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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Communications Skills May Trump Policy With Most Swing Voters

Democratic communications consultant John Neffinger has an interesting piece at the HuffPo on the power of communications skills to trump positions on the issues, especially with swing voters. Riffing on a recent post by Slate’s chief political correspondent John Dickerson pooh poohing the candidacy of former Senator Fred Thompson, Neffinger makes a convincing argument that Dems who think issues positions are more important for winning elections than communication skills are courting defeat. Neffinger cites three studies to back his argument and says:

…Swing voters by definition are not strongly committed to the policy views of one side or the other. For many of them, compelling language and policy positions are as important for how they shape their feelings about the candidate as they are for their own virtues. (Just to be clear, no one is disputing that sound ideas are critical to governing well. We’re just talking about getting elected.)
Is this scary? Sure. Unwelcome? Clearly. Contrary to everything we ever learned about democracy, from kindergarten through the Federalist Papers? Absolutely. And even though it can work in our favor too (e.g., Bill Clinton), it is profoundly dispiriting, to say the least, to realize how unhinged the process is from the issues that ultimately matter in governing.
But better to face that reality now, while we can still do something about it, than to place our faith in the fairy-tale version of democracy and be left grasping for excuses after we lose.

Neffinger notes the irony that the ‘party of science’ ignores studies that show how voters make their choices, while the ‘party of faith’ takes it very much into their political calculations:

Democrats feel wronged when swing voters let emotion cloud their view of reality, but our side often doesn’t grasp the reality of how swing voters make up their minds because we can’t get past our own emotional attachment to the power of ideas. We accuse swing voters of voting capriciously, irrationally, but if we were only rational ourselves, we could easily see why they do.
In fact, unlike blinkered Democrats, in some ways swing voters are acting perfectly rationally by voting with their gut (yet another irony, if you’re still counting). For voters who don’t pay close attention to issues, it’s not easy to figure out which positions are best (not least because conservative think tanks and media do an excellent job at muddying the waters of debates democrats would otherwise win). So what can a casual voter do? Go with what they know. Every day they make judgments about people they interact with, size ’em up, trust their instincts. So they use the same method to pick a candidate.

Most Democrats old enough to remember Reagan’s first campaigns will recall how he was dismissed by many Dems who said “Oh come on. He’s an actor,” or something similar. Large groups of voters screwed by Reagan again and again still voted to re-elect him, beyond all reason. Let’s not make the same mistaken assumptions about Thompson.