8 Messaging Tips for Embattled Democrats from a Longtime Pollster

A seasoned pollster explains the message Dems should be hammering home for the upcoming elections to prevent a Republican landslide.

Vic Fingerhut

A farmer at the 2011 Wisconsin capitol protests encourages working families to "pull together." (Terence McCormack / Flickr)

1. Forget the big picture, macro policy stuff. No one except committed strong Democrats (who are already voting for you) believe the Democrats are competent enough to handle running the economy or foreign policy. The strongest suit the Democrats have among critical swing voters, like most voters generally, is who they are for — regular working and middle income people — not how skilled and capable they are in governing.

Frame every issue you can in class-related, “who-benefits" terms.

2. Frame every issue you can in class-related, who-benefits” terms. As of last week, undecided voters think the Republicans can manage the economy” better than the Democrats by an 11-point margin when questioned in strictly competence terms, but they reverse field and give the Democrats a 10-point margin when the question is put in terms of the class-related frame of which party is best in handling the economy in a way that better helps ordinary working families?” Democratic candidates give up roughly 20 points (in voter believability) to the Republicans every time they don’t use this framing. Period. 

3. Democrats also benefit when we frame the issue in micro” rather than macro terms. Thus, Democrats repeatedly get the nod by substantial margins (70+ percent) when swing voters are asked which party is more likely to be on the side of your spouse and children on issues affecting members of your family at the workplace.” This is a frame with a strong pro-Democratic valence, but because the Democrats have not understood its power, it is rarely used.

4. Use radio! We still have time to produce and run enough of the right” radio to move enough late deciders to change the outcome of the election. As of this past week, we found that almost half of the late deciders were fairly regular radio listeners (not a bad market). The top three type of stations they tuned in to were: Top 40, Country and Rock.

5. Save your explicit political” messaging in your ads for as near to the end of the spot as you can. When most late-deciding Independent voters perceive an ad as political,” they turn off immediately since they think all politics suck.” Despite some Democrats’ recent (belated) discovery” of populism, our side has already wasted millions in advertising to the wrong people, using the wrong techniques and not the best messaging frames. That’s why we are currently losing the votes of non-minority, non-college-educated working people by margins of more than 30 points.

6. The swing voters are both left and right populists at the same time. Many of them don’t like immigrants, minorities, etc. (In 1968, self-identified independents represented, by far, the largest component of the support for segregationist George Wallace.) But they don’t like big corporations or Wall Street either, and — correctly — believe that the Republicans favor corporate interests at the expense of regular working Americans.

7. To capture enough of these swing voters in the final days of the campaign — in order to win the close elections — your progressive populism must be more effective than the Republicans’ right populism. Make use of the inherited and powerfully enduring party-related belief among a majority of the late deciders that when it comes down to it, even though these critical swing voters think the Democrats suck because they favor immigrants, are incapable of running the economy, are weak on foreign policy, don’t support traditional moral values and are big spenders and high taxers,they also believe that the Republicans favor the rich and are more likely to screw ordinary working and middle income people (that is, their families!).

8. Don’t continue to talk about issues in macro, abstract or even policy terms (save those for the deluge of post-election think tank conferences in Washington, D.C.). Instead, humanize, individualize and personalize these issues, and present them in terms of how the Republicans will harm, screw or otherwise endanger you and your family.”

So why are many Democratic political consultants not giving their clients this advice? Three reasons.

First, many Democratic consultants (and elective officials) don’t have much day-to-day contact with the traditional base of the party, such as the members of the labor movement. And they are often overly influenced by two groups. One is a well-paid and generously financed D.C. crowd of lawyers and lobbyists who invariably press — with great skill — for centrist” (i.e., business oriented) positioning by the party.

The second is a highly educated and articulate assemblage of upper-middle-class activists that has a progressive agenda but often overlooks the day-to-day concerns of working Americans. Both groups tend to be out of touch with the traditional working and middle-income electoral base of the party, and some (though not most), also (mistakenly) view the union and working class base of the party as a narrowly focused and even reactionary.

These two quite distinct elites both lack an understanding of what motivates independent swing voters, many of whom are either apolitical or anti-political and are the last people ever to show up at a Washington think tank conference or power lunch.

Second, and related to the above reason, a number of Democratic consultants work both for corporate-oriented candidates and for influential corporate groups themselves. That in itself does not scare them from taking populist positions, but it does influence how they think about politics. This is part and parcel of the broader reality of how some progressive elected officials (not just in the United States) become gradually socialized” into accepting the world views of the powerful corporate officials they regularly interact with.

Thus, while it was the Democrats in Congress who offered the only resistance to the Clinton trade deals of the 1990s, many of them shared the basic free market” corporate assumption of the Clinton Administration about how the international economy worked. Subsequently, steelworkers, autoworkers and millions of other working Americans paid the price in the loss of good middle class jobs on the altar of this corporate rational” belief system.

My own most vivid recollections of this period were going to meetings of Democratic consultants and strategists on the Hill and suggesting that supporting these trade deals would devastate the party’s (and the country’s) manufacturing base, only to be met with, Sure, Vic, you’re just saying that because you’re a labor pollster.” My answer was, I’m a Democrat and this stuff is devastating.”

The fact that polls prior to the midterm election show the Democrats getting hammered among non-minority, non-college educated, working people by margins of 20-to-30 points is a simple and direct outgrowth of these Democratic decision makers being out of touch with the people who historically put them into office.

The third reason sounds snobbish” because it is intellectual” in nature.

For a long time, many of the Democratic consultants (even pollsters) were simply not aware of certain basic landmark academic research findings regarding voting behavior such as the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center’s landmark findings in the 1950s regarding the critical — and incredibly enduring — nature of political party loyalties and, more importantly, of voters’ perceptions of the attributes of parties.

In fact, you can shake up poll data from the 1930s and mix it with surveys done last week about which party represented the rich and the big corporations,” and you would be hard put to distinguish which period the data comes from.

After working for the minority party from the 1930s to the 1980s, you can be certain that all the leading GOP pollsters clearly understood the serious implications for them of these findings and worked unceasingly (and for years, with only limited success) to undermine or modify them.

The Democrats’ intellectual” deficiency was often magnified by the fact that for a long time, its leading campaign consultants were drawn heavily from the ranks of television ad makers — many of whom were quite good at what they did, but were often simply unaware of these ground breaking findings.

The result: Democratic campaigns — even presidential ones — that ignored long- and deeply-held perceptions of the respective parties. A classic case is Walter Mondale’s 1984 campaign disastrously spending a major chunk of its media budget on balancing the federal budget,” something few — if any — swing voters believed was very likely coming from the Democrats.

Ironically, but quite dramatically, this seven-decade Democratic intellectual deficiency is underlined weekly by the recent deluge of D.C. conferences these days touting the discovery” of populism as a good Democratic frame.

This populism is the very foundation of Democratic strength that was known to the Michigan researchers nearly 70 years ago, to say nothing about how a savvy Harry Truman (without the benefit of the Michigan data) knew that pressing the issue of a Democratic Party in economic populist terms of standing up for the common man” was his key to an upset victory in the 1948 presidential election.

Vic Fingerhut has designed successful campaigns for progressive candidates and parties over several decades. He has been behind some of the most dramatic positive shifts in public opinion for progressive causes and candidates for over five decades in a wide variety of diverse locales and countries, including the national TV campaign that in 1995 dropped Newt Gingrich’s and the GOP’s ratings by 10 points in less than a week. Fingerhut can be reached at vic@​vicfingerhutcampaigns.​com.
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