Messaging Lesson of the 2016 Election

Posted on November 22, 2016

When I worked as a campaign consultant, I found that most people only learn by losing an election. After a victory, people think they’ve mastered the craft and have nothing new to learn.

In this case, Hillary Clinton almost won. She received at least 2 million more votes than Trump nationwide and lost Michigan by less than 10,000, Wisconsin by less than 24,000, and Pennsylvania by less than 70,000—out of more than 133 million ballots cast nationwide.

It was so close that a single change would have brought a Clinton victory. If only FBI Director James Comey had performed his job in a professional or ethical manner. If only a slice of Stein and Johnson voters had realized that their protest votes were electing Trump.

But limiting our inquiry to messaging, what can we learn?

Persuadable voters are not won by an appeal to the common good. Hillary’s slogan was “Stronger Together.” This means about the same as her famous “It Takes a Village,” or as she said at the Democratic convention, “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, for as long as ever you can.”

To her credit, Hillary Clinton has espoused a consistent political philosophy through the years: “communitarianism” or “liberal communitarianism.” And progressive base voters share her commitment to the common good. But the problem is, persuadable voters are not particularly convinced while conservatives are strongly opposed to this philosophy.

“Our culture is very, very individualistic,” one of the best pollsters in America, Celinda Lake, has explained. “Even when people think collectively, they are thinking of a collection of individuals.” When faced with a proposed government policy, “People look for themselves in the proposal. People want to know what the proposal will do for me and to me.”

Pollster Daniel Yankelovich tracked American individualism for decades. He found that “the 1960s ushered in a radical extension of individualism, broadening it from the political domain to personal life styles. By the 1980s the ethos of expressive individualism had grown into a national preoccupation.” In short, over the past fifty years, individualism has become an ever stronger force.

And in fact, the “American dream” is not about a society where government secures the greatest good for the greatest number. Our dream is personal. It’s about a poor child delivering newspapers and one day ending up as the publisher. It’s about an unskilled worker attending night school and becoming a successful manager. It’s about individuals and families practicing their religion without interference, getting ahead through hard work, and being able to retire in security and comfort.

My point is, we can’t force a communalistic philosophy on an individualistic nation. Sure, the progressive-liberal-Democratic base of voters would gladly accept and espouse a communitarian philosophy. I, too, wish that American culture were more oriented toward altruism and community. But it isn’t. A realistic progressive philosophy is one that accepts our national culture of individualism and competition and—nevertheless—seeks to make the American dream accessible to all.

The tried-and-true method for progressives to successfully reach persuadable voters is by appealing to economic fairness, which engages the self-interest of individuals and their families. Hillary Clinton did not have to impersonate Bernie Sanders. She could have remained authentically herself by focusing on unfair tax breaks for the rich, unfair subsidies for wealthy corporations, and the need for a level playing field for both individuals and small businesses. Indeed, these policies were part of her platform.

But look at the Clinton campaign’s television ads, all of which are here. Can you find this fundamental economic message anywhere?

Let me repeat, Hillary Clinton almost won. Her anti-Trump message almost worked. But the missing piece was a reason why individualistic white working-class voters would think they’d benefit by making her President.