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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The Great Dysfunction or Lessons in how Not to Govern

Our nation survived the Great Depression and it has survived the more recent Great Recession.  The question now is whether it will survive the Great Dysfunction.

While the focus of many pundits and politicians is now on Congress’ inability to pass a budget, resulting in one Continuing Resolution after another, invention of new phrases such as the Fiscal Cliff, and the current sequestration scare, a closer examination reveals that Congress has recently been unable to pass other basic legislation that is long past due.

In my own field of Education Advocacy, the most glaring example of the Great Dysfunction is the failure of Congress to reauthorize or amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) formerly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The NCLB was passed with bipartisan support in 2001 under President George W. Bush.  While the basic goal of having no child fall behind in school was laudable, the law was deeply flawed in many ways, including:

  • failure to provide children who were left behind with any individual remedies;
  • utilizing blunt punishments against individual schools and whole school districts whose students were not doing well on certain performance measures, without providing the necessary support to remedy those failures; and
  • over-realiance on deeply flawed standardized tests to determine whether schools were succeeding or failing to educate children.

NCLB required that 100% of all school children be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014, with dire consequences for schools and school districts that failed to meet that standard.  While that sounded nice to politicians in 2001, as 2014 loomed closer, it became exceedingly obvious that such a standard was simply impossible to meet.

NCLB was set up to be reauthorized with probable changes in 2007, with the understanding that this law was experimental and would need adjustments.  Indeed, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy worked side by side with President Bush to try to accomplish that goal prior to both of their departures from office, but due to the Great Dysfunction, they failed to achieve passage.

President Obama took up the mantle by renaming NCLB by its old name, the ESEA, and proposed sweeping changes in 2010.  In fact, the Senate Education Committee passed bi-partisan revisions in 2011.  But, once again, the Great Dysfunction took over and the bill did not pass.

Given the looming disastrous 2014 deadline, and the overriding power of the Great Dysfunction, the Obama Administration began to implement state by state waivers of the ESEA in 2012.  As of right now, 44 states along with Washington DC, Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, have requested waivers.  The Dept. of Education has granted 34 states and the District of Columbia’s waiver requests.

Thus, the result of the Great Dysfunction in our schools is that the largest federal funding stream for our nation’s public schools is now implemented in at least 36 different ways through 35 different waivers and the remaining states continuing to operate under the now universally reviled NCLB.  While some members of Congress have chastised this overreach of Executive authority, there has simply been no progress to pass a revised ESEA.

A more detailed history of this debacle is available from the NY Times.

The question is, what will it take to emerge from the Great Dysfunction?  While many may say that we get the democracy we serve, Benjamin Disraeli put it well when he declared that,

The world is weary of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians.

What we so desperately need are for our politicians to turn into statesmen, who recognize that the Great Dysfunction serves no one.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.