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The Democrats' messaging problem, and how to fix it

 (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

From infrastructure spending to subsidized child care, the Biden administration has agenda items with mass appeal.

So why do so many Americans believe the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction?

Is the problem messaging?

“They’re forgetting a lot of voters don’t follow this detailed stuff because they’re busy with their life,” Mike Murphy says. “Pick a simple thing people understand that’s popular, that’s smaller. Pass that, and campaign on the other things.”

Today, On Point: The Democrats’ problem with messaging, and what they can do to fix it.


Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Mike Murphy, co-director of the USC Center for the Political Future. Political consultant who’s worked on campaigns for John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jeb Bush, among others. Co-host of the Hacks On Tap podcast. (@murphymike)

Anat Shenker-Osorio, strategic communications consultant and principal of the consulting firm ASO Communications. Host of the Words to Win By podcast. (@anatosaurus)

Interview Highlights

On differences in political messaging between Democrats and Republicans

Mike Murphy: “Republicans and Democrats look at politics differently. They have kind of different cataclysms in their communication strategy. If you go on any Democratic presidential website, campaign website [during the] last couple of cycles, you will see some sort of reputation of a lot of groups. Mark Lilla at Columbia has written a great book about this. And they see it as a confederation of groups, many of them with grievances. The Republicans tend to go for one big, bright shining thing. Shining city on a hill, Make America Great Again, one kind of unifying theme.

“And when the Democratic communications thing is all about our coalition, and our voters and frankly, treating primary voters like swing voters, it gets diffused. I mean, nobody knows what Build Back Better is. It sounds like a chain of chiropractors. The better and more time honored strategy, which I think President Biden is now retreating to — but I think it’s a smart retreat — is break it up into bumper stickers people understand. Try to win one or two of them, and fight over the rest in the election year. Rather than look at this as a coalition politics thing where you’ve got to have a 300 page plan that each of your groups has 28 pages they love in, but nobody out in swing voter land, which is what counts in elections, can understand what you’re talking about.

“So he’s kind of been forced into better communication. I’d also say, don’t forget the overall narrative. You know, we get into this issue stuff. The press covers Washington like the automotive news covers Detroit. It’s all about steering wheels and executive reshuffles. Out there in voter land, it’s pretty simple. What are they doing, if anything for me? And you know, that gets lost in the dance of legislation. And then it frankly doesn’t get through.”

Can the approach between Republicans and Democrats be the same?

Mike Murphy: “I think it can and should be. I mean, I disagree a little bit with the premise. What the Republicans are good at — and of course we learn this from the left in the ’30s — is message discipline. The Democrats are not, I mean, from a Republican point of view, seeing President Biden whipsawed around by some progressive members in the House, who basically said no thanks grandpa, that breaks every Republican rule of ‘march in a straight line.’

“And I say that as a rebel anti-Trump Republican, but it’s still true. So what happened in that larger narrative I referred to, that made things tougher for Democratic messaging, is the press always cover the fight. When they’re not covering the steering wheel, they will go to the car crash. And when you have 30 Democratic members of Congress saying, No, we’re not going to vote for … our president’s signature piece of legislation, you get a great car crash to cover. And Biden looks weak and marginalized, which is what no president ever wants. So negotiation and process became the message, not content, not the free dental work or whatever it might be. And that’s the worst situation to be in messaging.

“And then finally, I think they made a strategic problem. Biden was elected to end the right-wing chaos and bring normalcy. And instead, somehow over there in the first 90 days, they thought, I got a better idea. We’re going to be FDR and we’re going to swing huge. And that gives the Republicans an opportunity. You can’t try to pass big legislative packages that you frankly don’t have the votes. You might have partisan control, but particularly in the Senate, you don’t have ideological control from the left. So you’re kind of doomed from the beginning. And the narrative becomes failure, not success.”

What role does the media play in this political messaging?

Mike Murphy: “The media does set the agenda. In the White House, what you’re trying to do is set your own agenda and make the media and everybody else respond to it. So it’s kind of the jump ball of all this. You know, the thing about Fox vs. MSNBC and disclaimer, I’m a MSNBC, NBC News analyst. We tend to focus on that, but it’s much wider. It’s a much wider spectrum of places where people get information now. And the challenge you have is your primary electorate, your hard core activists on both sides have an outsized voice.

“The congressional staff zero in some of the members, their friends who helped them on the first campaign, they call them up on their cell phone and complain. So even though they don’t reach all of Americans, they reach political America on both sides. Each side kind of has their radio free liberal or radio free conservative. And they have an outsized influence. And they tend to amplify conflicts and reinforce tribal warfare.”

On how to fix the problem with the Democrats’ messaging

Anat Shenker-Osorio: “There are certain principles of effective, and persuasive and galvanizing messaging that we see over and over. The first is say what you’re for, say what you’re for, say what you’re for. All too often, and I like to joke that if the Democrats had written the story of David, it would be a biography of Goliath. Because we like to talk about our opposition a whole lot. We also frequently begin our messages with, Boy, have I got a problem for you? Which is not that popular, not that effective.

“So first, you want to say what you’re for. Second, you want to seize the moral high ground. And make it clear as Mike was remarking in the earlier segment, the media feeds on conflict. And you have to understand that it’s not just a question of crafting the message. It’s a question of making sure the message gets through. A message is like a baton that has to be passed from person to person to person. If it gets dropped anywhere along the way, it is by definition not persuasive. If nobody hears it, it’s not persuading anyone.

“So what would that sound like in terms of Build Back Better? Well, again, to echo what was said in some of the earlier segment, it would be about selling the brownie and not the recipe. Not talking about the policy. So not saying, for example, Paid Family Leave, even though that’s wildly popular. But instead saying, you’re there the first time your newborn smiles. Not saying, for example, raising wages, although that’s also wildly popular. But saying instead, you make enough to put food on the table in your home in time to eat it. Speaking in imaginable terms.”

On the ‘three V’s’ for better political communication

Anat Shenker-Osorio: “What we found is that the exact same three sentences, but tried out in a different order, actually have a remarkably different effect. Both in terms of persuasion, and in terms of level engagement from the base. And the order that does work, as opposed to starting your message off with Boy, have I got a problem for you? Can be easily short-handed as values, villain, vision. So what does that sound like? Let me take an example. I’m going to talk about raising wages:

  1. Values: So you start with a higher order value. ‘No matter what we look like, or where we come from, most of us believe that people who work for a living ought to earn a living.’ That’s your value statement.
  2. Villain: Second, what’s getting in the way of that value? ‘But today, a handful of billionaires and the politicians that they pay off are holding down our wages and denying us benefits, no matter what their profits. And then they divide us from each other based on what we look like, where we live or what we do for a living, hoping we’ll look the other way while they collect kickbacks and make themselves rich off the wealth our work creates.’
  3. Vision: ‘By joining together and electing real leaders who represent every single one of us, we can make this a place where we can care for our kids, put food on our tables and be home in time to eat it.’ That’s that third sentence, the closing vision.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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