Congressional Republicans are in full screech about President Barack Obama’s “political campaigning instead of leading.” They’re sweating bullets because he continues to be so successful at marshaling public opinion to the Democratic perspective on fiscal cliffs, spending cuts, tax increases and, generally, who’s zoomin’ who. Polls tell us Republicans are widely seen as obstructionists, shills for the privileged and possessed of a governing philosophy that’s teetering on the edge of a flat earth.
The Obama folks have finally learned that the same issue framing and message strategies that help move people to vote for you in an election can be just as effective in moving people to your side in a policy argument. Obama for America became Organizing for Action without missing a beat. It’s all long overdue.
As a political and governmental communication practitioner, student and teacher in Washington, DC for 18 years, I’ve been asked hundreds of times why Republicans seemed to outgun Democrats in effective political messaging for so long, from Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution through Barack Obama’s first term. Here’s what I’ve concluded.
The Republican message machine learned, through a great deal of strategic thinking by very smart operatives like Frank Luntz and Dave Winston, that people are a lot more likely to listen and remember what you’re saying if what you’re saying connects to things they care about. Marketing 101: target the message to the audience.
Republican researchers also learned that wrapping government policy in an emotional blanket gives it more impact. Connect your issue to someone’s family, kids, job, retirement security, sense of personal safety, community, pride or values and you get their attention.
They occasionally used an advertising construct called the Means End Theory to help make the connection. Here’s how it plays out: Cutting taxes puts more money in your pocket, which means you have more to spend on your family, which means you can afford to send your kids to a better school, which means your kids will get a better education, which makes you a better parent. Therefore, cutting taxes makes you a better parent.
Democratic messengers, on the other hand, always seemed to bring a knife to a gun fight. Policy messages were traditionally framed and delivered by former news reporters — transmitters of information. Give the public the facts and they’ll see through the hype and come to the right conclusion. That has produced political messaging that would put strong coffee to sleep.
In the 2004 Presidential campaign, the Bush campaign launched Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to attack John Kerry’s Silver Star, Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts earned in Viet Nam combat while George W. Bush was braving the wilds of Houston, Texas in the Air National Guard. The Swift Boat campaign was proved by the Department of Defense to be an outright lie, but it had enough impact to put a question mark over Kerry’s character. The Kerry campaign had tut-tutted the smear. “The public will never believe that kind of sleaze.” How’d that work out?
Going into the August 2007 Congressional recess, Democratic House and Senate communicators were assembled and briefed on the magic message to take back to their districts; the ‘New Direction Congress.’ Those three words would cut through all the blather, make everything clear and bring the public flocking to the Democratic agenda. How’d that work out?
In 2009, in the endless wrangle over healthcare reform, Democrats were busy explaining that ‘Obamacare’ would provide healthcare coverage for 31-million people who couldn’t previously afford it, and that it would “bend the healthcare cost curve down.” Republicans meantime were talking about Death Panels pulling the plug on Grandma and cutting billions of dollars from Medicare. Which message do you think people heard?
Make no mistake: Democrats have often performed brilliantly in campaigns over the years, and certainly in more recent elections. They’ve been able to frame their message more effectively than Republicans and connect the Democratic agenda to the lives and concerns and hopes of most Americans. The problem was that as soon as the election was over, they reverted to the “just give the public the facts and data and dollars” school of communication.
But this time, the Obama Administration has learned its lesson. They’re continuing to use campaign communication practices to build, rally and sustain public support for the Democratic agenda.
It seems to be working very well. You can tell by how loudly the Republicans are complaining.
Dave Helfert has been a political and governmental communicator for more than 30 years, writing speeches for elected officials and candidates, creating media in more than 200 political campaigns, working for six years as a Communications Director in the Clinton Administration and then nine years in the U.S. House.