How Candidates Win The Public Court Of Opinion: Making Politics Personal

How Candidates Win The Public Court Of Opinion: Making Politics Personal


As Republican candidates gear up for their third debate, they would be wise to keep something in mind: politics is personal.

One might think this would be apparent to seasoned lawmakers like those taking the stage in Boulder next week. But too often candidates busy with the tense 24-hour campaign rigors can lose sight of the need for simple communication.

Strong policies – in education, energy, health care, for instance – are certainly important. In fact, some credit Carly Fiorina’s rise in the polls to her strong debate performances and her facility with complicated issues.

But being comfortable talking about taxes or immigration isn’t sufficient. In fact, candidates would be wise to strip their talking points of a host of words and phrases like “deductibles” and “budget deficits,” which are at best abstract to most voters and at worst a boring distraction.

Research shows that most voters have limited political knowledge. And they generally lack a consistent ideology. It’s not because they’re “stupid” – they simply haven’t spent years thinking about different policy prescriptions because they’re going to work, taking care of their families, and living their lives.

As a result voters have to rely on other cues, or heuristics, to guide them in their decision-making. In the absence of strong policy knowledge, a candidate’s “likeability,” for instance, can play an important role. Of course, sometimes these cues are superficial – a candidate’s age, the tie or dress they chose  – but often voters are picking up on important signals that reveal a personal connection they’ve made with the candidate.

Certainly this “likeability” factor was a serious problem for Mitt Romney in 2012, made crystal clear by exit polling, which found that only 18% of voters said he “cares about people like me” compared to President Obama’s 81%. And, it’s a huge liability for Hillary Clinton this time around. Voters may not be following all the details of the Benghazi attack or the email scandal, but they’ve picked up on a “feeling” that she’s a Washington-insider who can’t be trusted.

A critical problem is campaigns relying too heavily – or too literally – on polls, like a recent Pew Research survey, which found that 83% of primary voters point to the economy as “very important” to their choice of president in 2016.  For many respondents, the “economy” is a catch-all phrase for the personal financial concerns –jobs, salary, stability, the cost of living – but candidates often use the podium to dive into an economics lesson. And nothing removes the personal from politics faster than talking in terms of trillions of dollars or tax liabilities.

It’s not that candidates should ignore important policy debates – quite the opposite. But they have to think more carefully about weaving the policy into the personal.

A good example can be found in experimental messaging work the Independent Women’s Forum recently conducted on paid leave mandates. In effect, we wanted to know how best to talk to women about the “economy,” “jobs,” and the “workplace.”

Without any additional information, women are wildly supportive of mandated paid leave laws – there was a 43-point margin of support in our control group. When IWF presented the bare-bone facts about the negative impact mandates would have on women’s economic opportunities, support declines – but a margin of support persists.

Three messages, however, turn that margin of support into a margin of opposition: when we bring to life how paid leave mandates would threaten flexibility in the workplace; how paid leave laws could lead to job loss; and how they could particularly backfire on the very people it’s intended to help, such as lower-income workers. In fact, the most emotional message of all – that mandating benefits will hurt the very people we all want to help – turns the 43-point margin of support into a 6-point margin of opposition.

And this wasn’t simply the case with conservative women. Talking about mandated benefits in a way that is emotional and personal and that points out the real economic threat of job loss was tremendously effective in driving down the margin of support among liberal women from 69-points to 29-points.

Winning in the court of public opinion or at the ballot box requires effective communication. It requires making politics personal again.  Polls show Americans – and women, in particular – care about the economy and jobs. But that doesn’t mean they will be persuaded by budget-speak. Candidates must find a way to empathize, share, and ultimately connect at a human level. The candidate who can crack that code has the best chance at winning the White House.

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Sabrina L. Schaeffer is executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum and has her M.A. in political behavior.

This article was written by Sabrina Schaeffer from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.