[Editor’s note: Phil Trounstine was part of a panel yesterday at the California Democratic Convention: “Can Democrats Win the Message Game?” All three speakers, including Steve Maviglio and David Sirota, gave thoughtful presentations which varied in their recommendations. At my request, Trounstine edited his notes and sent the following. It is well worth a read.]
I’m not here tonight as a partisan either in the Democratic primary contest or even the November election. I was a journalist most of my career, I was communications director for Gray Davis for two and a half years and I’ve been a non-partisan pollster since then.
I’m going to talk a bit about public opinion in California, how we got to where we are today and I’m going to suggest some reasons why I believe Democrats have been unable to capture the public’s loyalty despite broad dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, the state and the George Bush wing of the Republican Party.
[Review of polling data from 2005-2006]
… The fundamental problem for Democrats is this: Voters don’t know what they stand for or where they would lead.
Note: Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (March 2006): Asked to identify the two negative traits that best describe the Democrats in Washington, voters selected “no leadership” (34 percent) and “don’t know what they stand for” (24 percent)
Note: The Pew Research Center: From September 2000 to the end of 2004, Pew reports a 26-point increase in the percentage of Democrats saying their party does only a fair or poor job in standing up for core Democratic positions such as “protecting the interests of minorities, helping the poor and needy, and representing working-class people.”
64 percent of Democrats at the end of 2004 believed their party was doing a poor job on acting on its historical values compared to 63 percent of Democrats who thought the party was doing a good job on these core positions at the end of Clinton’s second term.
Over the same period, about 50% of Republicans maintained the belief that their party was doing a good or excellent job of standing up for traditional Republican values like “reducing the size of government, cutting taxes and promoting conservative social values.”
In short, the Democrats have no strategic message. What is a strategic message?
A clear statement that illuminates values, purpose and direction.
As John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira write in the American Prospect: The starting point for all political organizing and campaigns should be: “What are my core beliefs and principles and how do I best explain them to supporters and skeptics alike?”
(By the way, Halpin and Teixeira argue that the Democrats’ new strategic message should be centered on the concept of the “common good” in contrast to what they see as “rampant individualism” underlying the Republican message.)
Anyway – a strategic message is what John Kerry never had. And why no one could tell you what he stood for. The last Democrat with a clear strategic message was Bill Clinton in 1992. He called for a New Covenant: a commitment to opportunity, responsibility and community.
The Clinton message stands up well to other great strategic messages, to name a few:
A New Deal
Peace, land and bread
Liberty, equality and fraternity
Leaders, for a change
Morning in America
These are more than slogans – but slogans are important too. A slogan is a memorable phrase used in a political or commercial context as a repetitive expression of an idea or purpose. The word “slogan” comes from sluagh-ghairm (pronounced slogorm), which is Scottish Gaelic for “battle-cry”.
Just to demonstrate how powerful and lasting a slogan can be, let’s play a little slogan trivia. I’ll read the slogan and you shout what it’s for:
Tippecanoe and Tyler too (1840)
All the news that’s fit to print. (1896)
Speak softly and carry a big stick (1904)
When it rains, it pours (1911)
Mmm mmm good (1935)
A little dab’ll do you. (1949)
Finger lickin’ good. (1952)
I like Ike (1952)
It takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’ (1956)
We try harder. (1962)
All power to the people (1967)
The Uncola (1973)
Don’t leave home without it. (1975)
Just do it. (1988)
BTW: I might mention one I came up with — Flex your power (2000) [A slogan and a strategic message]
I submit that neither Steve Westly nor Phil Angelides has yet to craft a slogan as good as the last Democrat to carry California in an open election – Gray Davis in 1998, “Experience money can’t buy.” Which was followed by a strategic message for his administration, which was “Lasting values, new direction.”
But for Enron and Darryl Issa’s money, that would still be the message of the California governor’s office, I believe.
Westly appears to be running as “A different kind of governor” which, I assume, is an attempt to borrow from Clinton’s “A different kind of Democrat” without restricting his appeal to the independents who can vote in a Democratic primary. It’s a tactical slogan with a specific purpose.
Angelides argues that he is the only Democrat for governor who had the courage to stand up to Schwarzenegger. But that is not the central theme of his television advertising. In fact, I wasn’t sure what Phil’s strategic message is so I asked Bob Mulholland, who told me it is that “Angelides will fully fund education.”
Neither of these, I’d suggest, is a strategic message. They do not, as Halpin and Teixeira advocate, encapsulate the candidates’ core beliefs and principles. This is the challenge for Democrats, including those running for governor.
Phil Trounstine is the founder and director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University. He was the Communications Director for Gray Davis.