From the Dispatches archives…and still relevant:
An Investor’s Business Daily article from a few years ago on the subject of political messaging still makes for good reading. Authors Kerri Houston and Merrill Matthews Jr. made some excellent points that should be repeated again and again until our political leaders figure out that times have changed and the old approach to the job just won’t cut it any longer.
In “Conservatives Don’t Take Lesson of Campaign Wins to Congress,” Houston and Matthews said that conservatives were good at marketing their candidates but not their policies. Of course we now know you can’t get away with that forever. Eventually the public needs to see results to match the rhetoric or they call for change.
The Democrats might be able to win power without an agenda but Republicans won’t be able to. The public reelected Democrat majorities for decades through thick and thin and it wasn’t until the Republicans found a way to connect ideas with candidates in 1994 that they won power. The failure that followed is now history.
Houston and Matthews wrote:
If conservatives really want their ideas and policies to become the law of the land, they are going to have to begin putting as much emphasis on selling their policies as they do selling their candidates.
“All Politics is marketing,” they also wrote. But it’s “not enough to have the best policies” — those policies have to be communicated effectively so an emotional connection is made with the public.
More than 70% of Americans are considered by psychologists to be emoters, or left-brainers, because they tend to use the emotional left side of the brain. They relate to the message that makes them feel subjectively good. Left-brainer Bill Clinton was elected in part because he could ‘feel your pain.’ As a candidate, he knew how to market his image and his message…
Conservatives, in contrast, tend to be right-brainers who look at issues from an empirical and logical perspective — and assume the public does as well. They think if only they can explain their policies to the American people, the public will understand. So they haul out the charts and graphs and begin the lectures.
Houston and Matthews used the 1995 debate over Medicare as an example of how Republicans failures to connect. The Democrats demagogued “cuts!” Republicans folded, despite the fact that they were only trying to limit the program’s rate of growth.
Republicans had a “short, simple and understandable message,” but lost anyway because:
Public policy isn’t determined by truth and lies. If it were, we would already have a low, flat income tax rate, personal retirement accounts instead of Social Security, no capital gains taxes or double taxation, school choice and many other conservative policies.
Republicans lose because they keep explaining. The left wins because they keep marketing.
Like it or not, we live in a sound-bite world…Today, candidates and elected officials only get a sentence or two at most to convey their message.
Artists tell us that the more lines there are in a drawing, the less important each line is. Conversely, the fewer the lines, the more weight each carries… [I]f a politician has only one sentence, each word must carry a lot of weight.
Houston and Matthews summed up their advice:
Quality must make up for quantity. If conservatives want to be as successful on their issues as they are in their campaigns, they must learn to utilize campaign techniques in policy battles and deliver their message in a form that is clear, simple and self-evident. This message needs to:
1. Brand or take ownership of the policy product.
2. Highlight the positives of the product.
3. Answer some of the anticipated objections….
And do it all in a few words.
We have been arguing for some time that our political leaders need to modernize and professionalize their communication efforts. As we’ve said, it’s all about public opinion. Houston and Matthews were exactly right when they wrote:
Conservatives must learn how to market their policies as well as they do their candidates. If they have to explain an issue in great detail, they will be left holding the bag — rather than the victory.
This article was first published on November 21 , 2006.
Image credit: Turning Point USA.