Right wing groups spend millions of dollars on message framing. They commission polls, dial groups and focus groups to test words and phrases, and then distribute their poll-tested advice to candidates, interest groups and activists. The right wing persistently repeats that language, such as: activist judges, class warfare, death panels, death tax, exploring for energy (instead of drilling), government-run health insurance, job creators, job killer, nanny state, personal injury lawyer, tax relief, union boss and values voter.
Progressives, on the other hand, don’t receive much practical advice. So we tend to use the same language to communicate with voters that we use to talk with each other. That’s a mistake because persuadable voters aren’t like us. They’re the citizens least interested in politics and least aware of the facts behind public policy. Persuadables simply don’t speak our language.
The solution is to frame the issues that are most important to them in language that appeals to them. The way to know these voters’ interests and preferred language is through public opinion research. Good message framing requires good polling. It is important to note that using polls does not mean that progressives should moderate ideology, sell out, or sink to the lowest common denominator. Polls don’t tell you what to stand for; they identify where to begin the conversation with voters. Most of the messaging advice here is based on work by one of the best progressive pollsters in America, Celinda Lake.
Throughout this book, we place suggested language inside boxes to demonstrate what candidates should and shouldn’t say. We hope it makes the presentation as easy to use as possible. As long as you understand the reasons behind these words and phrases, we encourage you to adapt them to your own voice. After all, you are promoting yourself—your values, your vision, your commitment. Make the language authentically yours, fully integrated with the knowledge and personal history you offer to voters. Similarly, when given the opportunity, you should add specific examples that personalize the issues; tell a story that helps voters picture the problems you seek to address and the solutions you propose.
Message framing is not a silver bullet; it’s just one political tool among many. But because there are so many close campaign battles, a little better messaging could make a big difference in our fight for economic and social justice.