Charisma and Messaging

As Democrats ponder their recent election losses and pundits wonder how it is possible that approximately 17% of the electorate could support President Obama, but voted for Donald Trump, many simply shake their heads and wonder how this could happen. There are, of course, many theories: sexism and Democrats allegedly abandoning the working class and rural America are commonly mentioned. However, almost nobody mentions the one thing that President Obama and Donald Trump have in common. They both have tremendous charisma which enables them to convey powerful messages. Indeed, when I googled “images for charisma” these are the first two photographs that showed up.

Understanding both charisma and messaging are critical to any successful political campaign. Of course, charisma matters more when discussing specific candidates and messaging goes beyond candidates as it also includes issue campaigns.

In the case of charisma, Hillary Clinton conceded that she simply does not have it. That may have been wise for her to simply be honest about it. But acknowledging a flaw does not make the flaw go away. Of course, nearly 65 million people voted for Hillary Clinton, nearly 2.5 million more than voted for Donald Trump, which means that charisma is not the only deciding factor and for many people, Hillary Clinton may have been more charismatic than Donald Trump. But, given our electoral college system, as well as the results in the Congressional and gubernatorial elections, serious political analysis cannot ignore the fact that Donald Trump was able to galvanize far more people to attend his rallies which helped to generate media attention in a way that smaller attendance at Hillary Clinton’s rallies simply could not match.

It is true that charisma alone does not automatically result in winning elections. One need only look as far back as Richard Nixon to understand that Americans will occasionally elect candidates who simply have no charisma. But in order for those candidates and their issues to prevail, they must overcome their lack of charisma with powerful messaging that enables them to win elections. Whether by coincidence or design, it is worth noting that both Nixon and Trump used silent majority messaging to win their elections.

A quick look at some of the hot button issues of our time demonstrates why many traditionally Republican issues have galvanized such a strong following. For example, if you put your own views aside, and you do not have strong feelings about abortion, it is fairly easy to see why the message of: pro-life is more compelling than pro-choice. After all, who is against life?

In the case of the private school voucher debate, the pro-voucher campaign succeeds because it wisely uses the phrase pro-choice and in this case, the anti-voucher campaign simply has no galvanizing message other than it is anti-voucher.

Although it was ultimately abandoned as failed policy, President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind reform of federal education law passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support in 2001 and remained the law of the land despite widespread acknowledgment of how poorly it was working until 2015, because of its name. After all, who could argue with the basic concept of no child left behind? Regardless of how the law failed, the name carried such a powerful message that it sustained despite years of bi-partisan recognition that it did not come close to fulfilling its mission.

Although President Obama was able to get the Affordable Care Act through Congress, and the name appeared to carry a good message at the time, it is likely to be abandoned or at least significantly modified by the next Congress not just because of the election results. The simple fact is that unless you receive a subsidy, the Affordable Care Act is not affordable! This is a case of the original messaging running so contrary to reality, that its name may help to bring its own demise.

On the charisma front, it behooves any political campaign to keep this critical factor in mind as it searches for successful candidates, especially in large scale statewide or national elections where TV appearances will be frequent. Failure to do so will result in losing elections in most cases regardless of whether voters agree with the views of the candidate.

Messaging is manufactured and its success starts with listening to what voters care about and testing messages with focus groups. Although I am not a political insider, I am a keen political observer and I have heard enough whining about voters who vote against their own interest to understand that such whining does not win elections or issue campaigns. Listening to voters and crafting messages that they want to hear and are congruent with the values of the candidate, party or issue is how campaigns are won. Patience and perseverance are critical as voters have demonstrated that they will easily switch parties based on charisma and message.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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Systems Change Mentoring

One of the most enjoyable parts of my legal practice has been the opportunity to mentor dozens of law students who have clerked for me over the past 30+ years. Many of these students have gone on to become successful public interest attorneys and I believe that their experience working for me helped guide them along their path towards obtaining justice for those who need it most.

Earlier this week, one of my former law clerks filled me with pride as she took an important disability issue to the national stage when she asked Hillary Clinton a great question during a campaign speech she gave at the University of Wisconsin.

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I first encountered Nicki Vander Meulen when she was a public school student in Walworth County, Wisconsin. Her parents sought my assistance because her school district wanted to place her in the county’s segregated school (Lakeland) which educated only children with disabilities in a program that was not designed for students to prepare them for college, but instead for a life of continued institutionalization and segregation. Nicki’s parents knew that she was capable of much more than Lakeland had to offer, and I was able to help them keep Nicki in regular public school in an inclusive setting, and she successfully graduated high school.

Years later, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Nicki was attending the University of Wisconsin Law School (something I am quite sure no Lakeland attendee has ever done). She applied to be my intern and I gladly accepted her application.

During Nicki’s tenure as my law clerk, she conducted the research and with my assistance, wrote the first version of the bill that ultimately became Act 125, which forbids the inappropriate use of seclusion & restraint on Wisconsin’s school children. Nicki drafted a bill that was better than the bill that ultimately passed, and set the standard for 12 years of negotiations that led to Act 125’s ultimate passage. The bill she drafted was only sponsored by then Assemblyman (now Congressman) Mark Pocan, and did not even get a hearing. But, we had to start somewhere, and Nicki set the bar high. Systems change always starts with high aspirations and setting the bar high helps to assure a reasonable outcome in the end, which is exactly what happened.

Nicki graduated from law school in 2004 and has maintained a successful private practice as a public defender and advocating for children with disabilities and many others. She periodically calls me for advice and I gladly continue to mentor her and occasionally refer cases to her.

But Nicki takes her work as a systems change agent seriously and knows that systems change goes beyond her paid work as an attorney. So, when she had the opportunity to ask Hillary Clinton an important question at a campaign event, she broke important ground.

As you can see in this video (starting at the 47 minute mark), Nicki openly declares her disability pride  when introduces herself as a lawyer who is on the autism spectrum. She then asks Sec. Clinton what she would do about the sub-minimum wage which is paid to people with disabilities who work at sheltered workshops such as Goodwill, and further, what Sec. Clinton would do to create better employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Clinton answered by acknowledging that it was time to get rid of the subminimum wage in its entirety both for people with disabilities, and other low wage workers, such as restaurant employees who receive tips.

Nicki’s question and Secretary Clinton’s answer quickly received national attention, as The Atlantic published Clinton’s Case Against the Subminimum Wage crediting a “young lawyer with autism” for asking for Clinton’s opinion about this antiquated Depression era exemption to the minimum wage. The article goes on to credit Clinton with being the only Presidential candidate to speak out on this issue, which may not have happened if Nicki had not asked this important question.

Of course, the Presidential campaign is far from over, and even if Sec. Clinton does become President Clinton, much work will need to be done to end the antiquated and discriminatory subminimum wage. However, Nicki started the national conversation in a way that has never been done before, and she will deserve credit for her role in ending the subminimum wage whenever that happens, just as she deserves credit for crafting the first version of the Wisconsin seclusion and restraint law.

I am confident that Nicki will continue to be a successful systems change agent and I am glad that I have played a role mentoring her.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.