NOTE: This, the second item in The Democratic Strategist’s Roundtable Discussion on swing and base voter strategies, is an excerpt from political organizer and strategist Robert Creamer‘s recent book, “Listen To Your Mother: Stand Up Straight! How Progressives Can Win.” It’s reprinted with permission of the publisher.
In election campaigns our goal is to change the behavior of the voters, since they are the actual decision-makers. Sometimes there are secondary targets as well, but the secondary targets are only important insofar as they can help us impact the primary targets—voters.
And our primary targets are not just any voters. They are the only two categories of voters whose electoral behavior can be changed by a campaign. We call them persuadable voters and mobilizable voters.
Persuadable voters have two characteristics:
•They generally vote.
•They are undecided.
Mobilizable voters also have two characteristics:
•They would support our candidate.
•They are unlikely to vote unless they are mobilized to do so.
In many political campaigns, massive amounts of political resources are wasted because they are used to communicate with voters who are not part of one of these two groups. They are spent trying to convince voters who always vote Democratic to vote for a Democrat, or they are spent trying to convince people who always vote Republican to vote Democratic. They may also be spent trying to convince voters who never vote, but would vote Republican if they did, to vote Democratic. All of these are wastes of campaign resources, since the behavior of these target voters will not likely change.
Democrats are particularly prone to target voters who always vote Democratic—and always go out to vote—with resources that should go elsewhere.
Of course, base Democrats who always vote are critically important to campaigns as potential sources of volunteers and contributors. But they are not primary targets for the campaign’s message since we don’t want their voting behavior to change. They always vote Democratic, and always go out to vote. They behave that way no matter what is done by the campaign.
In an election, persuadable and mobilizable voters are never the same people—and our communication with these two distinct groups has two different goals.
This is one of the most important rules of effective electoral politics, — and one that is most often violated, forgotten and confused.
A person cannot be a persuadable voter and a mobilizable voter at the same time—by definition. Persuadable voters are very likely to vote and are undecided. Mobilizable voters are unlikely to vote unless we mobilize them, and they will vote for our candidates if they do. These are mutually exclusive qualities.
Our message to persuadables is intended to convince them to vote for our candidate when they cast their ballot.
Our message to mobilizables is not intended to convince them to vote for our candidate. By definition they are already likely to support our candidate. Our message to mobilizables is intended to convince them to go to the polls and cast a ballot—to take action.
These are very different goals, directed at two entirely different groups of people.
In elections, the subject of the campaign’s persuasion message is the candidate. The subject of the mobilization message is the voter we are trying to motivate.
There is a lot of confusion about political messages. You constantly hear the media, the pundits and even political consultants tell us that the Democrats’ message is about the economy, or the Republicans’ message is about national security, or that one candidate’s message is about education, and another’s is about taxes.
This is never true in American politics. The subject of a campaign message is never an issue, or even a problem.
The subject of a persuasion message is always the same: the candidate or, in some political systems, the party. A political message is always about the subject of the decision we are asking people to make. With mobilization, the subject is not the candidate. It is the voter, because the voter’s action is the subject of the decision we are asking the individual to make.
First let’s deal with persuasion. Issues like prescription drugs or Social Security or tax cuts are often symbols that are used to describe the qualities of a candidate or party. But they are not the subject of the message in a political campaign.
With persuadables, our goal is to convince the voter to cast his ballot for our candidate. So, the candidate is the subject of the message.
If you want to prove to yourself that persuasion messages in elections are about candidates and not issues, reflect on some recent examples:
•In the 2000 election, all of the polls showed that a much greater percentage of the population supported Al Gore’s positions on most critical issues than voted for Al Gore, the candidate.
•In 1984, Illinois voted overwhelmingly to reelect President Ronald Reagan. At the same time it elected Paul Simon, US Senator—a Democrat who espoused views directly contrary to those of Reagan on most critical issues.
•In 2002, former Senator Robert Torricelli & Senator Frank Lautenberg had virtually identical views on most major issues. New Jersey polls showed that former Senator Torricelli would lose overwhelmingly to the Republican in the New Jersey Senate race, yet when he was replaced on the ballot by Senator Lautenberg because of a campaign financing scandal, Lautenberg won easily.
•In 2004, one million Illinois voters supported Democrat Barack Obama for Senate and also cast their vote for George W. Bush in the Presidential race.
The Nine Qualities—Political Movements and Parties
There are nine major candidate qualities that stand out as most important in persuading undecided voters to support candidates.
More than anything else, communicating about these qualities is the key to persuading undecided voters to support our candidates—and becoming part of a lasting progressive majority.
These qualities are also the things people look for when they consider their allegiance to a political movement or party.
Voters don’t just look for these nine qualities in candidates. They look for the same qualities in political parties and movements.
Think about any of the qualities and apply them to the Democratic Party—or the progressive movement.
•Is the party on my side?
•Is the party committed to core values—or just winning elections?
•Does the party provide and advocate strong effective leadership—or is it ineffective and weak?
•Is the party self-confident—or does it appear to be directionless and unsure?
•Does the party respect me—or does it take me for granted or treat me like I’m stupid?
•Do I like the people in the party? Does it make me feel like I belong and connect emotionally to
•Does the party have integrity—or is it corrupt and self-dealing?
•Does the party have a vision for the future of our city, state, country our world—for the next
•Does the party and my participation in it inspire me and empower me?
These are the qualities that determine both whether a voter chooses a candidate and whether he participates in, and has allegiance to, the Democratic Party, the progressive movement, or just about any other political organization or movement. They are, in effect, the qualities we look for in the leaders and the movements that give meaning to our lives.
These 9 qualities persuade swing voters. What messages motivate mobilizable voters?
Six Motivational Messages for GOTV
There are Six Major Messages That Motivate People to Vote. We said earlier that while the subject of a persuasion message is the candidate, the subject of a mobilization message is the voter.
GOTV MESSAGE # 1 – YOUR VOTE MATTERS—IT’S CLOSER THAN YOU THINK
GOTV MESSAGE # 2—INSPIRATION
Most important antidote to the sense that “nothing I actually do affects my life” is inspiration. Inspiration is, after all, a feeling of empowerment. It is the feeling that the individual or group can rise to the challenge and overcome previously insurmountable obstacles.
GOTV MESSAGE # 3—FEAR RESOLVED INTO ANGER
Simply stated, “Something bad could happen to me or my family as a result of the election—and I’m not going to let them do it.”
GOTV MESSAGE # 4—IT’S US VERSUS THEM
To motivate mobilizable voters, we have to make them feel like part of our “team.” We want them to start rooting for our guy—not to persuade them (presumably they are already persuaded)—but to give them an emotional investment in victory. We want to make them think about our candidate’s victory as “their victory.” We want our candidate’s victory to give them a sense of personal meaning and significance.
GOTV MESSAGE # 5—LET’S GET ’EM”
This message is about punishment. It’s not about fear of what might happen in the future, but justice for what has happened in the past. It’s about showing them that we matter, that we’re not going to allow them to push us around forever. They stole the election, or they took money that should have gone for our kid’s education, or they ignored our communities, or they insulted us. This time we’re going to throw the bastards out.
GOTV MESSAGE # 6 – “I WON’T GET OFF YOUR PORCH UNTIL YOU VOTE”
The “Inherent” Conflict Between Persuasion and Mobilization is a Myth
These message principles—or their rough equivalent—are appropriate to candidate and issue campaigns, as well as to the overall campaign to move the center of American politics and create a long-lasting progressive majority.
We have seen that the messages that mobilize and persuade voters are different, but they do not need to be incompatible or contradictory.
The most important single conclusion of this analysis is that, in most cases, the messages that can persuade swing voters on the one hand and motivate mobilizable voters on the other are often different, but they are rarely in conflict. In fact they share many elements.
A small industry has developed debating the relative importance of appealing to the “base,” and “moving to the center” to attract swing voters. Generally, this debate ignores the basic principles of political communication or the factors that people really use to make political decisions. It assumes that the messages are about “issues” and not the qualities of the candidates.
In fact, with both base and swing voters, the progressive candidates who are most effective self-confidently communicate a progressive vision: they constantly appeal to voters’ progressive values and inspire them with their own passion and commitment. Candidates are more effective with both persuadables and mobilizables if they show that they will stand tall for the baseline concerns that people identify as “their side,” and treat people with respect and empathy.
The issue and policy positions taken by candidates and parties are certainly important symbols of a candidate’s qualities. But they are rarely as important as the ability of the candidate to appeal to the full range of physical and nonphysical self-interests, and especially to give the voters a sense of their own meaning and significance.
This means that if we proceed properly, the old conflict between appealing to swing voters and to base voters simply does not exist.