McCain: The Longstanding Brand That's Now Hip

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In a three-part series, NPR examines the presidential campaigns as business school case studies — where the bottom line is votes rather than profit. Browse previous reports:

Part One: The Obama Franchise: Harnessing Activists' Energy

Part Three: The business model for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign.

John McCain i i

Arizona Sen. John McCain speaks on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Yuir Gripas/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Yuir Gripas/AFP/Getty Images
John McCain

Arizona Sen. John McCain speaks on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Yuir Gripas/AFP/Getty Images
Business professors compare McCain's candidacy to the story of Apple computers. i i

Business professors compare McCain's candidacy to the story of Apple computers, which has similarly gone through a boom-and-bust-and-boom cycle. Tony Avelar/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Tony Avelar/AFP/Getty Images
Business professors compare McCain's candidacy to the story of Apple computers.

Business professors compare McCain's candidacy to the story of Apple computers, which has similarly gone through a boom-and-bust-and-boom cycle.

Tony Avelar/AFP/Getty Images

The campaign of Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain has followed a trajectory rare in both business and politics.

McCain did not simply grow from a little start-up into a market leader, nor did he collapse, like the bank Bear Stearns.

Instead, he did both: He started out as big and powerful before nearly going out of business. Now, suddenly, he finds himself in the forefront again. Business professors compare his campaign to products such as Apple computers or the Mars Bar, which have had similar boom-and-bust business patterns.

The political turnaround seems to surprise even McCain, who joked about it when he recently appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman.

"I think we had some difficulties and righted the ship," McCain told Letterman. "For a while there, I was reminded of the words of Chairman Mao, who said it's always darkest before it's totally black."

McCain went on to laugh about flying coach over the summer when his campaign faltered. He also had to take out a personal loan to fund the campaign.

Of Macs and McCain

Like McCain, Apple fell on hard times, says David Brady, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of political science at Stanford University. The Mac computer lost sales to the PC but came back. McCain embodies a similar maverick appeal, he says.

"It's never kind of mainstream, in the sense that it doesn't sell as many computers as Dell or HP, but they've got a nice loyal following," he says of both the computer and the campaign.

Both McCain and Apple face similar challenges, Brady adds, including finessing being both an outsider and an insider.

"You have to be authentic in the sense that you're a guy that can run the whole show. You're not taking the system on. You're going to run the system," he says.

Another business professor, Bruce Newman of DePaul University, compares McCain to a Mars Bar. Like the candidate, who is 71, the candy is a product that is always on the shelf.

The world has shifted around so the chocolate bar and the candidate are suddenly fashionable — precisely because they're not trying to be hip at all.

McCain as a Manager and Business Model

A business looking to copy the McCain model would have a hard time figuring out the lessons so far.

McCain is the presumptive Republican nominee, in part, because chief competitors such as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney dropped out of the race.

McCain's campaign's near-death experience led to management reorganization. Initially, the campaign had a conventional top-down structure, with instructions coming from headquarters. Now, McCain's campaign is trying a more grassroots approach and has appointed 10 regional managers to run local logistics.

The former chief adviser to John Edwards' campaign, Joe Trippi, says the schizophrenic nature of McCain's campaign makes it hard to pinpoint the type of CEO its leader would be in the business world.

On one hand, Trippi says, McCain made the "tough decisions" in his campaign by overhauling his staff when the campaign nearly went bankrupt. But it also took a while for McCain to make those decisions, he says. "It's like you've got a great CEO and a really scary one in the same guy."

McCain acknowledged the role luck has played after his victory in the Potomac primaries, when he credited "that product of opportunity and industry."

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