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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Pfeiffer: It’s the Megaphone, Not the Message

So, “Why Do Democrats Suck at messaging?” Dan Pfeiffer, former communications director for President Obama and author of “Battling the Big Lie,” shares some thoughts on the topic at Vanity Fair, including:

“Pundits and the political press are constantly haranguing Democrats for their messaging mistakes. One liberal writer of several well-reviewed presidential histories called me often during Obama’s first term to lecture me on why Obama didn’t yet have a version of FDR’s New Deal or LBJ’s Great Society. The subtext of these conversations was that great slogans make great presidents. Much of Progressive Twitter is filled with lamentations about some failure or missed messaging opportunity. There was a running joke in the Obama White House that you needed a master’s in economics to discuss economic policy and a doctorate in public health to offer health care ideas, but everyone believed that reading the newspaper made them qualified to opine on messaging strategy.

….A series of focus groups conducted in the first few months of the Biden presidency found that voters were unable to identify what the Democratic Party stood for. Two electoral landslide victories for Obama, a huge popular-vote win for President Biden, and four years of resistance to  Trump—and the Democrats still have a brand problem. This is more than a failure by party leaders and activists to settle on a narrative.

…How does one compose a pithy slogan or a tweet-length narrative to accurately and appealingly describe a coalition so broad that it extends from Joe Manchin to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? It’s the difference between being asked to come up with a brand for one television network like HBO or ESPN and being asked to brand “television” more broadly. What compelling slogan would be inclusive of every channel, from Bravo to CNBC?

Frankly, the messaging and branding task is more challenging for Democrats than it is for Republicans. The geographic disparities in the Senate and the Electoral College mean that Democrats must turn out liberal-base voters and appeal to voters much more conservative than the median Democratic voter. Democrats have to sell a wider array of products to a wider array of people.

The Republican coalition is narrower. It’s more ideologically homogenous and as white as a field of lilies. The Electoral College is biased toward Republican states, and the Senate gives small rural states like Wyoming the same number of votes as California and New York. To succeed, Republicans need only appeal to their base and little else, which allows for a simpler message.

However, Pfeiffer notes, “For all the party’s messaging mishaps, there are some facts running counter to the prevailing narrative that Republicans are messaging maestros. First, Democrats have won the popular vote in all but one presidential election since 1988. Second, the Democratic Party’s approval rating, while nothing to write home about, has been consistently higher than the Republican Party’s for many years. Finally, the Democratic position on immigration, taxes, reproductive freedom, minimum wage, civil rights, voting rights, and climate change is more popular than the Republican position.” Further,

These facts help explain why Republicans and their billionaire supporters invest so much time and energy in building a disinformation apparatus that can overcome the opinions of the majority of Americans. Hence, the megaphone problem…..Democratic messaging is not perfect; far from it. It’s often too wonky and wordy, an Ezra Klein column distilled into a paragraph of focus-grouped verbal applesauce. Our party leaders are all over 70, and none of them rose to the pinnacle of party leadership based on their communication chops. They are generationally disconnected from the party’s base, but the problem isn’t their age. It’s that each has spent more than half their years serving in Congress, where authentic human speaking goes to die.

Noting that “Democrats spend 99% of their time worrying about what they should say and only 1% figuring out how to get people to hear what they are sayin,” Pfeiffer adds,

The Republicans have a cable television network whose sole raison d’être is to attack Democrats and promote pro-GOP talking points. The conservative media dwarfs the progressive media in size and scope. And even then, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. The bulk of the media on the right is an adjunct of the party apparatus; during the Trump presidency it was state-adjacent propaganda—Pravda, but with plausible deniability…..Facebook, the biggest, most important media outlet in the world, aggressively promotes conservative content. Democrats are out-gunned. We have fewer outlets with less reach. What we say is being drowned out. Sure, we need a better message, but first we need to get a bigger megaphone….Democrats have a much smaller megaphone, and our message is getting drowned out.

Republicans dictate the terms of the conversation in American politics and have done so for much of the 21st century. Democrats aren’t doing everything right, but we also must recognize that doing everything right is still insufficient. Until more Democrats figure this out, we will remain trapped in the doom loop. During every campaign cycle, our strategy is defense.

The better question, says Pfeiffer, is “So, how do we build a bigger, better megaphone?”

3 comments on “Pfeiffer: It’s the Megaphone, Not the Message

  1. Larry V. Banks on

    Mr. Pfeiffer, I’m not one to comment on social-media but I make an exception this time because (1) I’ve always felt you were one of shinning lights of the Obama Administration, and (2) your subject matter is one that badly plague the Democratic Party as a whole, and in my opinion it can be traced back to the Vietnam War Era.
    It’s not the Megaphone or the degree of loudness of the Megaphone, Democrats need to understand that in order to compete with Republicans on the media stage they should strengthen their backbone and learn how to respond directly and forcefully to questioning from media especially when it comes from Republican talking points and/or got-ya questions. They need to learn how to not just say they are going to fight, but actually learn how to fight. If someone tells you for fifty years, “We’re going to over turn Roe V. Wade, how is it managed to get into the position to do just that.” Major case of potentials not being payed attention to. Trump does his stuff right out in the open and Republicans are learning how to do the same thing. The question to Democrats is always, “what are you going to do about it. I feel Republicans has internalized Democrats lack of will or some might continue to say lack of backbone. I see a problem that say any and every time Republicans slap or step on Democrats, they either say “woe is me” or “if I retaliate what will they do.” I’ve never known a family to raise a young one to think or act that way. Where does this come from with Democrats?
    I’m reminded of a TV Mini-Series in 2019, The Loudest Voice In The Room, by Gabriel Sherman, starring Russell Crowe playing the part Of Roger Ailes.
    At a conference meeting Roger Ailes speech in quote,” This is bullshit. This Whitehouse hates America, hates Capitalism, hates anyone whose not in lockstep with their way of thinking. We’re not going to put up with them. We’re not going to roll over for these (expletive). Every time they bring up a talking point we’re counter. If they say “Progressive” we’re gonna say “Socialist” If they say “Safety Net” we’re gonna say “Welfare Cheat”. If they say “Healthcare” we’re gonna say (expletive) “Death Panels”. Just push the message “Socialist”, “Muslim”, “Un-American”. Just keep keep hitting those things, over and over again. Unquote.
    My point is Republicans attack, attack, attack. with discipline. No secret, without fear of consequence because it has purpose.

  2. Victor on

    Yes, but Democrats also have a problem with gaining earned media because they always talk in such moderate terms.

    Republicans constantly earn media, specially mainstream media, via their way of speaking. So mainstream media amplifies the right’s message, even when it doesn’t agree with it, while essentially ignoring most (boring) Democratic politicians.

  3. Martin Lawford on

    The better question, says Pfeiffer, is “So, how do we build a bigger, better megaphone?”

    By creating and staffing a Disinformation Governance Board although after the right wing freakout over the first one we would have to call it something else.


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