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Most Political 'Messaging' Is Just Not All It's Cracked Up To Be

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Many conservative lawmakers believed that these protests, held outside the White House in Washington Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013, as the partial government shutdown entered its third week, were a game-changing "win" in the "messaging" war. They were not. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) | AP

If you read enough Beltway reporting, you will probably die pretty quickly of intellectual dysentery. But for those whose hearty constitutions allow them to stick it out, it is inevitable that once you've inundated yourself in political reporting, you'll run across lots and lots and lots of pieces that are primarily about "messaging" -- who is winning at "messaging" and who is losing at "messaging."

See, lawmakers have policies they want to see enacted. But a lot of those policies really suck canal water. That's where "messaging" comes in -- it's the gloss and fuss that dresses up everyone's ideas. Typically, just about everyone in Washington believes that almost anything can be sold if you just tell a good enough story about it. I suppose that can be true in a few limited instances. But the truth of the matter is that if everyone who plies their trade in politics were some sort of silver-tongued pitchman super-genius, then they wouldn't ply their trade in politics.

I've learned to minimize the pain of reading these stories -- all of which are essentially gossip -- by recognizing within a few paragraphs that I'm about to wade into some bullshit and that I should close the tab on my browser before I blow sick all over my shirtfront. In general, I can say that by skipping these stories, my understanding of how politics fundamentally works hasn't really slipped. And so, I'm grateful to the Monkey Cage's Dan Hopkins, who takes to the pages of the Washington Post to offer a master-class elucidation of "how the myth of messaging gets politicians into trouble," and prove with political science that I am making some sound life choices. Well ... at least one sound life choice, anyway.

As noted before, there exists this funny theory that the president has a magical bully pulpit with which he can entrance the minds of men. As Hopkins notes, this isn't how the world works in practice, because "all of our recent presidents have managed to push public opinion away from them during their time in office, including one dubbed 'The Great Communicator' and another who rose to prominence thanks to a keynote address at a national convention." This is something that the aforementioned "great communicator" learned and acknowledged; the famed keynote speaker, it's also noted, is perhaps still learning this.

Hopkins goes on to say that despite the furious debate over the Affordable Care Act affording actors on both sides to deploy their sharpest minds and hardest talk in crafting elegant, piquant soundbites of pleasing, hashtaggable simplicity, the truth is that "[p]ublic opinion on health-care reform shifted only gradually, and the words that American citizens used to describe the law’s advantages and disadvantages remained almost constant as the debate unfolded."

The single biggest limitation to messaging is that the audience that would presumably benefit from it the most has proven to be singularly adept at avoiding it completely, and so it lands in the ears of people who are least likely to be shaken by it. As Hopkins explains:

In part, the myth of messaging relies on the idea that there are lots of voters who are at once engaged with politics and without strong party loyalties. But as John Sides has pointed out, such voters are few and far between, since it is the strong partisans whose rooting interest keeps them tuned into C-SPAN. Just as you don’t find a lot of people at football games who will root for whichever team plays the better game, the core audience for contemporary politics doesn’t have many attentive, neutral voters who are simply listening for the best argument. Instead, the voters who follow the ins and outs of politics most closely are those with a strong commitment to a party, making them very unlikely to abandon that party at the turn of a phrase.

One of the most common mistakes that a person who is highly engaged in politics can make is to assume that most people are as highly engaged as they are. In truth, most ordinary Americans are not that engaged in politics (a sizable percentage do not even vote), and so the daily nips and tucks of "political messaging" gets trapped in the spam filter known as "just plain living your life."

For example, in the waning days of the government shutdown, a number of conservative lawmakers harangued National Review reporter Robert Costa with claims that weekend protests at Washington landmarks and the White House were some sort of tide-turner in the overall shutdown battle. They were, obviously, not game-changing events, for the simple reason that very few people were even paying attention to these protests. It was, after all, the weekend.

What works, in terms of messaging? Basically, something that's coherent, persistent, consistent, and not primarily driven by political messaging gurus looking for wins in the short term. Per Hopkins:

As Frank Baumgartner, Suzanna De Boef and Amber Boydstun demonstrate, changing understandings on the death penalty played a central role in reshaping opinions and policies. But importantly, they didn’t do so overnight — and it wasn’t politicians who led the shift. Instead, as activists and journalists gradually adopted a new perspective on the death penalty emphasizing the possibility of wrongful conviction, voters and public officials followed suit. Messaging can matter, but it can’t invert public opinion in a matter of weeks.

Think about it. Did Americans' attitudes toward marriage equality shift as a result of a gradual process of perspective-shifting that played itself out over the course of many years? Or did everything just suddenly and magically fall into place on the strength of a single "Meet The Press" appearance by Vice President Joe Biden? Take your time in considering your response, because there's only one answer that's not completely idiotic.

How the myth of messaging gets politicians into trouble [The Monkey Cage @ WaPo]

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