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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Learning From HRC’s Messaging

Readers of this and other political websites can be excused if they don’t feel like reading yet another post on what Dems can do to win more white working class votes, so numerous are published opinions on the subject in recent weeks. But Mark Schmitt nevertheless has a worthy read on the topic at The American Prospect. Schmitt’s post, “Did Hillary Crack the Working-Class Code?” makes the case that HRC’s messaging tone in speeches and ads later on in the primary season was exceptionally well-crafted for winning working-class votes. As Schmitt explains:

Where she won with a wide margin, her speeches and ads positioned mostly unsurprising policy proposals in the context of an argument about economic opportunity and fairness…If Clinton’s advantage did not come from what she said, it must have come from how she said it… I found two salient features: balance and modest aspirations. “I still have faith in [the American] dream. It’s just been neglected a bit,” Clinton said in a Pennsylvania TV ad. “They’re not asking for anything special,” she said of working-class voters in Zanesville, Ohio. “They’re just asking for a fair shake. They’re asking for a president who cares about them.”
Her language created a sense of order in the world, which she described in terms of mutual responsibility, symmetry, and a return to a better past: “We’re going to say, ‘Wait a minute Wall Street; you’ve had your president. Now we need a president for Main Street,'” she said on April 14 in Pittsburgh.

Schmitt posits her messaging in sharp contrast to Edwards’ harsher tone:

Note how different this language is, not just from Obama’s, but from the hard populism of John Edwards. Edwards depicted a permanent struggle against a relentless enemy: the corporate special interests themselves, who “will never give up power without a fight.” For Obama, there is a similar permanent challenge but also the hopeful idea that a lasting grand breakthrough might be possible.
For Clinton, the hurdles are lower — there’s a fight but no enemy. She argues that government has had its finger on the special interests’ side of the scale for seven years, so change is merely a matter of moving the weight over to the other side. Hence her constant theme, used in almost every ad and speech since March 4, of returning to balance — seven years of this, now seven years of that. Fairness for Clinton is not about resentment, equality, or even equality of opportunity. It’s about a return to an imagined normal order, where individuals’ thrift is matched by a comparable sense of responsibility on the part of their government. At other times, she uses the metaphor of a recent “detour,” arguing that we need to get back onto the “main road” of economic policy.

Although Edwards may have overemphasized the rhetoric of class conflict, I felt that Obama’s message tone was generally in the same ballpark as Clinton’s. Obama’s campaign can profit, however, from understanding the more nuanced messaging that characterized Clinton’s successful appeals later on in the primary season. Although a quick stop in any gas station can provide evidence that there is rising anger among working people, it hasn’t yet morphed into full-blown rage at U.S. corporations. It’s not to say that Edwards was wrong about the destructive impact of corporate abuse and corruption; he was stone cold right. it’s that voters seem to be looking for a more positively-stated, solution-oriented message. Thus Schmitt contrasts Clinton’s nostaligic “millworker’s grand-daughter” ad in Scranton with Edwards’s angrier “milworker’s son” pitch as a good example of her more positive tone in message-crafting. There seems to be a subtextual theme here of “hey, we don’t need an all-out class war here. But we urgently need some critical reforms to restore America’s greatness.”
As media coverage of the Iraq war receded during the primaries, the revealed differences between the social and economic policies of Clinton, Obama and Edwards were comparatively small. The Obama campaign’s challenge is to adapt some of Clinton’s successful messaging approaches to working people, while drawing sharp contrasts with the policies of McCain.

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