D.C. Consultants: Voters Don't Care About Politics

People don't remember political specifics, but they do evaluate them, building a lasting impression of the candidate in question. Later, they might not remember why they do or don't like the candidate, but they might still have a very strong favorable or unfavorable opinion of him.

It's pretty simple. It's pretty obvious. It's also the major finding of the following study: Lodge, Milton, Marco R. Steenbergen, and Shawn Brau. 1995. "The Responsive Voter: Campaign Information and the Dynamics of Candidate Evaluation." American Political Science Review 89:309-326. This explains why process politics is a waste of air-time, and why the politics of contrast is an absolute must for reaching voters who do not actively seek out political knowledge.

The old approach to political messaging has been to pick a few issues to stand out on, narrow the debate, and hope voters remember those few. This often means equivocating on all the issues that weren't part of the "message." This is a bad idea. If we accept the findings of the Lodge study, voters are highly unlikely to remember what you say, just whether they like it or not. Further, the goal is to get voters to like the candidate or his message, getting them to remember it is useless and secondary to the actual goal. And repeating a narrowly-targetted message over and over won't make anyone care about issues that don't concern them.

When asked an off-message question, a politician should give a simple, straight-forward answer, and follow it with the progressive values that support it. Every single issue is an opportunity to point out contrasting values and a contrasting vision for America. Every time republicans say "free trade" we can say "fair trade," every time they say "family values" we can say "community values," every time they say "small government" we can say "efficient government," every time they say "strong national defense" we can say "smart national defense."

Voters aren't stupid. They just don't care about politics. They care about feeding their family, filling their gas tanks and prescriptions, and making sure their kids grow up in a good world. These are the things that get them nodding their heads in agreement, the things that make them remember "I sure did like what he had to say," even when they can't remember what it was he said.

This approach allows a candidate to be authentic, it's good for the long-term brand of the party, it doesn't cut out the many small parts of the electorate that may each be focused on a non-mainstream issue, and it enhances the contrasts between the two candidates -- something especially important for challengers, and change elections. One of the front-pagers (Matt? Chris?) here has argued that progressive messaging drives turnout. Similarly I would argue that contrast messaging drives turnout, giving voters an actual reason to go to the polls and vote.

This diary only tackles the question of what to talk about, not what to say, which I'll approach in my next diary, about identity politics.

Tags: branding, consultants, contrast, Elections, Message, Psychology, strategy, Values (all tags)



Re: D.C. Consultants: ...

And the bell of clarity rings in the distance...

I was thinking earlier that their should be a one-liner training course for our Progressive Candidates.  In other words "spit it out".  There was a lot of wasted air time during the last election cycle by our "leaders" that came off sounding like they couldn't remember what they were supposed to say.

by goplies 2006-08-16 11:30PM | 0 recs
Re: D.C. Consultants: Voters Don't Care About

Glad to see that somebody else reads the literatre - go msnook!!! :)

Because I enjoy playing the devil's advocate, i think most of the people who suggest folks "stay on message" really don't disagree with this theory of political choice... rather, they think they have ID'd issues that they know voters care about and that they want to make sure that every exposure that a voter has to a candidate involves them saying something they know the voter agrees with.

For example, if being too close to the sitting president at the expense of your own party is a good issue with voters in a primary, the strategy would be to have them repeating that everywhere so that even if a voter only sees/reads/hears about a candidate once, they are most likely going to form a positive opinion about that candidate based on their pre-conceived notions. Whether they "recall" the position or not isn't politically relevant - the trial heat question is.

It is more the advertising peeps who use "recall" to judge the effectiveness of their contact programs - which, as you point out, tests the wrong thing.

by steveolson 2006-08-17 09:01AM | 0 recs
Good Post

Now this is a very good post. Thank you for the reference to the book you mention above.

by mrgavel 2006-08-17 11:40AM | 0 recs


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