Messaging matters in political campaigns

Bruce Lear: Iowa Democrats trying to appeal to independent voters fell victim to messaging from safe Democratic districts, where slogans only have to appeal to one party. -promoted by Laura Belin

Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Democratic strategists should read and re-read this quote before every campaign.

The election corpse isn’t cold and the autopsy knives are sharpened and poised to attack. What happened in Iowa? I’ve no ambitions to become a full-time paid pundit, but here are some thoughts.

Was it that the Democratic candidate for Senate was from Des Moines?  Maybe Democrats didn’t pick up the Iowa House because they didn’t do the usual door knocking because of COVID-19.  Maybe President Donald Trump’s momentum in the state provided enough draft for one or perhaps two Congressional districts, and still enough to save a wounded U.S. Senate incumbent.   

There is certainly no one reason for the red wedding in Iowa, but there may be one cautionary tale.

Republicans defined Democrats and forced them to play defense the entire game.

Words matter, and the timing of messaging matters even more. For Iowans, the message fumble has two giant consequences. It allows an unfettered legislature to claim a mandate to finish the right-wing dream begun in 2017. It also allows Governor Kim Reynolds to brag that the voters vindicated her hands off, Trump like approach to the pandemic.

If we thought 2020 was scary, welcome to a possible political horror show in 2021.

Iowa Democrats trying to appeal to independent voters fell victim to messaging from safe Democratic districts, where slogans only have to appeal to one party. For example, a majority of people in middle America supported the legitimate, peaceful protests, about the murder of unarmed Black people, but got scared by the vandalism and looting after the peaceful protesters were tucked in bed.

Frankly, Democrats were slow to condemn the violence while upholding the legitimate meaningful protest. That position needed to be made loud and clear during the Democratic National Convention, where Democrats had a huge audience.

It wasn’t.

I also completely understand why Black Lives Matter used, “Defund the police” as a rallying cry. It provokes and incites. After all, it’s hard to fire up a crowd that’s enraged by saying “Let’s repurpose the police so they can do their jobs professionally, safely, and legally, while funding mental health people and social workers to take non law enforcement duties off their plates.”

It just won’t fit on a sign or even on a street.

In districts where the goal is not to provoke but persuade independent voters, Democrats were immediately playing defense. It forced them to answer questions like, “Do you want to call social workers when your house is robbed? “Do you believe police officers are all racist?

As a result, the defund rallying cry was used unfairly against every Democrat from county supervisor candidates to candidates for Congress and the U.S, Senate and every office in between. The most visible messaging was in Iowa’s Senate race. Joni Ernst was able to define Theresa Greenfield as the candidate of the angry mob. I thought her ads were nonsense that no one would believe, but never discount fear as a motivator.

Systemic racism is real and it needs to be discussed openly. But this powerful and emotional topic doesn’t lend itself to a 30 second sound bite or a 2-minute rebuttal in a debate. Like climate change, most Republican politicians refuse to recognize racism’s deep roots in American institutions. For that reason, the topic became weaponized in this political campaign.

Another messaging problem was the “Green New Deal.” The “Green New Deal” is layered and means different things to different people. It’s more of a concept than a specific set of programs. As a result, Republicans like Ernst were able to morph it into something it isn’t and used it to scare people.

It also forced Congressional candidates like J.D. Scholten, running in the heavily Republican fourth Congressional district, to explain why he supported part of the concept and rejected other parts. Again, the messaging was too nuanced for a quick rebuttal against a misleading attack from his opponent. Certainly not the only reason Scholten lost, but it contributed.

Iowans support renewable energy–otherwise you wouldn’t see all the huge wind turbines across the state. They also support clean water and soil conservation. But the Republican definition of the “Green New Deal” spooked some independents.

There were certainly other messaging problems, including no pat response when the term socialist was thrown around. I wonder what would have happened if a Democratic candidate had turned to his/her opponent and said, “Please define socialist, and give at least one example of how I fit that description. I’ll wait.” My guess is it would have sounded a lot like Ernst trying to remember the price of beans.

For me it’s a lot like when your significant other asks how they look. If you wait four or five minutes to answer and then say, “I guess you look fine,” you’ve been defined by the message and not in a positive way. Messaging matters, and timing matters more.

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and recently retired after 38 years of being connected to public schools. He was a teacher for eleven years and a regional director for Iowa State Education Association for 27 years until retirement. 

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  • Messaging

    Nicely done, Bruce. I remember 2004 and the “Swift Boat” tag that Rs were able to hang on John Kerry. Trump is quite agile in naming his opponents and revving up his base. In HD37 where in live we had a very good candidate. Her opponent came out on TV with an AAD associating her falsely as a defender of police and, because she had spent time in China, labeling her as a job killing operative of the Chinese government. 2022 will come sooner than we want. By then, hopefully, the pandemic will be in our rear view mirror. But voters may well forget Reynolds’ gross mishandling of the Iowa response. Keep working on this issue.

  • It's what they hear

    Yes, spot on! I’m always reminded of the famous line by Frank Luntz: it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear. The Republicans have always had the edge on messaging and the Dems actually seem to be getting worse at it.

    There was a really telling quote In the Sunday edition of the DM Register two days before the election. In the big front page article about the release of the final polls, they asked an undecided 43yo voter (I assume a white guy) from a DM suburb why he ultimately decided on Ernst. He said ‘the far left just scares me to death.’ And I thought to myself ‘this was a messaging failure – the GOP message got to him and it worked.’ They successfully got this guy and probably thousands of other IA voters to think that Theresa Greenfield and Joe Biden are the same as rock-throwing Portland anarchists. This also could be a casualty of the Dems deciding not to knock doors.

    Dems don’t think on their feet and they ALWAYS allow the GOP to control the narrative. I love that line about ‘defining socialism’ – it’s exactly what they need to do. The only time I hear about socialism is every four years when suddenly I’ve become a socialist. The Dems need to counter this by saying “We want markets for Iowa farmers – not corporate welfare handouts to make up for Trump’s stupid trade war.”
    I would love to see, just once, a Dem respond by saying “I’m no socialist/communist. But, if you want to call me that, I can call you a plutocrat or an oligarch. After all, didn’t you vote for the tax cuts that gave billions to the wealthiest people and corporations in the world?”

  • Iowa Dems....

    are a failure because their “messaging” is straight outa Clinton. Bill and Hillary. You haven’t realized that for all your “we’re not nuts like the other guys” rhetoric, the real point is that people want to vote FOR someone and not always against the lesser evil candidate.
    This Iowa moderate is kinda like Iowa “nice.” Something from a bygone era. Moderates thought Ben Carson was cool at one point.
    Plouffe (David) said it best a few months back when he said Dems have to stop being so polite because they end up being a patsy for Luntzian slogans.
    Sort of Like how Grassley got elected in the first place. Remember “Tax and Spend Liberal.” Chuck spouted that endlessly in his 80’s battle with Clark?
    In the Clinton era, ya’ll decided to “get some of that corporate money too” and here we are. Too corporate to effectively fight for the lower/middle class. Too scared of being defined to actually come up with a fighting message (what if the downtown business crowd gets annoyed with us?)
    We (royal we here) all let the BLM kids take the blows for us while we sat home and tsk-tsk’d them. Do you think KR would’ve made any moves without their prodding?
    Big takeaway: Iowa Dems embarrassed us the primary and (oh man this is hard) let a woman who didn’t even know the price of Corn in Iowa(!) beat you. In an age of extreme, lethal partisanship, I don’t want to hear “I don’t care whether it’s a Republican idea or a Democratic idea.” (switches channel…back to cartoons)