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Date: 2024-05-21 Page is: DBtxt003.php txt00023347

ON MESSAGING & FREEDOM: written by Anat Shenker-Osorio

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Peter Burgess COMMENTARY

Peter Burgess

Anat Shenker-Osorio

This will be midterm messaging guidance based upon reams and reams of different studies, with all sorts of different folks that I will highlight in my slide deck.

When debating messaging, and in particular electoral messaging, we get told that there is this perennial debate between persuasion and mobilization—are you focusing on the swing voter or are you focusing on the base? This is a false binary. If your words don’t spread, they don’t work. And so by definition, if the middle does not hear your message, it does not persuade them—something no one heard couldn’t possibly persuade them.

We need to remember that a message is like a baton that needs to be passed from person to person to person, and if it gets dropped anywhere along the way it is by definition not persuasive. That is why effective messaging is built out of a credible theory of change, and a recognition that it’s really hard to break a signal through the noise. And to get people to actually listen to what you’re saying.

Our messages must first engage our base. You need to make sure that the choir wants to sing from the songbook you’re handing them, and if you speak the language of milquetoast, then your base won’t carry your message and then the middle isn’t even gonna hear it. Of course there’s not enough of our base to win—we need to also persuade the conflicted, To do that, you need to actually stand for something, have something to say, and create a polarity.

That’s why effective messages are actually gonna turn some people off, because there are people who fundamentally disagree with us. Happily, they are the minority. If the opposition likes what you’re saying, what are you saying? You’re either producing blandly ineffective milquetoast, or you are accidentally parroting the tropes of your opposition, which we do all the time.

The first rule of messaging is: say what you’re for, say what you’re for, say what you’re for. I like to joke that if the Left had written the story of David, it would be a biography of Goliath because we like to talk about our opposition all the time, or send a message that’s essentially some permutation of “We’re the losing team. We lose a lot. We’ve lost recently. You should join us.” Or, “Boy have I got a problem for you.” Well, it turns out that the average voter does not want your problem.

At the same time, we need to remember that politics isn’t a game of solitaire. Our voters don’t just hear from us, unfortunately, they hear from the unrelenting scapegoating and race-baiting wedge issues of the other side. Race-neutral isn’t a thing—if you choose to be silent about race, the debate about race does not go away because the other side is pumping it out twenty-four hours a day.

The same is true of attacks on trans youth, as with other kinds of attacks on gender. They will always sing from the same song book—because they only have one thing to say which is to make voters blame some imagined “other” for their ills—to escape from the fact that they are taking out of our pockets and making life difficult for all of us. This is simple divide-and-conquer, the oldest trick in the book. And so when we try to counter that by saying nothing at all, what our voters still hear is this unrelenting race-baiting with no rejoinder.

Over years of testing, we’ve found that messages that work have a particular architecture. They begin with saying what we’re for. Then they get into the problem, not as the opening salvo but rather as the second point. And they talk about those villains who deliberately divide us in order to rule for the wealthiest few. That ties together specific racialized harms with the class-economic argument that many people are feeling. They then emphasize unity and collective action to solve the problem with some sort of call-to-action—a vision that people want to get behind.

I’ll finish up by describing what moves people both on vote choice and on various mobilization metrics. The first is that we have to tell a story and cast this election as a clear crossroads between two opposing forces. On the one hand you have either MAGA Republicans or Trump Republicans—there are advantages and disadvantages to using each term—who want to take us backwards by overturning the will of the people, controlling our lives, and ruling for the wealthy few. And on the other side you have the protagonist: the voters. Remember that voting isn’t a belief, it’s a behavior. It’s a thing that we need people to do.

And because of the despair and the despondency of our voters—and the dangers that they will defect, not to the other side but rather to the couch—we need to make them the heroes of our story and remind them how, through collective action of voting in 2018 and 2020, we were able to defeat Trump, and how we will do the same with Trumpism in this election.

What we’re seeing right now is that among all the ads we tested, ads that either are about or reference Roe are the most persuasive, hands down. We are in a persuasion window around Roe, so tying it to other issues is activating to our voters and is also persuasive. Freedom is another incredibly effective frame to connect across issues. It’s a way both to make our demands and to call out the opposition…because freedom is a core American value. This is true in the American Values Survey, it’s true from Gallup and Pew. Across time, when Americans are asked what value you most closely associate with this country, “freedom” is number one across races, ages, geographies, etc.

We cannot afford to let the right wing pretend that they can claim freedom as their idea. Freedom has been integral to our progressive narrative and to our victories—from the Freedom Rides to the Freedom Summer to FDR’S Four Freedoms to the freedom to marry—that rhetorical shift from the “right to marry” to the “freedom to marry” was a very deliberate choice. In particular, we see in testing that using “freedoms” in the plural is more progressive than the singular “freedom.”

So how do you do this? It opens with the shared value: “Americans value our freedoms,” then names the villains second: “But Trump Republicans want to take away freedom and rule only for the wealthy few, from freedom to decide if and when we grow our families”—that incorporates abortion, Roe, references to freedom to vote, to freedom from gun violence—“Trump Republicans want to overturn the will of the people and block the policies we favor, just as we turned out record numbers.” This is reminding voters of their agency, “Americans must join together across race, place, and party to remove them from power, or to vote for us.” Obviously you make this modular to your own purpose.

Contrasting voters’ concerns, our underlying values, and just our basic needs—kitchen table stuff—demonstrates to our voters what’s at stake in a way that’s both persuasive and mobilizing. We made an ad that does that: “What side are you on? Americans who believe liberty and justice are for all? Or traitors inciting violence against our country and trying to take away our freedoms? Which side are you on? We work for a living and care for our families, while the Trump Republicans would block everything our families need. This November, it’s time to show which side you’re on. Vote for Democrats.”

And then, finally, when you are talking about abortion, you want to engender empathy and create agency. It is a useful tool to activate loss aversion in people—that’s why we talk about how “They are taking away our freedoms. They are taking away this and taking away that.” Loss aversion is very motivating for people, but you need to be careful that you don’t go all the way into “it’s over. You’re going to be bleeding out on a table,” or, “They’ve done it. They’ve taken it away,” because remember there are three people running in every race: you, your opposition, and “stay at home,” which has the home team advantage because people are already home.

You need to actually motivate people toward feeling like their participation could create change. And what we find is that airing personal stories and raising up the scepter of this projected future loss is effective. We’ve made one more ad that does that, and we call it “Someone You Love”: “Someone you love may struggle with a pregnancy. A pregnancy they longed for that couldn’t survive. That would endanger providing for the children they already have. That comes too soon after giving birth. That they were too sick to carry. That wasn’t right for them. Someone you love might need an abortion. Someday you can help ensure that when the day comes, they can get the care they need. Support someone you love.”

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