There has been much discussion of late, especially since the Virginia election, about political messaging, and how Democrats need to do a better job of it. It’s true that the GOP is strong at messaging, and has been for a long time. But Democrats can learn, and they must.
The image that accompanies this post illustrates the core necessity–and effectiveness–of perceptive political messaging. The objectives are to gain voter attention and affinity.
Does it resonate? It should. Republicans are very disciplined at staying on message and repeating it. Democrats like wonky explanations, somehow believing that comprehensiveness equals believability. It doesn’t. It just turns voters off.
Likewise, it’s never a good idea to try to “educate” voters whom you believe to be wrong. We’re “woke” and we want everyone to be, right? But arguing with a voter is the surest way to lose their support; it doesn’t convince them, it just makes them mad. But we do it!
Emotions propel voting, not rationality.
What follows are highlights from a presentation given at Netroots Nation 21, this year’s conference of progressives started by Daily Kos blogger Markos Moulitsas. What matters is what voters hear, not what candidates or others say. And the key rule to remember, if you get nothing else: emotions propel voting, not rationality.
The three principles:
- Know what networks you’re activating
- Speak to voters’ emotions, concerns, and values
- Tell coherent, memorable stories
Your task is to show voters that you care about the same things they do, and persuade by telling them what you’ll do for them. Contrast this with what they can expect from your opponent. Promoting fear and anger in voters when discussing the opposition is a potent tool, as Glenn Youngkin played to perfection in the recent Virginia governor’s race when he discussed school boards and critical race theory.
The message on messaging is clear: Identify with voters and show them that you share their concerns and feelings, and that you know what to do about them. For activists, such knowledge can assist in letters to the editor, political party mailers, newsletters, and door-to-door campaigning. Voters vote for people they like.
Activating ‘networks.’ Let’s take the issue of health care. There are at least a dozen positions one can take, positive or negative, for health care reform. For example, on the positive side: I like choice. My grandparents like Medicare. I want care to be affordable. On the negative: I like the doctor I have now. I don’t want to see long lines or poor care. I don’t want us to incur deficits. Know what you’re trying to evoke in voters’ minds, and which voters you’re likely talking to.
Shared values, targeted emotions. There are different ways of expressing the same thought, as the table below illustrates. Some invite an emotional response, some leave the emotions cold:
|The unemployed||People who’ve lost their jobs|
|Food insecurity||Pangs of hunger|
|Global warming||Extreme weather caused by pollution|
|My 10-point plan||3 principles|
Democratic political messaging often begins with specific policies or issues, whereas it’s more effective to start with evoking how voters feel toward the parties, principles, candidates, and their personal attributes. Actual policy details should come last.
Some useful ways of messaging policies, such as the economy, in just a few seconds:
- We can’t have a vibrant economy without a vibrant middle class; some folks have to build, some have to buy.
- It’s not about who will cut taxes, but whose taxes will be cut.
- Every CEO who gives himself a $3 million bonus is cutting the income of one thousand workers by $3,000 each.
- We don’t all expect to be rich and famous, but we do expect a living wage and good American benefits for a hard day’s work.
Simplify and be brief! You’ve heard of the elevator speech? It’s what you say when you only have 10 seconds of someone’s time. Get to the point, in a pithy, personal way—as the examples above do. And keep driving the message home.
How do you handle a voter who speaks false information, such as repeating the Big Lie? Softly. Carefully. Respectfully. Ask why they believe it. Ask if they believe all the sources of information that confirmed Biden’s victory are lying. Why would they? Does that seem reasonable? Continue in that vein.
Align values with issues.
What do these examples all have in common? Aligning values with issues. Another example of this is stating the value first, then relating the issue:
No one should have to work 2-3 jobs to make ends meet.
→ We need a $15 minimum wage.
→ Workers need a voice and a seat at the table (unions).
Memorable stories. Who comes to mind when you think of a politician who had a gift for telling stories that resonated with people? Yup, Bill Clinton. The slow style of speaking, the low voice, looking you directly in the eye. His sincerity was palpable. Whether it was about someone who lost their job or had a terrible illness, the stories connected, raising a certain difficulty but always closing with a hopeful solution. Joe may have lost a job in the Midwest when a factory closed, but eventually got a better one in another state. Sally may have lost her husband to lung cancer, but because of XYZ government program, got enough to keep going with her three kids and also get a job. This is the American way. We don’t give up, and we take care of our neighbors.
If you have the opportunity to get into a longer conversation with a voter, and they’re engaged and seem to enjoy talking with you, it’s fine to ask questions about them. Everyone likes talking about themselves! Ask about their lives, their kids, their experiences with work, school, health care. Chances are, something will come up that they want to talk about, and it will usually be something that they wish were different. Assuming your values align, this is a great opportunity to agree, and talk about how your candidate’s plans address the voter’s concerns. Such one-on-one discussions have been shown to be the most important predictor of voting behavior.