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The RNC Diagnosis: Part 1 - Messaging
By Loren Heal on March 26, 2013
The Republican National Committee's Growth and Opportunity Project post-mortem of the 2012 election cycle covers a lot of ground in its effort to diagnose the Party's losses. This first installment of my response covers the report broadly and particularly its prescriptions for messaging.
The RNC report categorized its recommendations in seven areas:
- Demographic Partners
- Campaign Mechanics
- Friends and Allies (Third Party Groups)
- Campaign Finance
- Primary Process
I have chosen to break my response into three parts:
The committee spoke to more than 2,600 people, conducted a poll among 2,000 Republican Hispanic voters, surveyed political hacks and pollsters, and conducted an online survey of 36,000 people interested enough to take the survey. The regurgitation of contact numbers sounds eerily like the Illinois GOP touting how many people it has contacted while losing election after election.
Regardless of the number of inputs, the quality of the advice the committee chose to accept is what matters. Did anyone persuade the committee of anything? What comes through most in the document are points on which the committee could use the voices of others to buttress its own positions.
There are some positive items in the report. Following the example of Senator Ted Cruz, for instance, the report suggests Republicans present their ideas through the lens of the people at the bottom. But other suggestions in the report don't make much sense at all, or don't address the messaging problems the party has been having.
Here, then, is my summary. Republicans, if they want to win, will:
- Present a clear contrast to the Democrats. The RNC report seems to suggest mimicking their opponents, or softening language to mask any differences.
- Avoid making overtly antagonistic comments that will arouse the other side's base. This may be impossible, as the other side seeks out such "bulletin board" material. All candidates should test messages internally and practice the language and phrasing needed to avoid verbal land mines.
- Use the language of the target audience without hiding and especially without changing principles.
- Adopt the perspective of the bottom rung of the ladder or someone who sees themselves as part of an oppressed group, and explain how a world view that includes individual freedom, opportunity, and placing limits on government helps them.
- Avoid criticizing other Republicans who make errors. If you can't support someone, be silent. If asked, change the subject. If pressed, insist that questions be about your campaign, not someone else's. If pressed further, attack the other side, not your own.
Voters, especially the undecided, are filled with cognitive dissonance. For instance, they believe in the image of America as the land of opportunity, but they also believe in a safety net for those who can't take care of themselves.
The successful Republican candidate appeals to the central place of the individual, faith, and family, the dreams of people for success, and America's unique place in world history. The successful Democrat appeals to group labels, the fear of failure, and exaggerated societal imperfections. The idea is to get the voters thinking in your terms, not those of the other party.
Undecided voters are attracted to confidence above all else. You need look no further than the current occupant of the Oval Office for a great example of someone who espouses the silliest policies imaginable, but who does so with such confidence that people accept his statements without challenge. Polls show consistently that people don't like his ideas, but do like him. It's because of the confidence with which he presents his awful positions.
The trap Republicans have fallen into most often in the last several election cycles is attacking their own, believing their party would benefit by distancing itself from gaffe-prone, scandal-marred, or otherwise imperfect candidates. Those friendly-fire attacks have only made matters worse, focusing attention where Republicans didn't want it.
The following bit of class warfare from the report is shocking in its off-hand delivery. While I dislike corporate welfare as much as the next tea partier, I'd like to know what the committee means by "corporate malfeasance," -- and who, exactly, is not blowing the whistle on it? That isn't the troubling part, however:
We have to blow the whistle at corporate malfeasance and attack corporate welfare. We should speak out when a company liquidates itself and its executives receive bonuses but rank-and-file workers are left unemployed. We should speak out when CEOs receive tens of millions of dollars in retirement packages but middle-class workers have not had a meaningful raise in years. (p. 6)
I would not want to belong to a party that as a matter of policy nit-picked private sector compensation on grounds of fairness. These are decisions to be left to the free market. Rather than adopting such Marxist rhetoric, Republicans should stay true to our founders' vision of economic freedom for all. People who acquire wealth honestly should be praised and imititated, not treated as thieves.
Today's Democratic Party has devolved into a party of Marx. America doesn't need another one.
Republicans should stop saying that the 47% of people who don't pay federal income tax are never going to vote for them. There are several things wrong with saying so.
First, it isn't true. Many of the people in my rural area, for instance, are solidly Republican retirees who don't pay income tax. Veterans just released from service and retraining, small business owners struggling to make money, and conservative and libertarian students, many of which vote Republican, but also typically don't pay income tax. A lot of people know that while they are not able to work in the private economy, a strong one is essential for national survival.
Not paying income tax and living off of government programs are not the same thing. Even those who do depend on government programs do not all want to depend on them. In fact, most do not. Using government programs doesn't mean you won't vote to limit government.
Speaking in terms of "makers and takers" inadvertently validates the Marxist narrative of class struggle.
Never attack the voters. Attack special interests, bad ideas, your opponent, and even the opposing party, but do not attack the voters themselves.
FreedomWorks' Jeff Scully says the way forward for Republicans is not cynically reaching out to groups to achieve diversity for its own sake:
If the RNC wants to reach out to women, minorities, and the youth, they need to make it less about being a Republican or part of the RNC, and more about ideas.
It is not necessary, and in fact would be unhelpful, for the RNC to dictate to state parties or individual candidates which planks of the party platform they will stress.
Frightened by media furor over mistakes made by individual candidates, the RNC is about to embark on a fool's errand: effectively changing its platform to avoid the topics on which those mistakes were made. Not only is avoiding media furor not possible, but avoiding those topics leaves the field open to Republican opponents -- both Democrats, and whatever other parties arise who are not afraid to stand on their own principles.