The Stickiness of Gut Messaging.
One of the factors that should push toward more gut messaging by Democrats is that it can be incredibly sticky. Words like socialism, said with spittle flying, can ring in the ears of voters who don’t even realize it. That’s the kind of demonization that primed voters to let partisan media and mainstream media alike drag down Hillary Clinton.
One of the mainstay sticky messages that Republicans use is the small-government shtick. The beauty of calling to cut regulations, to shrink government, is that most of the government ire is actually directed at state and local government, which federal legislators will almost never have an effect on. The result? The ire stays, maintaining the rhetorical advantage for Republicans who do nothing to fix the problem. (Honestly, they can’t because most regulations exist for good reasons and they aren’t invested in improving regulations, only bitching about them. At the federal level, the erosion of regulations typically results in bad things. (To be fair, there are many stupid regulations, some which are examples of overregulation, but most of which are merely misregulation—regulations that target the symptom not the cause.))
One gut-message that Democrats do use is pre-existing conditions. It appeals to fairness and right over wrong. While some conservatives might argue that some of those conditions are the fault of the individual (and some may well be), the politicians have a harder time doing that because some of their own voters (or family members of voters, whom the voters love) have those very conditions.
In pushing for broader health coverage, the Democrats should build on that basic idea of fairness. They can also seek a message to underscore the economic benefits. It’s a heck of a lot easier to start a small business if you aren’t worried about getting sick. “Healthcare builds jobs,” or such.
One famous misfire from this cycle is the “defund the police” message, mostly from activists rather than politicians. Polling shows the goal of that message—routing more funding (again, mostly local) toward alternatives to policing where it makes damn good sense—is actually popular. But the message itself is seen as attacking the perfectly innocent bunny-snuggling police officers. Meanies!
The Guilt-by-Association Pivot.
Democrats need to get better at saying they don’t agree with anyone on everything, they’re all their own person. Many a Republican pulled that move off with no one more than Donald John Trump as the object of derision. There are a few steps here:
- It’s up to the voters to choose. That’s not your race, that’s not your district. Even about an opposing candidate, you can state where you disagree and why, but ultimately it’s up to those voters to decide. Maybe their voters don’t love you. Point that out. Different places have different tastes, right?
- You’re willing to work with them on matters of agreement? No. You’ll be glad to have their votes on your voters’ issues. Hug the issues. They’re your babies. If someone wants to help, you’ll accept their support of your issues. If you can point to past examples, with the derided candidate or anyone, even better.
The harder pivot is those activists mentioned earlier. Smart policies can be poorly branded by activists, and it can be a challenge to both support a good policy while rejecting tone-deaf rhetoric and slogans, especially without sounding condescending (“The activists hearts are in the right place.”) or soft on riots.
The best pivot is to talk about how broken policing is for the police. These workers need better working conditions. It’s a labor problem: the manner of their labor is unreasonable. The basis of their labor is too spread out, with too many competing requirements. While we can’t make policing perfectly safe, there are major improvements to be had. We should always strive to improve working conditions, particularly for high-risk professions.
(Maybe) Be a Little Bit of a Jerk.
This is one that mostly Republicans practice (or is it practice; perhaps it comes naturally to their kind). Some Democrats do. Governor Cuomo up in New York seems to do it with ease, for example. The occasional dickishness really resonates with certain voters (whom I assume are not dicks themselves, but they’re just having a really long string of bad days).
Chris Christie liked to be a jerk a lot when he was governor up in New Jersey. Worked for him. But what kind of jerk to be matters. It has to fit the politician’s personality. Christies was more of a loudmouth jerk, where Cuomo tends to be more of a wiseguy. There are subtle differences between a loudmouth and a wiseguy, mostly that the latter has more wit to the sting, where the loudmouth has more bark.
It doesn’t work in all contexts, or for all audiences. A few years back Senator Feinstein was a dick to some kids who want something done about climate change, and it didn’t go well, at least with most people. (Wow, it was only February of last year; guess time really is screwed up!) Whether it was a successful dick move, overall, is unknown to me. Perhaps it resonated with the get-off-my-increasingly-brown-from-climate-exacerbated-drought-lawn crowd.
The Republicans are very successful in spite of their pretty poor policy showing. Democrats need to study this. Democrats need to find ways to reduce the Republican effectiveness, either by disarming these sorts of methods or by adopting them in ways that make sense for otherwise-policy-focused campaigns.
More importantly, by studying what works for Republicans, we learn something about why people vote for them. That can be used to design better policies that do reach those voters, which is good for everyone.