Not long after Barack Obama entered the presidential race last February, there appeared on YouTube a parody of the famed 1984 Macintosh ad in which Hillary Clinton was portrayed as Big Brother. It all seemed a bit heavy handed at the time, but in the months since the Apple analogy has grown stronger and not weaker. Apple stock more than doubled last year as the company became the sine qua non of hip and cool. Its white-background TV ads gently mocked the PC-and-Microsoft world rather than treating it as a totalitarian ruler.
Isn't that the same cool-and-confident tone that Obama had shown in recent months? He derides the Clinton campaign (where my spouse is a senior advisor) and belittles it gently but devastatingly. I had enough confidence in Apple last year to buy some stock when it was at $75 but as it approached $100 I dumped it, fearing that it couldn't rise any higher. Oops. It went on to $200.
If I misjudged the Apple rise to astonishing heights, the entire political world misjudged Obama. As late as last Tuesday night, the conventional wisdom saw a muddled result coming out of Iowa or an Edwards win. No one foresaw the surge of young and new voters into the caucuses.
As I noted last week, the caucus that I went to in downtown Des Moines was supposed to be good for Edwards and Hillary. Obama won it by more than two-to-one. His people owned the room, not only in their sheer numbers but in the way they deftly rounded up the falling Kucinich and Dodd and Richardson and Biden contingents. Obama was Apple.
Now, Hillary Clinton is Dell. The Austin-based computer maker was hottest thing in the 90s, like the Clintons. Since then it's fallen on harder times, although it's hardly gone the way of Atari or Commodore or other computer relics. It's still a strong brand with a thriving following. But it's not Apple. And it's attempts to remake itself with hipper designs, like the Cupertino company, seem like they might meet with success but not anytime soon.
Likewise, Hillary's efforts to retool her message - to raise legitimate questions about what change Obama has really wrought and his shiftin triangulating positions - seems likely to pay fruit but not in the next 36 hours and probably not in time to save the nomination. Joe Klein notes in Time's blog, Swampland, that if Clinton had a different last name she'd be seen as fresh and smart and as change-laden as Obama.
The first woman president is arguably as radical a step, as big a moment on the world stage, as the first African-American one. But she's not a new brand. She's Dell, stong, solid, formidable but lacking Apple's immense coolness. Marketers everywhere take note.