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Democrats Need a Proactive Messaging Strategy

Polling in the last several days has carried some blunt reminders that the public isn’t nearly as well-informed as the Beltway conventional wisdom might hold.

We’ve repeatedly highlighted Kaiser’s health care polling, which revealed that only about half of the public knows about many of the key provisions that are in the Democrats’ bill, such as coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Meanwhile, a Pew poll this week found that only 26 percent of Americans know that it takes 60 votes to overcome a Senate filibuster — and only 32 percent know that Senate GOPers voted unanimously against the Democrats’ health care plan. And a Rasmussen poll of likely voters found that only 21 percent of them believe that the Democrats have cut taxes for “95% of working families”, a fact which is probably true.

I don’t particularly blame the public for this. The number of politics “fans” probably numbers somewhere on the order of 10 or 20 million out of a country of 250 million adults. Most people have lives and have better things to do than to follow politics all the time. They pay quite a bit of attention during Presidential elections and, I would argue, make reasonably sophisticated decisions. But outside of that, most people aren’t watching MSNBC or Fox News every evening or logging onto the Washington Post or FiveThirtyEight. They’re developing impressions based on limited information, often gleaned from partisan news sources and politicians who have an incentive to tell them anything but the truth.

But right now it’s Democrats who are behind the 8-ball — and the extent to which voters are disengaged from each twist and turn of the news cycle is not liable to change any time soon. And what these semi-informed voters have mostly seen from the Democrats is a series of mixed messages.

On health care, between people attacking the policy from the right and from the left, very rarely have positive messages about the bill had the chance to penetrate through the media morass. On the economy, the Democrats have had to do a weird tapdance between highlighting, on the one hand, their sensitivity to the depth of our economic problems and the need for further stimulus, and on the other, the fact that many economic indicators (although not employment) do indeed show a recovery underway. On process issues, the public has mostly observed Democrats fighting with one another, and messages about Republican obstructionism were liable to fall flat when — until about 10 days ago — the Democrats had a 60-seat majority in the Senate, however dysfunctionally so. Lastly, the White House’s meta-message about “post-partisanship” is a difficult one to maintain in the face of actual policy-making, since in a rather literal sense, Republicans can brand any policy as “partisan” simply by opposing it, however moderate it might in fact be.

In contrast to the vapid media narrative about the “perpetual campaign”, the Democrats have perhaps not been sensitive enough to how their messaging might play with the sort of mainstream voters who might read a newspaper or turn on CNN once or twice a month, but not more often, or who consume news from only one or two sources, but not others — descriptions that apply to most of the people that will turn out to vote in November.

What can Democrats do differently? Unfortunately, this is not such an easy question to answer. But from the White House’s perspective, the most obvious solution would be to behave more decisively. Don’t let policies like the public option twist in the wind: embrace them, or press forward without them, but either way, remind the House and the Senate that having a 3-month fight about the issue will leave the Democrats as a whole much worse off, regardless of how the dispute is resolved. Endorse some relatively specific version of financial reform, a policy that polls overwhelmingly well in the abstract but which the details of which are banal and which will easily bore and confuse the public.

And all Democrats need to realize, meanwhile, that sometimes the message isn’t going to sink in until the sixth or seventh time that you repeat it. Before Tuesday’s State of the Union, for instance, the White House had almost literally never mentioned that the stimulus contained a huge tax cut — they shouldn’t expect the public to believe it any more than Warner Brothers should expect a ton of people to go out and see their new movie if they only begin advertising it 48 hours beforehand.

Rather, the Democrats need to figure out what their November messages are now and begin planting seeds for them now. You want to run on Republican obstructionism? Well then, don’t neglect the golden opportunities that the Republicans are providing you with today, such as when they voted unanimously in the Senate against re-imposing pay-go rules or unanimously in the House against a very centrist financial regulation package. How many people know that House Republicans voted 174-0 against a jobs bill? It’s probably not even 20 percent or 30 percent — more like 2 or 3 percent, at best. The DNC, DCCC, DSCC, and sympathetic groups like unions should be blasting out advertisements whenever the Republicans cast a vote like this.

With respect to the economy, the Democrats are still largely at the whim of the business cycle, since they may lack the political capital to pass policies through the Congress which could substantively impact the numbers by November. But if it were me, I would err a little bit less on the side of caution in highlighting numbers like, for instance, the 5.7 percent GDP growth that the country experienced in the 4Q. It’s not that I expect these messages to be winners now; rather, it’s that you want to plant the seed with the public for the fall. Otherwise, it may feel like too little too late when the employment numbers turn positive too, and the public may believe that the recovery occurred in spite of, not because of, the stimulus.

If Democrats have any skepticism about this, they need only look back to the year or two that have just elapsed. Republicans were crowing about socialism and government takeovers way back in the summer of 2008, and opposing virtually every policy that the Democrats put forth from the first meeting of the 111th Congress last January — a time when Obama’s approval had been in the high 60s. At first, those messages weren’t working for them — they were particularly ineffectual, for instance, for the McCain campaign, and there were lots of stories in the spring about the number of people who identified as Republican slipping to all-time lows. But the GOP stuck by their messaging strategy, and it has allowed them to frame everything that has come thereafter in ways that are more resonant with the public. Had the economy recovered sooner, perhaps this would have been a spectacular failure. But they at least did a very, very good job of poising themselves to take advantage of the downside case.

Now it’s incumbent upon the Democrats to poise themselves to take advantage of the upside case. Political time is moving faster and faster, and it goes without saying that a lot could change between now and November. But precisely because the public is so bombarded with information, it may be all the more important to develop a proactive rather than reactive messaging strategy, and to implement it sooner rather than later.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.