 27, 2014
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Retail politics: The art of selling yourself to voters

A regular feature that decodes political phrases

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Successful politicians have to know how to sell themselves up close and personal – even door to door. They might not realize it, but they’re channeling the Avon Lady, the Fuller Brush man and the vacuum cleaner salesman when they get down to the back-slapping and baby-kissing approach. There’s even a name for it: Retail politics.

Where we’re hearing it:

When you think about it, politics is the ultimate game of sales. It’s all about selling an idea to Congress, to the White House and to the public — as well as the politician selling herself or himself..

The official definition for the term “retail politics” is:

A style of political campaigning in which the candidate attends local events in order to target voters on a small-scale or individual basis.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s current “Hard Choices” book tour could be considered an example of retail politics, although she hasn’t committed to running for president in 2016.  But, if you assume for a moment that she just might do it, then moving from state to state to meet people eyeball to eyeball seems to meet the definition.

The art of selling oneself usually comes in the form of whistle-stop campaigns, speeches at local community centers and political pitches at churches, schools and even restaurants. And, of course, let’s not forget knocking on door after door.

Retail politics is most noticeable leading up to presidential elections.

From an article The Atlantic ran about the practice going into the 2012 primaries:

Every four years, the media parachutes into Middle America. There are reports of fried butter sticks or fried Twinkies. We watch on television as pols flips burgers or trudge through the snow glad-handing voters. Pundits gauge how well pols sell salt of the earth. And we are told this retail politicking is the stuff that can make or break presidential wannabes.

Where did it come from?

Although the term itself doesn’t insinuate that there’s wrong-doing involved with this process, historically the phrase was more nefarious. When it first came about in the early 20th Century, “retail politics” sometimes referred blatantly to the practice of paying for votes.

In a 1993 editorial from the Observer-Reporter, the writers described the phrase “retail politics” as “immediately and tremendously useful” because of all of the types of politics it describes.

It can cover everything from handing out $10 and $20 to precinct leaders in local elections, as was the practice in harder times, to buying and selling in the White House and union offices.

It can describe kickbacks, political job-selling, handing out money to church leaders for any political purpose, contributions of illegal size carefully concealed [backing] of vendors, even the gains of discredited politicians from books about their stained careers.

Retail politics? Is there any other kind?

Today the term is often used snarkily. Why? Because the image of a suit-clad politician traipsing around middle America on a bus tour talking at local schools sounds like the epitome of desperation, or at least the last thing that a politician really wants to do.

But that doesn’t mean the strategy is unsuccessful. It has some serious benefits and has led to many success stories.

Numerous presidents are known for their salesman-like qualities and charisma. Like George W Bush, Bill Clinton and even Vice President Joe Bidden in his bid for presidential Democratic candidate in 2008. It’s safe to say that the “hey have I got a deal for you” personality helped get him the VP seat.

And then there’s John F Kennedy, who has been called the “King” of retail politics. That was most apparent in his 1960 presidential campaigning in Pennsylvania. According to the Times-Tribune, when trying to win the state Kennedy visited Pennsylvania five times, and in total he made multiple stops in 25 separate counties. And many of those stops were at local shopping malls.

Where will we see it?

Although retail salesmen may have started with make-up and home goods, politicians are just as keen at selling themselves to local populations. Often, how diligent they are is a make-it or break-it moment for elections. And that will become clear once again leading up to 2016.