It’s not about policy positions. Emotion moves swing voters.

We say “Cap and Trade”. They say “Job Killing Energy Tax”.
We say “Public Option”. They say “Government Takeover of Your Health Care”.

They use emotions to connect with people and create negative feelings toward us. We use logic to try to convince people that we’re right. Obama gave people hope in 2008, but we failed miserably by trying to sell the Affordable Care Act as a list of poll tested policies instead of as a moral imperative.

From clinical and political psychologist Drew Westen’s The Political Brain:

The evidence is overwhelming that three things determine how people vote, in this order: (1) their feelings toward the parties and their principles, (2) their feelings toward the candidates, and, if they haven’t decided by then, (3) their feelings toward the candidates’ policy positions.

What are we doing to change how people feel about the Democratic Party? Nothing. Nobody even considers it their responsibility.

Weston goes on to say that the next three are (4) the voters’ rational evaluation of the parties and their principles, (5) their rational evaluation of the candidates, and lastly (6) their rational evaluation of the candidates’ policy positions.

The problem is, he says, that everyone has already made up their minds after 1 and 2. So why is our entire communication strategy based on #6? Forget being competitive. We’re not even on the playing field.

Westen completely debunks the entire conventional wisdom of  “moving to the center to appeal to swing voters” and he backs it up with 30 or so years of social science research. Swing voters move back and forth based on which party they feel more positive about at a given moment, which Party they are willing to give a chance to take the reins, not based on whose policies best serve their economic self interest.

Candidates who move to the center are saying, “I don’t stand behind my party’s principles, and I’m willing to pander to get your vote.”  Neither statement is going to make you or the party more likable.

So how do we get people to like the Democratic Party? Stand up for your principles. Integrity. Sincerity. Authenticity. These are the buzzwords of the corporate advertising and marketing industry for a good reason. Fortunately, you can’t fake authenticity (though some try very, very hard to do so).

We could start by being proud to be Democrats. In public. Then we could try articulating a moral vision for the country, one based on progressive value system that has been the strength of this country since its founding. As a candidate or party spokesperson, you could stand for what you believe in, whether or not it’s popular. This actually makes people like you even more.

No-one is saying that we shouldn’t talk about policies and stand up for the ones we support. Only that we have to talk about policies as an illustration of our party’s principles and our values. We have to connect those dots for people, because they won’t remember the individual things we say about out policy positions, only the collective impression they get about what kind of people we are.

So if a communication consultant shows you a voter issue poll and tries to sell you a campaign strategy of targeted policy appeals to various voter segments, show him or her the door. Find someone else and ask them how they would go about making your District’s voters like the Democratic Party enough by election day to give you the chance to carry out their mission.

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2 thoughts on “It’s not about policy positions. Emotion moves swing voters.

  1. Daniel Bennett

    Simple and smart advice. I use the example of the Estate Tax being called the “Death Tax.” In reality, the people being taxed are the recipients. So despite the misconceptions that this is about small businesses being handed down from generation to generation, the tax is really on the extremely wealthy living progeny. So a more accurate, but politically tough re-branding is to call it the “Spoiled Brat Tax.”

    Thanks for this great advice. I wonder if my example is one possible use of what you are saying.

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