SOS and messaging that works (and doesn't)
by Jerome Armstrong, Sat Oct 09, 2010 at 04:58:42 PM EDT
There have been multiple Democratic messages this election cycle. The longest ongoing one is the SOS (Shiny Object Strategy). Employed by the partisan loyalists for the most part (which comprises a large part of the current partisan Democratic blogosphere), I date it back to Rahm and Gibbs with the early '09 tactic of confronting Rush Limbaugh as the face of the Republican Party. It's otherwise morphed into the: "Look, Over There, Sarah Palin!!" national outlook, with corresponding local attempts ongoing within the individual 2010 contests.
For a party in power, its incredibly weak to attempt to make the election ride entirely on the character of the opposing candidate, rather than running on the record. Understanding distraction tactics and dog whistling is in the DNA of the current voter. There are plenty of stories out there for the taking from Republican consultants that thought they had such silver-bullets in 2006 and 2008. They learned the same lesson that plenty of losing campaign teams on the Democratic side are going to learn this cycle-- you are judged by your record. SOS serves as an echo chamber that substantively does little but set itself up for a heavy dose of cognitive dissonance when the election results are delivered.
I'll get to the Obama/DNC messaging in a moment, but first want to present what would work, and an example of why it doesn't, or can't, or won't.
The only message that will work in 2010 for Democrats was confirmed for me by Democracy Corps polling-- running on a populist policy message. But the problem for the Democrats is that, from Obama/Geithner on down to the establishment and loyalist progressive base, the party has substantively decided that it won't run against the banks. Not surprisingly, the Sept 20th DC memo did nothing to change the messaging.
I learned this first hand while working on the Halter vs Lincoln primary. The main issue that Halter attacked Lincoln on was over her support for the banks via the TARP vote -- we saw that it polled incredibly well with the swing voters we'd need, both in the primary and the GE. We had it covered with BailoutBlanche.com and BailoutBoozman.com web strategy. The message worked extremely well with conservative Democrats and Independents that vote Democratic.
However, because the Democratic establishment (and the loyalist side of the progressive base) was disinclined to approve of this message, Halter never got over the hump of being within 4 percent. In the results, Halter lost the establishment and progressive Democrats in the more urban areas of the state, but brought in new Democratic voters in rural areas.
Yes, for the record, the establishment Democrats (Obama/Clinton) backed Lincoln over Halter, but also as a matter of policy. And it trickles down.
The loyalist side of the progressive base (plenty of which we see in the blogosphere but which also applies to African American voters) comprise those whom decide for the most part what they will stand for based on whatever persuasive position that the Obama/Clinton voices hold-- even when it goes against their own economic interest. Its a sort of perverse opposite "Whats the matter with Kansas?" dilemma for these urban middle-class progressives that vouch for TARP because "it worked" even though it really didn't and doesn't.
After looking at the Halter polling, reading the reaction of the loyalist side of the progressive blogosphere against the bailout messaging, and looking at election data covering establishment/urban Democratic voters, it became obvious to me that the Democratic Party has an Achilles heel problem that's not going away anytime soon.
Now, there are some out there who are foolish enough to think that Democrats should run on the TARP vote being a money-maker. Of course, they are mostly the same ones who clapped louder that Healthcare Reform, with its Corporate-aligned mandate, would be an electoral winner too so...
To the DC memo:
The Republican framework focusing on spending, deficits, big government, taxes and failed recovery, is all too familiar and effective. Indeed, in the focus groups, a frequent reason people wrote down for holding back from the Democrats was “too much spending” or “out of control spending.”
But after the respondents heard these Republican messages against Democratic messages framed in this “change Washington, for middle class, against Wall Street” outsider context, the Democratic candidate makes major gains. This is the only framework in the contest with the Republicans that moves voters to be more supportive of Democrats on handling the economy. But this is the framework and electoral battle that dislodges the most number of voters – 16 percent of the sample in this experiment – three-quarters of them moving to the Democrats in the vote for Congress.
It becomes apparent from this experiment and the focus groups that to get the full power of this framework, you also need to get some other things right.
Well, that's the crux of the matter in question, isn't it. It becomes apparent that to get the the full power of the message you have to have an authentic foundation for making the claim.
Having voted for TARP, having bailed out Wall St 100 cents to the dollar for their bad investments, and having looked the other way while the banker class subsequently awarded themselves obscene bonuses, that populist foundation (which was certainly prepped for by Democrats during the 2006 and 2008 campaigns) crumbled.
Which brings us to the 2010 message.
Moving America Forward is really just Tim Kaine's myopic localism at work nationally. In Virginia, in 2001, Mark Warner's slogan, and the subsequent PAC effort, used this Forward language. In 2005, Kaine effectively adopted it with a Moving Virginia Forward message. That works when the status quo is delivering (like it was in VA during 2005), but its a terrible strategy that conveys an out-of-touch mentality with most of the rest of the nation for 2010 (NoVA is not the norm):
The weakest messages assert we should “go forward, not back.” Voters are not moved by Democratic messages that say ‘go forward, not back,’ mention President Bush, compare then and now, or even that hint the economy is “showing signs of progress.” No matter how dramatically these messages set out the record of Republican obstructionism, their work for the wealthiest and Goldman Sachs, the millions of jobs lost and Democrats’ support for jobs, small business and new industries – these messages falter before the Republican attack.
The messages get lower scores and lose voters. After hearing this battle of Republican and Democratic messages, 8 percent shift their vote to support the Republican, while only 5 percent move to the Democrats. We lose ground. These messages are helping the Republicans.
A white non-college female thinks to her swing-voter self:
“Who wouldn’t want to go back to 6 or 8 years ago? There was less unemployment back then. I’d rather go back. I’d go back to 8 years ago. I would rather go backwards than forwards right now.”
Because a “go forward” framework implies that Democrats and Congress have made progress those voters do not feel, the message re-enforces the Republican framework for the election – a referendum on the Democrats’ performance on the economy. In the experiment described above (where voters read the two Republican messages and the two Democratic ‘go forward, not back’ messages), votes shifted to the Republicans not only on which party can best handle the economy but also on the congressional vote. The 5 percent who shifted to the Democrats was exceeded by the 7 percent of voters who moved to the Republicans – a net negative 2-point worsening of the race.
Its incredible, but true, that the current message/slogan/brand of the Democrats via Obama and the DNC is faulty to the core.
Bush's 3rd Term worked wonders in 2008. I worked with the DSCC's IE during that cycle, and pushed hard for that being the flagship of the Senate effort (subsequently adopted by the DNC) on 3rdBushTerm.com. I recall just one polling consultant raising a mild question of whether it would be a negative, before it was roundly adopted as the strategy.
But for 2010, Democrats own it. That Democracy Corps actually finds the whole "forward not backward" or "D not R" ditch metaphor thingy lacking really drives home the POV that Obama and the Democrats lack credibility. From an activist standpoint, it begs the question of whether populism is dead (or dormant for the time-being) within Obama's Democratic Party.
As a diving allegorical side note here, has Obama ever gotten a car out of a ditch before? Because, its very rare that you Drive straight out, rather than putting it in Reverse and backing out (or back and forth and sideways), to actually get out of the ditch-- I can't be the only one that recognizes the slippery claim to reality that the metaphor relies upon. Which begs the question of how in the hell did the Democratic Party, holding the trifecta of power, got to the dumbed-down point where its' 2010 logo/slogan/messaging are all derived from a silly metaphor about ditch driving.
I counter-submit: WTF!
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