Vanity Fair excerpts the new book from Dan Pfeiffer, the former Obama communications director, entitled Battling the Big Lie (publish date June 7). Pfeiffer diagnoses the party’s messaging troubles—and calls for building a bigger megaphone. Why Do Democrats Suck At Messaging? (excerpt):
It didn’t matter if Democrats had won or lost the most recent election. The Question comes in many forms, but it always boils down to some version of: Why do Democrats suck at messaging? The Question was usually, but not always, asked politely. Sometimes it came with a series of ideas. Politics is one of those endeavors where everyone thinks they are qualiﬁed to have an opinion. And the people successful enough to write checks big enough to attend these events are generally not the sort of people who experience self-doubt.
For much of my time in the White House, I was anonymous in face and name to all but the most attuned political observers. But in a crowd of well-heeled donors, I had all the markings of a staffer: a little too young, a bit haggard, with the dark circles that are imprinted under the eyes after a year of working White House hours.
I never had a great answer for them—or, at least, I never had an answer they found satisfactory. And their “thoughts” usually amounted to their pretending that their experience making a fortune selling mail-order underwear, betting against the housing market, or producing a hit sitcom made them qualiﬁed to do my job.
Political donors are not the only ones obsessed with “the Question.” 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.
My own fragile self-esteem and awkwardness aside, I hate trying to answer the Question. Not only are there no easy answers, it’s the wrong question.
Republicans are winning the message war, but not for the reasons these donors, the media, or 90% of the folks on Twitter believe. And there are steps we must take to change this very annoying dynamic.
In this more mature, less defensive phase of my life, I’ve stopped hiding from the Question (and the questioners). Instead, I’ve found a more accessible, equally dissatisfying way to address the actual problem without absolving the party (or myself) of mistakes and missed opportunities. But before I get to the Democrats, I am going to use authorial privilege to talk about why Republicans suck at messaging.
When donors, activists, and media folks ask why Democrats suck at messaging, they are really asking why Republicans are so much better at it.
There is an old saying in Washington: “The only people who believe Republican talking points are Democrats.” This inherent sense that Republicans are better at politics than Democrats has survived as a feature of my party’s psychology for decades. Democrats love to imbue our opposition with strategic evil genius. Roger Ailes, Lee Atwater, and Karl Rove are famous mostly because Democrats have hyperinﬂated their roles to explain away our losses.
There is no doubt Republicans are winning the messaging war, but are they winning because they are better messengers?
Democrats love to complain about the messaging chops of their congressional leadership team, but have you watched the Republicans? During every appearance, Kevin McCarthy looks like he just woke up from a nap and can’t ﬁgure out where he is or what he is doing. Mitch McConnell, one of the worst communicators in modern political history, sounds like he is reading The Almanac of American Politics with a mouthful of marbles. And no one exempliﬁes the adage of “less is more” more than Ted Cruz, an amalgamation of the ﬁve most annoying people you went to high school with. Arkansas senator Tom Cotton makes Jared Kushner look like a magnetic personality. Turn on Fox News, and you’ll ﬁnd a parade of awkward, angry white men doing bad impressions of Donald Trump. Even Trump, the supposed master media manipulator, has the discipline and strategic thinking of a coked-up Tasmanian devil. Just look at his Twitter feed from the end of the 2020 campaign. Instead of using his biggest platform to drive home a positive argument for his reelection and a negative message against Joe Biden, Trump engaged in a scattershot Festivus-style airing of grievances against members of his own party, the media, and random celebrities.
This dynamic is in part why the founders of the Lincoln Project became huge celebrities among the Resistance Twitter/MSNBC crowd. The former political consultants, all Republican Never Trumpers, were able to siphon tens of millions of dollars from willing progressives hoping to sample some of that Republican messaging magic. The Lincoln Project was touted as tougher, faster, and smarter than those mealy-mouthed Democratic ad makers whom Democrats love to hate. Though, at no point have folks asked, “If the Lincoln Project is so good, why did so many of its founders keep losing presidential elections to Democrats?” Nor has anyone stopped to wonder if an ad that appealed to highly engaged, very online liberals in California or New York would really be effective with disenchanted Republicans in Ohio and Iowa.
During the 2020 campaign, questions about the effectiveness of the Lincoln Project were dismissed by many as ad envy. However, once the campaign was over, a Democratic group released a study that showed that the ads from the Lincoln Project were largely ineffective. In fact, the study found an inverse relationship between efﬁcacy and engagement on Twitter.
This is not to say that Republicans have no messaging attributes. They have perfected a strategy of social media trolling that tricks angry liberals into inadvertently spreading their message. The right has effectively created a narrative about Democrats and has stuck to it. “Make America Great Again” is one of the most successful political branding efforts in history. But on the whole, Republicans, as much as they are winning elections despite getting fewer votes, seem to be winning the messaging war in spite of themselves.
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The post–9/11, pre-Obama-era Democratic Party was in particularly dire straits. We weren’t sure how to be against Bush but not the troops. We were constantly on our heels and had a policymaking hangover from eight years of Clintonian small ball. The strategic miasma of that era would be embodied by John Kerry’s declaring, on the 2004 campaign trail, that with regard to the funding for the Iraq War, he was for it before he was against it.
It is tempting to view this messaging mess as a relic of a bygone era. Yet, nearly two decades later, the challenge persists. 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.
The Democratic Party is more diverse (ideologically, demographically, and geographically) than the Republicans. This diversity is our strength, but it poses a central and seemingly insurmountable challenge to creating positive messages for the party. 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.
I’m sure you are reading this and thinking, Shit is hard all over. Figure it out. You’re not wrong. Democrats must do better. I must do better. But understanding the challenge helps explain how we got to this point.
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.
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.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that all these problems were solved, that Democrats got better messages and messengers, the talking points were as sharp as talking points could be, and cable news was ﬂooded with the best people saying the best things. It would help, but it still wouldn’t matter much.
Imagine two armies doing battle. One of those armies is equipped with tanks and stealth bombers. The other shows up to the battle wielding pocketknives. Of course, Team Pocketknife gets its ass kicked. After the battle, it returns home, and the ﬁrst question from the gathered townsfolk is “Why didn’t you have a better strategy?”
Did the Team Pocketknife have the best plan? Maybe, maybe not. Ultimately, no one—whether Patton, von Clausewitz, or Captain America—could devise a plan for a pocketknife to beat a tank. Instead of drawing up a better battle plan, Team Pocketknife needed to focus its energy on ﬁguring out how to get some tanks.
In the context of political communications, this is the message-versus-megaphone problem. 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 saying.
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.
Much of the media on the left is focused on holding Democrats accountable and/or moving the party’s agenda in a more progressive direction. This is, of course, an admirable and necessary task, but it doesn’t do much to help Democratic candidates and causes win the messaging battle against Republicans come election time.
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.
* * *
James Carville is correct: Republicans are getting away with literal attempted murder. Within months of the insurrection, the cause of the event had been whitewashed, history rewritten, and blame shifted away from the leaders of the Republican Party. But Carville’s prescription is wrong. Putting aside the amusing suggestion that Democrats write more op-eds, a mode of communication that lost relevance with the death of the physical newspaper, doing all the things Carville suggests won’t solve the problem. We should, of course, do them. I am not arguing that we throw in the towel just because we don’t have a Fox equivalent. But the problem isn’t strategic; it’s structural.
This is a tough concept for the punditocracy (a.k.a. Twitter) to come to terms with. Political analysis is obsessed with style, strategy, and optics at the expense of structural forces. Politics is covered like drama, elevating the actions and decisions of individuals. The choices made by candidates and campaign advisers, the thinking goes, are what determine success or failure. This faux-Greek drama needs a narrative arc and a hero’s journey. Every election cycle has an Icarus.
But campaigns are not won or lost on a single decision or a killer ad. Presidencies are not deﬁned by a slogan. There is a harder, less entertaining, but much more informative way to understand politics: Focus less on the personalities and more on the structural impediments to progress. 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.
So, how do we build a bigger, better megaphone?
I spoke to @ThePlumLineGS today about my new book, how the Right Wing has hacked the traditional media, and why Fox's blackout of the 1/6 hearing is all part of a decades-old, billionaire-funded plan to dominate the messaging wars. https://t.co/UcqLYnEOavhttps://t.co/sXRJhxhD9N
— Dan Pfeiffer (@danpfeiffer) June 8, 2022