Friendly advice: How to talk to non-supporters about Obama

Cross-posted at MyDD, Daily Kos, and the EENRblog. Slightly revised from the version posted at MyDD, thanks to feedback from several thoughtful readers. Note: If Hillary Clinton were the nominee, I would have written a similar diary addressing her volunteers.

This diary is for people planning to volunteer for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign this summer and fall. My goal is to help you be more effective in communicating with voters like me, who don’t care for Obama.

I know that the Obama campaign has scripts and training sessions for its volunteers, and those worked well in the primaries.

Now you have to reach out to Democrats who weren’t buying what Obama was selling in the primaries. It seems to me that many Obama supporters respond in a counter-productive way when they encounter people who are not sold on the candidate.

In this diary, I will offer two basic principles to guide your conversations with non-supporters.

Then I will cover types of comments you may hear from resistant Democrats when you are doing GOTV for Obama. Those are all based on things I have heard people say (not comments I have read on blogs).

I will give examples of what I consider ineffective and constructive responses to those comments.

Follow me after the jump if you care to hear more.  

I am not an expert in political communication. However, as a precinct captain for John Kerry in 2003/2004 and for John Edwards in 2007/2008, I talked with hundreds of Democrats in my precinct and around the Des Moines area.

Because of certain features of the Iowa caucus system, it was important for me to remain on good terms with non-supporters, who might be able to help me win my precinct. So I feel my perspective may be useful for Obama volunteers.

Before I get into specific dialogs you may have with non-supporters, I encourage you to embrace two “big picture” principles related to GOTV for the general election.

First: Try to “respect, empower and include” the Democrats who will not be excited about Obama.

To do this, it helps to be a good listener and have some empathy for their point of view, even if you strongly dislike the candidate they preferred. The candidate they supported lost, and now they have to come to terms with that and vote for the man who derailed their dream. Don’t rub it in their faces.

Second: Remember that voter contacts are not about winning an argument. They are about finding ways to get on the same side as the person you are talking to.

If you talk to someone who seems to have a totally irrational dislike for Obama, take a deep breath and remember that your guy won the nomination.

Repeat after me: your guy won the nomination.

You do not need to prove this person wrong. You have nothing to gain from attacking this person’s first choice. Obama needs this person’s support in the general election, and you are Obama’s ambassador.

So resist the temptation to say that Hillary ran a disgraceful, dishonest, race-baiting campaign, or that Edwards is a phony loser.

You will find these conversations easier if you can change the subject from something you disagree about (e.g. Obama’s qualifications or skills) to something you agree on (e.g. how frightening it would be to have more conservatives on the Supreme Court).

As I mentioned above, some Obama supporters tend to respond to critics in a counter-productive way. Here are a couple of real-life examples.

A few months ago I ago I had some e-mail correspondence with an Obama fan who was perplexed by my dislike of his candidate. I sent him a message listing a bunch of things that bug me about Obama and his campaign strategy. Here is part of the reply I got in return:

I actually feel bad for you, I really do, and I do NOT mean to be even the least bit demeaning, or snooty (no matter how it may sound — I really don’t ).

Because I think you are missing out on a unique time in US political history.  Seriously.  Obama is a candidate who, no, is hardly perfect, but has (1) inspired millions of young people, minorities, Indies, etc. to be involved in the political process, when they were not before; (2) been an incredibly inspirational figure and has generated excitement and hope among millions more; and (3) is our best chance in decades — yes, literally decades — to win, and to possibly even win big, and form a working majority for progressive change so issues like health care, energy dependence, ethics reform, etc., etc. will finally be addressed.  For those reasons, he’s very special, a once-in-a-generation candidate.  It’s too bad you are missing out, and not seeing what so many, many, many others are seeing.

Saying you feel sorry for someone because she (unlike millions of more insightful people) cannot recognize Obama’s fantabulous awesomeness is not a good outreach strategy.

I spent a week in the hospital in February, and a close family friend who is a doctor called regularly to check on my progress. It drives this guy crazy that I do not like Obama, even though I’ve assured him that I would vote for Obama in the general. Every time he called me when I was in the hospital, he ended up changing the subject to Obama. Didn’t I understand that Obama is the most gifted politician of our lifetimes? One day he even called back later to apologize.

Once people tell you they will vote for Obama, stop trying to convert them into true believers. Just thank them for their support and let them know how important every vote will be this fall.

Also, be aware that bashing the other candidates is a big turn-off even for some people who voted for Obama and prefer him to Clinton.

Now, I’ve tried to come up with comments you may hear from voters who don’t like Obama, along with some ways you can get on the same side as these voters.

“He’s so inexperienced”/”He doesn’t seem very qualified”/”I wanted to see a woman president”/”Couldn’t he have waited another few years? He’s barely done anything in the Senate yet.”

Get ready to hear this from older voters, especially women over 50 who backed Hillary. If they have worked outside the home, they have seen this movie before: the younger, charismatic man gets the job (or the promotion, or the account), while the older, more qualified woman gets passed over.

These people are just as disappointed by the way things turned out as you would be if the superdelegates had handed the nomination to Clinton after Obama earned it. They liked Bill, they like Hillary, and they thought she would do a great job. They are frustrated that millions of voters picked the hot shot over the smart, hard-working woman. In their minds, Hillary deserved the nomination, but voters picked someone less prepared for the job.

To add insult to injury, many of them now believe that they will not live to see a woman president.

Ineffective responses to these voters: telling them that Hillary isn’t more qualified than Obama, that it would be disastrous to have the Clintons back in the White House, that Hillary’s sense of entitlement is offensive, or that Hillary deserved to lose after running a sleazy, racist, deceitful campaign.

More inclusive and respectful responses:

I understand where you’re coming from–I know I would have been really disappointed if my candidate had lost the primaries. I hope we can count on your vote, because we can’t afford to have any more Republican judges on the Supreme Court.

You know, I’ve been on board with Obama for a long time, but my [mother/neighbor/cousin/colleague] was a huge Hillary supporter. I have a lot of respect for some things she has done in the Senate, and I think she has great work ahead of her after we beat the Republicans this fall.

The first example changes the subject from whether Obama deserved to beat Hillary to something you and this voter can agree on: it would be disastrous to let John McCain appoint Supreme Court judges.

The second example validates this voter’s feelings about Hillary and reminds her that Hillary’s work is not done, even though her presidential aspirations will never be fulfilled.

If you can’t truthfully say that you respect anything Hillary has done in the Senate, I recommend that you read markw’s diary on “Four Reasons I Support Hillary.” A friend of mine who was once a confirmed Hillary-hater changed her views after she learned about Hillary’s work on behalf of children with autism and other special needs.

If you are a woman, you might borrow some ideas from this excellent diary by noweasels. I have reworked the last couple of paragraphs of her diary:

Although Clinton wasn’t my first choice, I hope she knows that a lot of women in my generation were glad to see her run. It made me feel empowered to see that a woman had a real chance of winning the presidency.

That approach validates this voter’s feelings and reminds her that Clinton achieved something by running, even though she didn’t win.

I guarantee it will get you further than saying you’re sick and tired of feminists telling women they should have voted for Hillary.

“I’m worried he’s just too green for the job”/”I wanted someone who wouldn’t need on-the-job training”/”I don’t need a rock star for a president.”

People who preferred one of the second-tier candidates may feel that Obama didn’t deserve to win the nomination. They are frustrated that the media shut out their candidate and reduced the campaign to a two-person celebrity competition. These are the Democrats who laughed when I used to joke that those “HOPE” yard signs with the sunrise “O” logo should have said “HYPE.”

Ineffective response to this kind of voter: saying that Obama is a “once-in-a-lifetime candidate,” who was simply more compelling, exciting, or inspirational than Joe Biden or Chris Dodd or Bill Richardson.

Instead, I recommend acknowledging that many people share their doubts:

Well, I like Obama a lot. I know a lot of Democrats [don’t think he’s ready/wanted someone else], but I think if we get him elected, he’s going to surprise a lot of people.

I have a lot of respect for [Biden/Richardson] and would love to see Obama pick him for VP or Secretary of State.

Chris Dodd would be a great Senate majority leader.

Yeah, I know a lot of people feel he ran too soon. He’s got a lot of experienced people around him, though. I think he is smart enough to know where to look for the expertise he doesn’t have.

These comments show empathy and remind voters that their preferred candidate still has a political future under a President Obama.

Another response that might help you connect with this kind of Democrat:

Obama was my first choice, but I think we had a really strong field. [Or: Obama wasn’t my first choice either–we had a really strong field.] I saw some of the debates, and I always felt like everyone on the stage could do a decent job as president, especially compared to the losers on the Republican side.

Now you have changed the subject from whether Obama was the best candidate to something you agree on (the Republican alternatives were horrible).

“What has he ever done besides talk?”/”He’s really good at saying nothing and getting people all charged up about it”/”I know he can deliver a speech, but what’s he actually going to do if he gets in there?”

This may mystify you, but some people who hear Obama speak walk away unimpressed. That would include my friend who was undecided between Obama and Edwards until Tom Harkin’s steak fry in September, which convinced her that Obama had no idea what needs to be done. Or my friend whose reaction to Obama’s “Yes we can” speech (the night of the New Hampshire primary) was, “He said absolutely nothing.”

When I was in the hospital, I had CNN on a lot, which led to some political conversations with the nursing staff. One nurse’s aide said she’d like to know when Obama is ever going to do something besides give speeches.

Ineffective response: remind this person that millions of Americans find Obama’s speeches very inspiring, so inspiring that they have gotten involved in politics for the first time in their lives.

That will work about as well as telling people they should go out and buy every record that tops the charts, or that the Oscar for best picture should go to the movie with the biggest box office. They know Obama has this effect on people, but they listen to him and they just don’t get it.

I couldn’t agree more with a point kid oakland made in a diary a few months ago:

In my view that is a crucial question that every candidate for elected office must be able to answer in clear, simple declarative sentences: what will the voters get when they vote for you?

My honest assessment is that Senator Obama has gone as far as he can with the imagery and demographics associated with his campaign: youthful voters lined up around the block to demand change and express hope.

It’s time to add another approach. Barack Obama needs to practice retail politics. He needs to understand that some of his weakest demographics are those where a message of change will not resonate, will not win votes.

During the last month or so, Obama has been talking a little more about policies in his speeches. Still, his volunteers need to be able to tell skeptical voters what “change we can believe in” means. Be prepared to hand out some position papers or at least talk about some specific policies he would enact:

The media tend to be pretty superficial, but he has done a lot you probably haven’t heard about. Did you know that he has worked on laws to protect children from lead poisoning?

One thing that impressed me was his [energy/education/tax reform] plan. (Then talk about why you support Obama’s specific plans in that area.)

I also thought that newyorknewyork had a great suggestion in a recent diary about phonebanking for Obama:

You can use this with ANY issue that comes up:

Let’s face it, Obama and Clinton’s policies are 95% identical.  So ‘who has the best policy’ is not really that important.  It’s who is most likely to be able to IMPLEMENT that policy that really matters.

Then you can explain why you think Obama’s approach will help him implement the policies that are pretty much the same as what Hillary was offering.

“Oh yeah, let’s all be friends and play nice with the Republicans–that is really going to work”/”He is going to get eaten alive.”

Obama’s post-partisan rhetoric drives some Democrats crazy. They think that if he’s sincere, he must be incredibly naive to imagine that he can get everyone to coalesce around some kind of common-sense, unity agenda. These are the Democrats who laughed when Hillary mocked Obama’s rhetoric during a rally in Rhode Island. They thought she was using humor to make a valid point.

Many of these people are offended that Obama implies both parties are equally to blame for our political problems. What rock was he living under during the 1990s, when the Republicans played dirty, never sought compromise in good faith and even abused the impeachment process?

Some of Obama’s rhetoric suggests that he thinks reaching out to Republicans is more important than fighting to enact Democratic priorities. That makes some Democrats wary, and it didn’t help that Obama has avoided the spolight during some of the key Senate battles of the past year (such as over Iraq supplemental funding bills and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act).

Ineffective response: Tell these people that both parties are to blame, no party has a monopoly on good ideas, and/or we’re in a political rut because too many people are cynical.

If you look too young to have been politically active during the 1990s, I would particularly caution against suggesting that hyper-partisan Democrats are just as bad as hyper-partisan Republicans.

You would do better to remind these voters that Obama has been a team player for our side:

Yeah, I’ve heard some people call him Republican-lite, but I just don’t see it. He worked his butt off campaigning for Democrats all over the country two years ago. (If Obama campaigned for any Democrats in your state or region in 2006, be sure to bring that up.)

I get what you’re saying. One thing I do know is that if the Democrats can get some good stuff through Congress, Obama isn’t going to veto it like McSame-as-Bush would.

Well, even if Obama isn’t as liberal as I would like sometimes, I know he would appoint good judges, which is more than I can say for McCain.

It never hurts to remind fire-breathing Democrats that the Supreme Court hangs in the balance right now.

“Screw him. He talks about hope and then turns around and calls the Clintons racists.”

As angry as you may be about Hillary’s campaign tactics, many of her supporters are just as angry at Obama. The way they see it, the Obama campaign set out to brand the Clintons as racists in order to get a political edge among blacks and white liberals. Meanwhile, the media gave Obama a pass on his supporters’ comments that denigrated Hillary, sometimes in sexist terms.

Ineffective response: Taking the bait and telling this person why the racial polarization is all the Clintons’ fault, or nitpicking to say that Obama himself never directly called Hillary a racist.

Don’t waste time arguing with these people. They’ve been watching the same campaign that you have. You will never convince them that Hillary is “deeply, grievously, morally wrong.” I would try something like this:

It’s too bad that our primaries got bogged down in [identity politics/finger-pointing about racism]. I liked it better when they were [hashing out the issues/fighting about their health care plans]. I know it was divisive, but I think Democrats will be able to come together now. At least I hope so, because I don’t want another four years of McSame-as-Bush.

Now you have put yourself on the same side as this voter: you regret the racial polarization that accompanied our primaries.

You may wonder why you should validate the concerns of people who weren’t offended by Hillary’s campaign. Please remember that Obama can’t win the general without the overwhelming majority of Clinton supporters voting for him. Also, how you interact with a Clinton supporter could make the difference between that person grudgingly voting for Obama (but doing nothing else for him) and that person getting involved by making a small donation, putting an Obama sticker on the car, or even volunteering.

It doesn’t help for you to ascribe the worst possible motives to people who backed Hillary in the primaries. Don’t take my word for it: kid oakland has made the case for respecting the reasons some people preferred Hillary. Senator Claire McCaskill also wants you to be humble rather than taunting when you talk to Clinton supporters.

On a related note, if you talk to someone in the LGBT community who is still mad about the Donnie McClurkin debacle, do not try to convince this person that Obama was just pragmatically recognizing the widespread homophobia in the black community. Also, I wouldn’t bother showing them Obama’s open letter to LGBT voters, which he released after winning 10 primaries in a row.

The voter you’re talking to probably believes that Obama threw gays under the bus when he stood to gain politically, then paid lip service to their concerns once he felt confident he was winning the nomination. I suggest showing empathy for this person’s anger:

Truth be told, I wish he’d never scheduled that event. It wasn’t in character for him–he’s got a strong record on equality issues. I hope you’ll vote for him anyway, because all of our civil rights are going to be flushed down the toilet if McCain puts more right-wing judges on the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is your trump card. Don’t be afraid to play it.

“He is going to get killed in the general”/”Sorry, America is not ready to elect a black president”/”Yet again the Democrats were too stupid to nominate someone who could actually win the election.”

The dustup over Reverend Wright’s comments and the results of the Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries reinforced many Democrats’ belief that Obama is a weak candidate for the general election.

Ineffective responses: Accusing this voter of tolerating racism or making excuses for racists. Also, I wouldn’t start an argument by telling this voter his or her preferred candidate would have done even worse. (Find me one Deaniac who will admit that Kerry won more states than Dean would have.) Bringing up Clinton scandals or the Edwards $400 haircut is not going to inspire this person to help Obama.

Remember: your guy won the nomination. Be gracious toward supporters of other Democrats.

Try something like this instead:

Well, Bill Clinton was behind in the polls in the summer of 1992. I think Obama will make up ground when people get to know him better, but no one’s going to hand it to him. I’m out here [or: I’m calling you today] because we need all hands on deck. Can we count on your vote at least?

Democrats have been so energized this year, with huge turnouts all over the place. I think we will be able to bring this one home. I hope you’ll be able to help us too.

I saw a poll where more people said they wouldn’t vote for someone over 70 than said they wouldn’t vote for a black man. Have you seen McCain lately? He looks really old, and he sounds old too.

I think we can get enough people to vote for Barack. Look how well he’s done in a lot of states that never elected a black man to anything before. Even I was surprised.

Hesiod Theogeny had a good suggestion for responding to those who say you’re wasting your time, because a black man can’t win a presidential election:

I agree there are a lot of people who won’t vote for a black man. Or a woman for that matter. But we cannot validate the thinking of those people by giving into it. The only way to prove them wrong is to prove them wrong.

Note: When I was a precinct captain for Edwards, it was extremely alienating to hear a few Obama supporters accuse me of favoring Edwards because he was a white male. (I am not talking about bloggers, I am talking about Obama supporters I talked to in the “real world.”) Do not make the same mistake if you are talking with former Edwards supporters. Some of them might be willing to volunteer for Obama themselves, but not if you make them feel like they will be looked upon as racists.

“He is going to sell out progressives”/”He’s just another corporate Democrat”/”What has he actually done to end the war?”

People who backed Edwards or one of the second-tier candidates are most likely to express this kind of sentiment about Obama.

Ineffective responses: Arguing that Obama is much more progressive than the candidate they preferred, bashing Edwards or Dodd for voting for the authorization of the use of military force in Iraq. You gain nothing from fighting this battle.

You might try giving some examples of progressive causes Obama has supported, or of beloved liberals who have endorsed Obama, but I think one of these approaches would make more headway:

I hear what you’re saying. I hope we can count on your vote at least. I think Obama is going to do better than you expect, I really do, but the main thing is to keep John McCain out of the White House. This guy has voted for every Bush judge and is terrible on [choice/the environment/labor issues/whatever].

Well, I believe he is sincerely committed to ending this war. I know what you mean–maybe he could have done more in the Senate. It’s hard when Bush is sitting right there with his veto pen. I guess the bottom line for me is I’ve got young [kids/nephews/grandkids/students], and I would hate to think that we’ll still be in Iraq when they grow up because we elected a guy who wants to keep us there for 100 years.

This diary is getting quite long, so I’ll end with one last piece of advice.

If you are so angry at the Clintons that you cannot have a respectful conversation with Hillary supporters, then I encourage you to volunteer for the Obama campaign in some capacity that does not involve direct voter contact. Not every volunteer has to do phone-banking or canvassing.

I’m talking about those who harbor “a hatred towards [Hillary] that is difficult to imagine let alone describe.”

Bring some home-made meals to your local Obama headquarters. Offer to do data entry, stuff envelopes or sort literature for the door-knockers. If you have a spare bedroom, offer to house an Obama volunteer or field organizer. They will appreciate your efforts, and you can feel morally superior that you did not “debase” yourself by asking a Clinton supporter to vote for our nominee.

As for the majority of you Obama fans, please do your part to help our nominee mend fences with Democrats who don’t like him.

  • Great post!

    Even though I was a big Obama guy from early on, I have a little difficulty understanding Obama supporters who are unable to acknowledge his weaknesses or shortcomings.  There is no such thing as a perfect candidate.  In my experience, acknowledging people’s concerns shows humility and realism that helps when communicating with people who are not able to get all excited about Obama.

  • desmoinesdem,

    Your diaries are always so well-written and insightful. I agree with pretty much everything you said, and I appreciate your spirit of moderation, and pragmatism (would you call it that?), or at least a lack of hyper-partisanship. Gosh, you go to DailyKos and say something like this and you’re liable to get flamed and troll-rated right off the board. I didn’t blame the Hillary bloggers that left Big Orange in their little “strike.” It’s nice that someone else seems to understand.

    And ugh, about the “hope” signs: those were one of my biggest turn-offs with regard to Obama. I don’t want my President to be a superstar, or a big celebrity with no substance. What Obama’s win in the primaries does show, however, is that even if you don’t agree with Obama, the people behind him “pulling the strings” (Plouffe…Plouffe..) are really good at what they’re doing. Nonetheless, no one’s going to buy my vote with a stupid slogan and a campaign that has supporters at the caucus site who think it’s more important to elect someone who’s “hip” rather than someone who actually knew Benazir Bhutto and has expertise in foreign policy at a troubling time in our history (Joe Biden). You wouldn’t believe the idiocy of some Obama people at my precinct when we were trying to cut a deal with them to take a delegate away from Edwards and make us viable (sorry…I like Edwards…). My caucus night experience with regard to “hero-worship” convinced me, at least for a while, that his campaign was just a cult with a bunch of mindless zombies following it, and that impression has been really hard for me to shake.

    I still can’t take my Obama-“worshipping” friends who can’t seem to see any fault with him though. While he is the nominee, I need some space from that kind of talk…probably why I don’t think I’ll be volunteering my time for him in the fall. Not that I don’t like him…but I don’t really know if I want to be involved in his kind of campaign, especially if I don’t really believe in it full-out. I mean, having a serene “intellectual” like Obama is great for some people, but not for me. I want my President to be smarter than everyone, but also have some heart and some backbone, and not be afraid to pull the punches. For me, that’s not Obama. For the “progressive” blogosphere people, that’s exactly what they want, and so, good for them. We’re all voting for him. It’s all good.

    • the odd thing is

      that this piece was mostly received favorably at Daily Kos. I was surprised, and it got me thinking about why the Obama supporters at MyDD were so much more hostile. At some point I will write something about that.

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