Less than two years after Barack Obama ran a free master class in political communications, too many Democrats act like it never happened. Too many are back to parsing polls, searching for what they should say to connect with voters. A little less about the economy? A little more? Better check a poll!
You know what connects with voters? The sense that you're saying what you actually believe.
A recent Democracy Corps memo got a lot of attention for reporting that voters are not responding to the Democrats' message of "go forward, not back." According to the corps' polling, Democratic candidates need to focus on frames of "change Washington, pro-middle class, against Wall Street."
Maybe so. But I'm reminded of an earlier Democracy Corps poll, from 2005, which found that 55 percent of voters knew what Republicans stood for, and only 27 percent knew that about Democrats.
It wasn't a judgment of honesty -- people just actually didn't know.
I think it's because too many Democratic candidates are unable to make clear, simple statements of their heartfelt convictions -- it's not that they don't have them, they just can't say them. Instead, they choose from a menu of policy positions, emphasizing this one or that one depending on what the polls say that week. But policy positions, no matter how worthy, say nothing about what's in your heart. And it's what's in your heart that voters want to know about.
No matter how modern we think we are, elections are still about choosing a tribal leader: We want the strong, trustworthy one.
That is the meta-message of all political communication, and it out-weighs the actual message. It's why confident absurdities like Sarah Palin, Christine O'Donnell or Glenn Beck have followers. For all their (you would think) obvious failings, they can at least act like they're stating deeply held beliefs.
Imagine if more Democrats were crazy enough to just stand up for health care reform because it was the right thing to do. Nuts, right? Well, let's try it on for size anyway. Imagine if Americans heard a few more speeches that went something like this:
You're damn right I voted for health care reform. I'm proud of that vote. Who wouldn't vote to reform an expensive, wasteful system that denies care to sick people -- to sick children? These people who are trying to scare you with talk of death panels -- they know it's a lie. And they know we already have death panels -- at insurance companies that deny coverage to the people who need it. Who wouldn't vote to reform a health care system that kills people unnecessarily?
I'll tell you who: people who work for the insurance companies, not for you. That would be the Republican Party. When the health insurance companies need something, Republicans come running. When you need something, forget it.
The poll-driven among us might say, "Oh no, health care isn't testing well in this district." Maybe not surprising, when it's read by a pollster's phone caller. But how about when it's delivered with passionate commitment by someone who, we hope, projects some personal authority? In September, we saw Democratic numbers improve, with some pundits suggesting it's because more Dem candidates were counter-attacking. I'd bet it wasn't because of any magic new messaging, but because you simply look stronger when you stop letting bullies stick your head in the toilet. (That and the often overlooked effects of good old fashioned field organizing, but that's another post.)
I'm not naive enough to think polls can be ignored. But polls can't tell you how to be a leader. Just like yesterday's financial news, polls are a trailing indicator, and chasing them is a loser's game. In politics, like in finance, there's no reward without risk.
In politics, though, you can be rewarded for simply being seen to take a risk, even if that risk is not the right one. How many times did George W. Bush get a pass for that?
I think Democrats have a hard time figuring this out -- precisely because they're trying to figure it out. We're the party of reason. A lot of us want to believe there's a science to this, and polls seem to promise that.
Well, there is no science that can make a leader. Leadership is about character. And if people can't find real character, they'll settle for a character, like from a bad movie.
But look what happened in 2008, when the real thing came along: swept aside every poll there was, and led all the way to a landslide.