If the 2022 elections proved anything, it’s that base voters and massive disapproval of President Biden aren’t enough to earn victory for Republicans. What is needed in addition is a sophisticated and proven communications strategy aimed at winning votes from voters outside the MAGA GOP base.
If you want to have some idea of how non-base voters hear conservative messages, look no further than the squirrel safely up on a tree limb, peering down on my dog, serendipitously named after conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr.
Because Buckley is playful, she wants the squirrel to come down from the tree and play; because she is a dog, she knows only how to bark. Buckley – like many Republican consultants – knows this is how she talks to other dogs and cannot understand why it doesn’t work with squirrels. She increases volume, and frequency, thinking that will work. But barking louder and more insistently only increases the squirrel‘s determination to stay up in the tree.
There are many theories on what went wrong for conservatives in what were widely expected to be slam-dunk midterms. Topping the list are being hugely outspent by the left, the lack of a ground game and turnout capacity on the right relative to the left, and crummy candidates. There’s truth, but also insufficiency, to each.
Yes, Republican campaigns were outspent, but often not nearly as much as one might think when outside spending is included. Moreover, as an underfunded Trump proved in 2016, conventionally spent advertising dollars may matter more to consultant commissions than to outcome.
And sure, GOTV efforts matter – but if it were just about the GOTV effort, you wouldn’t have had every other GOP candidate winning in Georgia with the same electorate who wouldn’t vote for Herschel Walker, and J.D. Vance wouldn’t have run so far behind Mike DeWine.
And while a characterologically challenged candidate is always a problem, many of the lackluster performances may have been as much a function of what was – and wasn’t – being said. In short: messaging.
Successful persuasion dictates whether the dollars spent on advertising work and whether the turnout efforts find enough people to turn out: if the dog food you’re selling doesn’t appeal to the dogs, more money on advertising and better shelf placement won’t solve the problem.
Yes, GOP candidates can win in solidly red places and in gerrymandered districts. That works for many House races. The challenge comes when GOP candidates are running with mixed electorates and need a significant number of swing voters to win a majority.
There’s an adage that’s axiomatic among GOP campaign consultants, that the only way to win is to “drive a wedge” and turn out more of their voters than their opponent’s. Why? Because their starting assumption is that persuasion isn’t possible, so you can’t change minds, you can only motivate those who already agree regardless of collateral damage. That mindset was on full display in Georgia in the Walker/Warnock runoff – where, despite the drubbing received in the midterms, there were zero lessons learned and no changes made to be more persuasive with a disenchanted electorate.
But the starting premise is false: attitudes change on a lot of things, often quite rapidly, as on gay marriage. Just because GOP consultants don’t know how to do it doesn’t mean it isn’t doable.
For the right, there tend to be two categories of issues: comfortable and uncomfortable. Sadly, it makes no difference which category of issue the right is communicating about because, in both instances, the right’s messaging is deficient beyond their base.
The comfortable issues – like taxes, spending, and immigration, as well as guns and being pro-life on abortion – lead the right to talk in a way that reminds one of British soccer fans. Advocates for the right, in their enthusiasm, may please fellow fans; but to non-fan observers, they come across as extreme, even dangerous, hooligans.
The uncomfortable issues – think health care, or any issue presented as being about and for women, like childcare or paid leave – turn conservatives into ostriches, heads in sand, saying nothing, hoping it just goes away, and leaving the argument uncontested.
The left has a very different method: when not in a primary, they speak persuasively on the issues that matter to the middle, matching their values and aspirations, while keeping the reality of their policies under wraps, safely hidden from prying eyes, ready to be rolled out only upon implementation – which, they understand, can only come after victory is achieved.
In contrast, the right gets it exactly backwards: the right talks to its base, frightening the middle, then concludes it needs to move its policies to the left to get its policies to pass – thus losing the trust of its base. But the right doesn’t have a policy problem – it has a persuasion problem.
That problem isn’t just about what the right says, but when it says it.
The left understands that persuasion is about creating a narrative, and that goes on 365 days of the year. The right spends money on political campaigns every two or four years, but almost nothing to advance its ideas or get its issues passed between campaigns. In contrast, the left frequently engages in both earned and paid campaigns outside of election season to pass legislation and frame their opponents as heartless, uncaring bigots.
If conservatives want to win, they need more than a larger money supply and a better base voter turnout operation. They need an improved strategy to better communicate beyond their base why their policies help more people, and why the utopian policies of the left end up hurting people and making problems worse. That education and communication needs to happen all year long, not just at campaign time. And it needs to be directed at non-base voters.
Whether those changes get made will tell us whether the emblematic bird of the GOP should be the eagle or remain the ostrich.