Retired University of California at Berkeley professor George Lakoff has a theory about why Democrats lose elections and it comes down to messaging. Actually, it’s more than just a theory; turns out Lakoff was one of the few people who predicted Donald Trump would win the 2016 election. Note, he didn’t just say Trump could win, he said he would win. And to make matters worse, he tried to warn the Clinton campaign, but to no avail.
According to Lakoff, the way people form their opinions is through values rather than specific issues. This might explain why so many people vote against their own self-interests. Conservatives understand this much better than liberals and they tailor their message accordingly. They craft “political appeals by way of the appropriate value statements for their audience.” Put another way, Republicans tend to rely on marketing data to shape their message while Democrats tend to rely on statistical analysis.
As a salesman, I can attest to this. It’s called benefit selling. Successful salespeople never discuss the features or statistics of a particular product when talking to a prospective customer. Instead, they talk about the benefits of it, e.g., this car will save you money and give you years of worry-free ownership, vs. this car gets 35 miles to the gallon and is top rated in its class. The latter may be more accurate, but the former is what motivates consumers to purchase.
The fact is feature selling requires a more nuanced approach to selling that is more difficult to get across and, more often than not, tends to confuse the customer instead of enlightening them, thus leading to what we call in the business a walk. In contrast, those who stick to benefit selling have a much higher close ratio.
I’ve been watching the way Republicans and Democrats talk to voters for years and I’m convinced of two things: one, Lakoff is on to something here; and two, Democrats are determined to ignore what he has to say. In fact, if the Clinton campaign was any indication, they seem hell bent at going full speed ahead into a brick wall.
I’ve said this before and it bears repeating: when it comes to framing a message to the electorate, Democrats can turn a sentence into a novel. John Kerry’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 2004 comes to mind. Watching Kerry’s performance during the debates that year was like being forced to sit through one of your old college professor’s lectures on geology. Informative, yes, but about as entertaining as watching paint dry.
Republicans, on the other hand, are experts at keeping their message simple. Witness the debate over the Affordable Care Act back in ’09. Terms like death panels, socialized medicine, ramming it through were repeated so often by the GOP they became part of the political lexicon. While Democrats relied on things like “statistics” and “facts” to try and make their case as to why healthcare reform was necessary, Republicans employed scare tactics that were short and concise and hit a nerve among voters. The tactic was so successful that it was the prime reason behind the 2010 midterm wave election that saw the GOP take the House and pick up eight seats in the Senate.
The recent special election loss in the Georgia 6th was yet another example of Democrats getting schooled in messaging. Democrats relied heavily on anti-Trump sentiment to carry them across the finish line, but it was Republicans who had the best rebut. They trotted out the name of Nancy Pelosi in a district that was already heavily conservative and an early 8 point lead for Jon Ossoff turned into a 2 point loss on election day. The lesson could not have been more clear: Trump may be unpopular, but Pelosi is toxic. The GOP knew that; the Dems didn’t.
There’s also another lesson here. And that is that the truth, sadly, is in the eye of the beholder. Having the facts on your side doesn’t count for much if you can’t make a convincing argument for them. With a few notable exceptions – ’06 and ’08 – Democrats have not presented a compelling argument for why they should be elected; hence they’ve lost the majority of the elections they’ve run in since Obama first won the presidency.
The reason for this is that the Party, as a whole, doesn’t seem to have a coherent message to run on. Ask the typical Democrat what he or she stands for and their answer will usually begin and end with stopping Trump. It’s an answer that may score them points with their base, but does little to expand that base into a winning coalition.
This ineptitude is frustrating and particularly befuddling given that the country, as a whole, has been moving to the left for years. Measures to raise the minimum wage and legalize pot have passed in several states and a majority of Americans now approve of same sex marriage. This would’ve been unthinkable only a decade ago. A competent Democratic Party would not only have championed these causes, they would’ve parlayed them into a popular movement so immense it would’ve resulted in staggering majorities both at the federal and state levels.
But instead, the Party abandoned its core message, took much of its constituency for granted and through their arrogance gave Republicans a foothold with which to build their own majority. And build it they did in both the 2010 and 2014 midterms. At the state level, the GOP redrew district lines that have made it virtually impossible for Democrats to retake the House.
Trump, opportunist that he is, also pounced on the opening that was created by the Democrats, particularly in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where he eked out a narrow margin of victory to give him the Electoral College last November. That Trump won the presidency in those states by a mere 82 thousand votes only added insult to the self-inflected injury.
Bruce Bartlett, the self-professed former Republican, had the best take on the current malady that besets the Democratic Party.
The Party doesn’t really seem to stand for anything other than opposition to the GOP. Admittedly, just about everything the Republicans are doing deserves to be opposed. But the Democrats also need a positive agenda of their own. I remember thinking late in the 2016 campaign that I could not name a single policy proposal Hillary Clinton had put forward. I knew they existed — 10 point plans to fix various problems that were probably well thought through, but all of the points were small-bore and impossible to summarize easily. You had to go to her website and dig them out because they never appeared in any of her commercials or interviews.
As much as I hate what the conservative movement has become, it rose to power through some strategies that are easily duplicable by progressives. One is putting as much effort into marketing ideas as originating them. Another is coordinating efforts among disparate groups on the right — you support my cause and in return I’ll support yours. And all these efforts are continuously repeated throughout the right-wing echo chamber.
Regarding Bartlett’s last point – you support my cause and in return I’ll support yours – there’s no evidence that Democrats have either the appetite or skill set to do that. Case in point is the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been unable to cobble together the necessary 50 votes to pass the bill. The hold up is a few moderate Republicans who will not support any bill that phases out Medicaid funding to their states.
But while McConnell continues to tweak the bill in order to get his moderates on board, there has not been one outreach from Democratic leadership to come up with a bi-partisan plan that would appeal to centrists from both parties. Nada. The “plan” from Chuck Schumer and company appears to be wait for Republicans to fail again, and in the event that they don’t, blame them next fall for taking away healthcare from millions of people.
Joe Manchin, who’s up for reelection next year, recently said he’d be willing to work with Trump on a healthcare bill. So why hasn’t he contacted Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski or Rob Portman to come up with a bi-partisan bill? The same goes for Claire McCaskill, another Democratic senator who’s running for reelection next year. Where’s the attempt to reach out to moderate Republicans on healthcare?
Or, for that matter, tax reform. Eric Levitz has a piece in the Daily Intelligencer that calls on Democrats to propose their own middle-class tax cut bill. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that bill to come any time soon, either. I could go up and down the line, and the results would be the same. 48 senators who seem quite content to stand on the deck of the RMS Titanic and let the waters close in over them.
The lack of leadership within the Democratic Party is staggering. And they wonder why they don’t win elections. Think about it: they threw twenty-five million dollars into a congressional race and still lost, proving, as Bartlett adroitly observed, that the issue isn’t a “lack of funds”; it’s a lack of vision.
One thing is certain: if Democrats don’t pull their heads out of their asses soon, they can look forward to seeing Donald Trump in the White House for the next seven and a half years. They can also look forward to the very real prospect of facing their own political oblivion as a party.
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