In the past several electoral cycles, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin has failed in its attempt to connect with Wisconsin voters. The fundamental problem is that our message is not resonating with voters across the state. The Democratic preference for detailed, fact-filled messaging seems to leave glazed-over voters in our communication wake.
Republicans, on the other hand, are masterful storytellers. They consistently show vs. tell voters about issues and candidates by using emotional stories and anecdotes instead of facts and figures. They've had great success positioning themselves as real people reaching out to real people. As much as we'd like to believe otherwise, voters often choose their candidates on the basis of perceived chemistry, and if that candidate champions their most pressing personal issues, so much the better.
So how do we develop a narrative that resonates with the people of Wisconsin?
We need a fresh approach to our communications, rooted in pro-active, accessible stories that illustrate Democratic principles and Wisconsin Values, real stories that resonate with real people.
Here's an example from my own campaigning experience. In Democratic traditional mode, I could have said this:
“Quality public education is important to help people living in poverty rise up and find financial security. It has made a difference in countless lives in Wisconsin and we need to ensure that future generations continue to have the opportunity to work hard and make a better life for themselves.”
I opted instead for a true but more personal message:
“My dad grew up in a dirt floor poor Northern Wisconsin family, literally dirt floor poor. Like children from many families living in poverty, he had to quit school to help support his family. A teacher encouraged him to return to school and finish his high school diploma, and later, the GI Bill allowed him to work hard and become a chemical engineer.
Our progressive values, such as providing everyone with a level playing field and opportunity for meaningful life, and the public programs such as public education and the GI Bill that support our values are being destroyed. We have a responsibility to our communities and future generations that every child has the opportunity to know what is possible in life, through public education.”
Language choice goes far beyond good grammar and political correctness, as we learn from Dr. George Lakoff. Lakoff taught linguistics at Berkeley, CA. He authored the book, Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know your values and frame the debate. This is bedrock.
Wisconsin Democrats need to develop values-rooted messaging that Democrats across the state can use to communicate with friends, neighbors, and family. Messaging that will be used all year long -- not just during the run-up to an election. We need a clear, concise plan for developing, disseminating and implementing values-rooted messaging. We need to set reasonable goals with adequate resources to support the implementation in order to be successful. I am committed to this.
The bottom line is: We need a fundamental shift in our approach to messaging in order to win, and we can do it. We will craft values-based messaging that voters across the state will understand and embrace.
I will establish a Messaging Task Force made up of an equal representation of stakeholders from all levels of the party and areas of our state. We will:
- Ensure that legislators, grassroots organizers, progressive partner organizations, and people from a wide range of age groups, cultures and genders are represented on the team.
- Identify (with the support of messaging experts) the challenges and opportunities of messaging our progressive values.
- Develop a flexible messaging manual for Democrats across the state that outlines overarching values-driven messages that illustrate what it means to be a Democrat. This includes multiple messaging options for each key issue that show and tell the how and why of Progressive principles. The end result will be statewide, consistent language that makes clear the sense and value of our positions.
- Ensure that every candidate and all regional entities have easy access to the manual and are able to select the messaging that offers the greatest prospect for success in their areas. Unified progressive messaging is essential to branding what Democrats stand for.
Multiple Messaging Options for Each Issue
It is important when messaging to consider our target audiences. Talking about dinner options to a group of gourmet cooks differs greatly from talking to middle school students about preparing their first family meal. We can support our issues best when we carefully select messaging that best resonates with the area of the state or group we are addressing.
A political example:In Milwaukee's inner city, where an issue is minimum wage increases, our candidate might choose this message:
“Raising the minimum wage to a living wage is the right thing to do. All people deserve to work for a living wage. All people deserve to share in their employer's success.”
A candidate in a conservative red district might prefer this message:
“While many of our businesses offer their employees a great wage and benefit package, some do not and tax dollars that should be used for education, roads and communities, are being used to support these companies. For example Wal-Mart, which made more than $12 billion dollars in profit last year, pays its employees so little that many live in poverty. Over $900,000 of Wisconsin taxes each year goes to support the working employees of just one Wisconsin Wal-Mart Superstore. Our government needs to ensure all companies do the right thing, so that our tax dollars go to the programs they were meant for.”
Both statements support raising the minimum wage but one motivates people living in poverty or those driven by the unfairness of income inequality to act. The other speaks to a conservative group that may not believe that all people deserve $15 an hour, but they don’t believe taxpayers should be subsidizing Wal-Mart either.
Task Force Goals
- Develop messaging that speaks to our Progressive values, resonates with voters and motivates our voters to get to the polls.
- Offer candidates and county parties messaging options that simultaneously highlight our Progressive values, and reflect the unique landscape of their individual districts.
- Develop an implementation plan with specific, reasonable and attainable goals that help us build a solid base of support and win in 2016 and beyond.
- Organize regular and comprehensive message briefings with local party leadership to ensure our party is unified in our message and that our statewide message is informed by real-time issues our members are facing in their communities.
Messaging is critical to the success of our party in 2016, 2018 and 2020. If we develop values-driven messaging that resonates with voters and therefore motivates them to get to the polls and support our candidates, we will elect the candidates we need to take back control of the state legislature and governor’s office, not to mention retain the Presidency. With proper messaging our Progressive values will be understood and we can bring back the strong Progressive Wisconsin we once had and now need for all future generations.