Of all the problems faced by political candidates in the modern age, a failure to communicate ought not be one.
Candidates have a vast and sophisticated arsenal of tools available to help them massage their messages to maximize appeal. These include armies of advertising and marketing professionals who deploy scientifically conducted focus groups and data analysis. These pros conduct polls which — despite the maxim “The only poll that matters is the one on Election Day” — are incredibly sophisticated and almost always accurate.
Political PR costs big money, more than most individuals possess. But on the national level that’s not a problem, thanks to the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision.
So why is it that so many seasoned politicians, including those with the biggest campaign warchests and personal fortunes, have so much trouble connecting with American voters?
Whatever happened to the good ones?
Where Did All the Good Speechwriters Go?
Let’s take a look at three 2016 presidential candidates: Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. They’re all doing OK but could be substantially better if only they had smarter messaging.
By all accounts, Secretary Clinton is likeable one on one. She’s funny, sharp and self-deprecating. But get her on a podium or in a TV interview and she comes across as entitled, self-absorbed and evasive. The more she talks, the less people like her. And her poll numbers drop accordingly.
This same problem sunk her 2008 campaign.
Republican strategists plan to drive a truck through this gaping vulnerability. The New York Times describes a focus group’s reaction to a TV attack ad by the right-wing superPAC American Crossroads. It opens with the former First Lady “looking well-coiffed and aristocratic, toasting champagne with her tuxedoed husband.”
“The ad then cut to Mrs. Clinton describing being “dead broke” when she and her husband left the White House, before a narrator intones that Mrs. Clinton makes more money in a single speech, about $300,000, than an average family earns in five years.”
“She’s out of touch,” a female laundry attendant tells the focus group organizers. Says another participant:”Her reality is just so different than mine.”
The Hillary-Is-Too-Rich Attack
The too-rich attack is a standard political strategy. The same sort of attack was also used against FDR and JFK. But it didn’t work against them, even though they were wealthier than the Clintons.
That’s because Roosevelt and Kennedy didn’t run away from the obvious truth that yes, they did live in a different reality than most Americans. They owned it.
Roosevelt and Kennedy also aggressively promoted policies — the New Deal and anti-poverty programs — that conveyed to the public they cared about average folks. On the other hand, the too-rich-to-get-me attack was nearly effective against President George H.W. Bush in 1992 because his policies were aloof and uncaring. In the midst of a grinding, seemingly endless recession that caused a spike in long-term unemployment, Bush proposed exactly nothing to help its victims.
Just wait for the markets to improve, he urged. That’s a lot easier to do when you’re rich like Bush.
Hillary hasn’t responded effectively, or really much at all, to the GOP’s framing of her as a coldhearted, clueless bitch.
What Hillary Ought To Say
What she ought to say is something like this:
Look, that was a dumb thing to say. I’m a politician; my job is to talk all day. The more you talk, the more chances you have to say something stupid, and that ‘dead broke’ thing is an example. Obviously, Bill and I are rich — spectacularly rich. We like to think that the money we earn from those speeches isn’t all for us; we give most of it to our foundation, which is working around the clock to help the poor here in the United States and around the world. But also, obviously, we live extremely well. Sometimes, Bill looks around at our fabulous house, with a private staff and beautiful furniture, and says he still can’t believe that he gets to live like that, considering he grew up so poor, in a trailer in Arkansas. Like the Talking Heads song, ‘This is not my beautiful house!’ So yes, we’re rich. And frankly, we don’t think it’s fair that we get to live like that while so many Americans, who work so hard, are suffering so terribly. We’re willing to give up some of what we’ve got, to contribute our fair share, to reduce that growing disparity between rich and poor, that threatens to tear America and its economy apart at the seams. We know that a lot of other well-off Americans are willing to pay their fair share, to help lift us all up. That’s what my campaign is about.
Hillary’s other big albatross is the widespread perception among the Democratic Party’s progressive base that she is not one of them.
Why? Her vote with Bush to invade Iraq in 2003, her and her husband’s endorsement of numerous “free trade” agreements beginning with NAFTA in 1994, her seat on the board of Walmart, her vote for the Patriot Act, and statements siding with the NSA rather than Edward Snowden and other privacy-rights advocates. All have lefties falling into the arms of self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont, to the point that his shoestring campaign now presents a viable threat to her once inevitable nomination.
Clinton can’t deny that, from the Hillarycare debacle in 1993 to her leading role in the destruction of Libya to her silence on the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, she has played the role of a relentless, militarist, corporate stooge.
But that doesn’t mean she couldn’t make the case for herself more effectively. With a couple hundred words, she could put her Iraq War vote behind her, and make the case for herself as someone a progressive could trust.
Something like, say:
Let me make this clear: I am a liberal. Throughout my life in politics, beginning with my work on behalf of disadvantaged children, I have always had the plight of the dispossessed and the desire to fight for a fair and just America at the forefront of my mind. But I haven’t always been in the right position to fulfill those dreams, which we all share as Democrats. As First Lady, it was my duty to support my husband, the president. I’m glad that I did, and I wouldn’t change that, but you need to know: President Bill Clinton’s policies during the ’90s weren’t all my policies. Indeed, Bill himself has changed his mind about some of the things he did back then. As Secretary of State, again, it was my duty to carry out the foreign policy developed by President Obama and his team. I take full responsibility for and am proud of my service with the president, but no one should assume that my ideas are carbon copies of his. There is one major decision I would take back if I had it to do over again, and that is my vote to authorize war against Iraq. I believed President Bush when he said that Saddam Hussein had WMDs because, at the time, it was unprecedented for a president to willfully misrepresent intelligence reports to — I hate to say this, but it’s true — con members of Congress and the American people into war. Like all of us, I am more skeptical now, and I would expect, and indeed want, Congress to demand proof justifying military action if I were to ask for the deployment of troops. Unfortunately, nothing can bring back the thousands of brave American soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, who died in that terrible war, based on lies. All we can do now is mourn them, and remember the lessons we’ve learned. Believe me when I say: I’ve learned those lessons, and I will never make the same mistake twice.
The Donald Trump Is A Racist Attack
Donald Trump obviously has the money to hire excellent political advisers. Yet unless he’s ignoring excellent counsel, which is of course more than possible, it looks like he’s torpedoing his relationship with the national media by failing to communicate effectively about his views about illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America to the U.S.
I say the media, rather than Republican primary voters, because his poll numbers have risen since he said that many Mexicans crossing the border illegally are criminals and rapists.
Why is this a problem, then?
As Howard Dean learned in the 2004 Democratic primary campaign, voter support isn’t enough. If you fail to cultivate good ties with the press, they will destroy when they get the chance, as they did by categorizing a routine mic malfunction as the that-man’s-a-crazy-nut “Dean Scream.”
Part of Trump’s problem is optics: he’s got an abrasive accent to go with an unsteady demeanor. He publically associates with unsavory characters like Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. That racist nativist and his politics and policies veer past mainstream American conservatism well into the territory of fascism and Nazism. Arpaio has abused, humiliated and murdered prison inmates in dangerous concentration camps in the desert. He ought to be facing the death penalty; instead he speaks on the same stage as Trump.
What Trump Ought To Say
Trump could reframe his remarks about illegal immigration in a way that minimized the destruction to his public image without compromising their core content. He could be just as straightforward but without demonizing innocent Mexicans, and also showcase a sense of humor. For example:
It goes without saying that most of the men, women and children who endure horrific conditions, some even dying of thirst in the desert, to cross the border from Mexico to the United States, are desperate for a better life for themselves and their families. They’re escaping poverty and drug cartels. All they want is to come here, follow the rules and work hard, just as million of undocumented immigrants have done in the past. And they’ve made America a richer, better place. Unfortunately, a substantial minority of these immigrants from Mexico present a threat to public safety. The Mexican government is emptying its prisons and pushing dangerous felons, including robbers and rapists, out of their country into ours. Well, let me say this to the government of Mexico: America is not your trash can. Under a Trump Administration, there will always be a place for people to come from Mexico, and other countries, in search of freedom and prosperity. I will increase quotas to make legal immigration easier, so we can check the backgrounds of applicants and make sure the people we welcome in are those who will contribute rather than make things worse. But we have to control our border. It’s insane to let people enter the U.S. willy-nilly. Which is why I will build a 100% impenetrable border wall, staffed by highly trained guards, from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. I have experience as a builder — it’ll be done right, it’ll be done fast, and it’ll have awesome brass trim…a classic! Because I like to put my name on things: the Trump Wall! The days of criminals and rapists coming and going as they please will come to an end.
The Too-Much-Information Bernie Sanders Attack
It’s tempting to look at Bernie Sanders and say hey, anyone who has come as far as quickly as he has doesn’t need communications advice. But I’ve been watching Sanders’ public appearances and I’ve noticed that he suffers from an oratorical deficit that could hurt his chances in the long run. In the argot of journalism, he buries the lede.
Whether he’s answering an interviewer one on one or delivering a speech at a rally, Bernie launches into a series of factoids that support his views on the topic.
In the center of a response, as part of its meat, they’re fine.
But he’s missing a succinct soundbyte that summarizes everything at the beginning, as well as the similarly pithy encapsulation of his thoughts that is supposed to come at the end.
Soundbytes Sanders Should Swear By
First, tell me what’s wrong (soundbyte).
Second, tell me why I should care.
Third, give me the facts and figures that prove that you’re right, that it’s really happening. (Bernie’s got this one down pat.)
Fourth, elaborate about why it matters.
Fifth, explain what you’d do to fix it.
Finally, sixth: the wrap-up promising the fix (soundbyte).
It should go like this:
America is becoming a Third World country. Unless you’re born to rich parents, the odds that you’ll earn a decent living at a good job, and be able to afford to buy a house and enjoy a comfortable retirement, are slim to none. That sucks. That’s not the American Dream. And it’s got serious consequences. More drug abuse and higher crime rates will make life worse for everybody, unless we do something. Talented young people with the brilliant ideas that drive the economy to the next level will be broke, unable to afford an education. Their genius will be wasted, squandered because they’re underemployed, or so alienated they don’t bother to try to go to college or land a good job, much less capitalize a start-up. Other countries will outcompete us in the global markets. I’m not talking about something that might happen. It’s happening now! Approximately 99 percent of new wealth goes to the top 1 percent. But we don’t have to succumb to hopelessness and rampant income inequality. I have a plan: higher taxes on the rich, lower taxes for everyone else. A $20 minimum wage, which will help everybody. A new war on poverty, and on predatory employers who cause us to earn less than we deserve. No more “outsourcing” of American jobs allowed. No more fake “independent contractors” who work full-time. Benefits guaranteed to all workers over 10 hours a week. Paid overtime over 35 hours a week for everybody. Cost-of-living increases indexed to inflation — the real inflation rate — for all workers and Social Security recipients. High-quality job training for the long-term unemployed. A new GI Bill, not just for veterans, for everybody. No more unpaid internships. Free college tuition. We’re going to take America back, for Americans. And I can promise you that it will not cost a dime, because the money will come out of cuts in perpetual warfare and by taxes on corporations that have gotten away with murder. To the contrary, we’ll come out way, way better off economically. And we’ll finally be more effectively engaged in the pursuit of happiness.