How Democrats Can Win: 2010 Elections: Step 6: Connect With Voters’ Anxiety to Earn Their Trust

by Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin on October 15, 2010

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In Step 5 of this series we suggested that President Barack Obama challenge House Minority Leader John Boehner to a debate about the only issue on voters’ minds, jobs. Several readers suggested this would be a “Hail Mary” pass.  It was not then but with many national polls holding steady or moving in the wrong direction Democrats need to shake things up between now and Election Day, November 2nd in order to hold the House of Representatives.  A high stakes Obama v. Boehner debate would garner a lot of attention, and give Democrats an opportunity to reach independent voters and address their economic insecurity.

We do not know whether Obama will actually issue a challenge to Boehner or not, time is running out, but in states and congressional districts from coast to coast Democrats and Republicans are debating and the economy is the single issue where the persuadable votersare paying the closest attention.  What Republicans seem to understand and Democrats struggle to learn is that the winner of the debate is not necessarily the candidate with the best set of answers to policy questions.  If this were so we would be doing a lot better.  To win Democrats need to do more than win the policy debate, they have to win voters’ trust when they look with apprehension toward our economic future.

Exactly how to do this is the topic of Step 6 in this series.

Steps 1-3 are here.  Steps 4 is here.  Step 5 is here.

Our basic take on the Democrats’ economic message is here.

Step 6: Connect With Voters Economic Anxiety to Earn their Trust

Right now the Republicans are waging, and perhaps winning a contest on purely emotional grounds pointing to the unemployment numbers, and asking the simple question, “Where are the jobs?”  Their description of the economy may be one-sided and the statistics may be exaggerated but it connects with voters’ frustrations even though the Republicans don’t have any new answers for what to do about it on the policy level.  However, on the emotional plane their argument is strong.

Voters have seen their incomes and job prospects decline and they are upset and worried, and Republicans are feeding the fears.  Economic statistics may show improvement but current opinion surveys are finding consumer sentiment going not up but down as we head into this election.

For Democrats, the natural instinct is to point out the bright side of the economic picture to balance the Republicans’ overly harsh portrayal and calm people’s fears, but everyone knows this would only make things worse.  Economically stressed voters will never trust a politician who doesn’t even know how bad things are in the economy.  To gain voters’ trust, Democrats have to connect on a deeper level and as Bill Clinton said when he was running for president during an economic downturn “feel their pain.”

When discussing politics, either in a formal political debate, political ads, or even an informal doorstep discussion while canvassing, Democrats should remember the most important thing is to connect:

Connect with women. Most of the available votes Democrats can still win over between now and Election Day are politically independent economically stressed women.  A recent survey dubs this group “Walmart Moms” and even though the survey was sponsored by, you guessed it, Walmart, it zeros in on women’s frustrations and stresses.  By a margin of roughly two-to-one the top issue for all women is job creation and economic growth, followed by health care, and the deficit and government spending, but for the Walmart Moms, the economy and jobs is mentioned three times more than the next concern.  The survey finds strong majorities of Walmart Moms are worried about losing their job but as many worry about retirement security, their savings and debt, the cost of health care, and being able to afford necessities like gasoline and groceries.  To connect with economically stressed women it is important to communicate that you understand how numerous, and how basic their economic worries are these days.

Connect with feelings and emotions. In her 1990 book, “You Just Don’t Understand, Women and Men in Conversation” linguist, Deborah Tannen points out how the importance to women of bonding through communication, which eludes most men.  When someone has a problem, women try to understand, share, and bond, while most men go into problem solving mode.  Politicians are even worse in that they immediately mention a piece of legislation they supported and try to score a point against their opposition.  When politicians respond this way, the problem and the person, start to become invisible.  What’s needed is a gender balanced approach that involves listening, communicating and offering advice that shows one has listened and understood.

In other words, to really connect with people, it is important to pause for a while and stay in the reality of their lives before turning to your reality and the policies you support.  Listen more and talk less, and then respond with emotions as well as specifics.  Acknowledge the fear, anxiety, and pain of having lost the sense that we can offer our children security and the expectation that their lives will be easier than ours.  Voters are more likely to trust someone who understands the current state of their lives before moving into problem solving mode. Then the solution needs to match the perception of the problem.

Democrats have a lot of specific policies that have appeal for swing voters, especially women:

The Paycheck Fairness Act  is a winning bipartisan issue with huge appeal to independent voters.  Getting paid fairly for one’s work is an important component of economic security – affecting the ability to afford the mortgage, the gas, put food on the table, afford health care for one’s family.

There are parts of the Affordable Care Act that provide economic security. Stories of women and men who have maintained their economic security in the face of life threatening illness could create that sense of trust.

Connect with the middle class’s economic insecurity. Much as we love Austan Goolsbee’s chart the White House and other Democrats will have a better chance of winning middle class votes by demonstrating an understanding of what middle class and working class voters are going through.  However compelling the logic and the graphic presentation of the difference between the Republican and Democratic tax plans, voters are not going to leave their warm homes, go to the polls and pull the Democratic lever because they prefer our tax policy.  Democrats do not win elections by talking about taxes.  Democrats win elections by connecting with people.

Middle class, working class, and struggling class Americans are crying out right now to be understood and respected.  They have seen their incomes and purchasing power decline for decades.  Foreclosures are at an all time high.  Their children are graduating from school and facing a job market that is forcing them to postpone their dreams and take whatever job they can get.  They are seeing family member lose jobs in their 50s wondering if they will ever work again.  It is important to connect with this reality to earn their trust before pivoting to our differences with Republicans when it comes to strengthening rather than privatizing and cutting Social Security, raising the minimum wage, implementing health insurance reforms, and cutting business taxes to generate good jobs.  Retirement security is an issue that appeals strongly to independent voters. It is specific to people’s lives, what they worry about in a way that large policy agendas aren’t.

Democrats who can connect with voters on this level will find them more receptive to the larger policy discussion that we need to have. Then you can start asking the question that still has the potential to deliver votes on Election Day. Which party do you think offers the greatest chance of getting the economy going in the next two years — the party that broke the economy and has no new ideas to fix it so they just try to exploit your fear and anger — or the party that is working every day to get people working and the economy growing?

Step 7 Go back to step three, debate the economy and win can be found here.

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