Thursday, April 21, 2011

Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bristol... (Publicus Proventus.)

If you want to win in politics, you have to understand Bristol Palin's dancing ability.

I'm not being facetious or trying to be funny. I'm being right.

Lots of people were confused about how Bristol Palin could get so far on Dancing With The Stars when she "competed" on that show. She was a terrible dancer, and not very popular with people in general. Conspiracy theories abounded -- the show is rigged, people said, but they were wrong.

The show wasn't rigged, any more than our democracy is rigged: Dancing With The Stars operates, in many respects, exactly like American politics... which, coincidentally, people also frequently think is rigged. (I'm all too frequently one of those people.)

Bristol Palin succeeded on DWTS despite her obvious lack of skill and mass appeal because Bristol Palin appealed to a small but highly motivated group of people: People who liked Bristol Palin were outnumbered by people who disliked her, but the people who liked her were more motivated to act and had a clearer goal to act on, making it easier for them to win.

If you liked Bristol Palin and wanted her to win, all you had to do was call the voting line, and you supported her.

But, if you didn't like Bristol Palin, what were your options? You had to go vote for someone else -- someone you also may not like very much, but who you dislike less than Bristol Palin.

And all the Bristol Palin dislikers had numerous options to choose from: they could vote for one of the front-runners, or they could vote for someone close to the bottom and help them, but in any event, the Bristol-haters were spread out: If you assume that only 1 in 10 viewers liked Bristol, then that 1 person voted for Bristol. The other 9 voted for... possibly nine other people.

If that happened, the final results are that each of the 10 people gets 1 vote, and Bristol is tied for first, even though 90% of the people voted against her.

It gets worse: if you didn't like Bristol but didn't care that much one way or the other, there wasn't very much you could do about it either way, other than turn off the news the next morning and shrug about how they keep covering this stuff.

See where I'm going with this?

If you liked Governor Patsy in the 2010 elections, you were motivated to go vote for him and probably got up and voted, early. (And often, if you lived in Waukesha County.)

If you didn't like Governor Patsy, then the question is is there someone else you felt really strongly about voting for? Because if not, then you were casting a protest vote (if you voted at all) and a protest vote might have gone to one of the four people running against him, or to a write-in.

According to vote totals (I found them on Wikipedia, so take that for what it's worth) if everyone who'd voted for a third-party candidate or write-in in 2010 had instead voted for Tom Barrett, Barrett would have still lost by just under 100,000 votes, 1,029,974 to Gov. Patsy's 1,128,941.

That's not the whole story, though. 2,158,915 people voted in 2010 for the governor's race. In 2008, with no statewide race on the ballot but with a presidential election, 2,887,000 voters cast ballots in Wisconsin. (Source.) Obama got 1,677,211 votes in that contest, 600,000 more than Tom Barrett got in 2010.

Where were those Democrats, or sometimes-Democrats? Where were the six hundred thousand people who felt strongly enough about something in 2008 to vote for Barack Obama, but didn't get up and vote in 2010? Was it that they didn't feel strongly enough about Barrett to vote for him, or about Gov. Patsy to vote against him?

That 600,000 people, made up of people like me before 2004 and probably made up of people like you or people you know, are what I call the Disinterested Majority. They are people like my Oldest Daughter, Oldest, who, in 2010, when Sweetie reminded her to vote the next day, said "I don't have time. I'll do it Saturday."

They don't much care; in the metaphor I began this post with, they are people who don't watch Dancing With The Stars, and so even though they don't like Bristol Palin, they don't bother to do anything about it because they don't think it matters who wins.

And it doesn't really matter who wins Dancing With The Stars, but as we've seen, it really matters who wins in politics.

And because it matters who wins, it matters how we fight.

Republicans, as bad as they are about caring about people -- and, honestly, they don't even try to pretend anymore that they care, do they?

As bad as they are about that, they're very good about how they convince people that things are good, or bad.

Republicans sell their message not by actually telling people what they're doing; Gov. Patsy, who's list of legislative goals can be discerned simply by looking at his list of campaign contributors (seriously: Every single policy initiative of his will directly benefit a major campaign contributor, making his administration the most obvious quid pro quo elected official in my memory) doesn't tell people he's going to cut taxes on his campaign contributors.

He tells people he's going to cut taxes, and reduce government. He focuses on those things because Americans, even liberal Americans, inherently dislike taxes and government -- and who wouldn't? Taxes take money from us, and government pushes around. Government is a schoolyard bully to many people.

But Gov. Patsy and the rest of his ilk don't much care about most Americans. He cares about a select few Americans: Those who will vote for Bristol Palin.

Gov. Patsy doesn't want you to vote and doesn't care what you think about him. He cares about getting his very interested minority to the polls, and so he pitches his message to them. He talks to the racist Tea Party members and sells his message in terms that they will listen to and get them to the polls: Witness Glenn Grothman asking about keeping illegal immigrants from getting state funds. That touches every hot button of the Racist Tea Party that is in control of the government: Our taxes are going to pay minorities not to work is what Glenn Grothman is saying to them, and that gets them mad and they go vote.

That was the fundamental shift in politics that led to what the GOP thinks is a fundamental shift in Americans' viewpoints: With Karl Rove and the Bush Administration, the GOP began not to try to appeal to the broadest base possible (the big tent that Tommy Thompson talked about in 2001 when he went to work for Bush) but to get their very narrow base to the polls.

That has led to success at the polls, and led most Americans to think that the GOP is winning the hearts and minds of Americans... but they're not. They're just voting for Bristol Palin.

Polls show that most people in America favor raising taxes over cutting spending. More surprisingly to those who don't understand the Bristol Palin Effect on politics, most Republicans favor raising taxes, as well. (Source.) And 80% of the people polled hated Hypocrite Paul Ryan's plan to destroy Medicare and let your grandparents die in the street. (Same Source.)

80% of the people hate Republican ideas, but the Republicans control Wisconsin's government, and have control of just over 2/3 of the federal government. And that's because Republicans are good at voting for Bristol Palin.

So Democrats have to be good at that, too, and that means learning how to fight. And in particular, that means understanding that politics isn't governing, and vice versa.

To govern, you have to win at politics. The two require very different tactics, but you can't do one without the other.

The problem with Democrats is they keep trying to win at politics by governing. I first thought this when I listened on the radio the Feingold-Johnson debates, and heard Ron Johnson keep saying that ObamaCare was the "greatest assault" on his freedom ever, and in response, Russ Feingold delved into the policies of ObamaCare, giving great detailed responses about this and that and the other portion of the law, and losing the audience.

Ron Johnson didn't care if people in general understood the law, or how it worked -- he may not have himself understood it. What he cared about was that by repeating greatest assault on freedom ever, his voters -- the Racist Tea Party people -- would respond by going to vote for him.

Those motivated voters hated the government and hated the idea that the government would tell them they had to buy insurance. Most of them probably had insurance, anyway -- but that didn't make them hate the idea less.

Meanwhile, over on the Feingold side were people who heard "Medicare doughnut hole" and other wonky stuff, and who ever got up early to vote in favor of closing a loophole in the government regulations about copays on prescription drugs?

What I wondered was why Feingold didn't say "The health care reform law doesn't assault your freedom. It keeps your mother from dying because she can't afford her medication."

Or simply ObamaCare will save your mother's life. Or something better than that; I'm not a PR guy.

That's something I've wondered about since that day: why Democrats don't fight better, why they keep confusing governing with politics. It's fine to worry about closing the Medicare doughnut hole... once you're in office. But you'll never get there with that message.

Over and over, I see on The Daily Show and other outlets, montages of Republicans spreading out over the talk shows and repeating the same weekly mantras -- talking points -- and winning. And over and over, I see Democrats shaking their heads at that and saying government shouldn't work that way.

Okay, well, Bristol Palin shouldn't have been on DWTS. But she was and she almost won. Had her Mom really pushed it, she would have won, and Bristol Palin would be considered one of the greatest "celebrity" dancers ever.

The problem came up again for me today when I suggested, via Twitter, that the people helping organize opposition to Gov. Patsy's budget use talking points and focus on a few simple goals and messages, spreading the word about items in the budget. I was responding to a couple of people's posts-- people who are smarter and more politically active than me, I should note -- suggesting that everyone talk to a couple people about the budget and spread the word that Gov. Patsy's budget is a terrible idea for most people.

My idea: pick a talking point each day and focus on that. Get motivated people to talk about one thing and Tweet about one thing.

Doing that worked for me yesterday when I got hundreds of posts about how goverment works for me. (Which I'm continuing, by the way.)

My suggestion was met with the entirely valid point that lots of people are passionate about just a few things in the budget, and by the not-as-valid point that people don't want to sound like they're reading from a script.

In other words, the smarter-than-me/more-motivated-than-me people said "We don't want to all say the same thing and we all care about different things."

Which is exactly what Paul Begala told This American Life not long ago. And which is exactly why Democrats won't win, for a long time, unless and until they understand that politics is not governing.

To win at politics, you have to make people care enough to vote for you. You have to get those 600,000 people to keep coming to the polls, something that the Democrats couldn't do between 2008 and 2010.

Think about what happened in those two years: Obama got elected, got the stimulus bill passed, got Cash For Clunkers passed, got Health Care Reform passed, got the economy started turning around, pulled combat troops out of Iraq... I can name those accomplishments without even looking them up.

In Wisconsin, in those two years, Democrats mandated increased liability protection on insurance policies and required drivers to have insurance, so that you will be more protected if you get in an accident, and so that your premiums wouldn't be raised by forcing you to pay more for underinsured motorist coverage. (Gov. Patsy has since undone one of those, you know.) Democrats got insurers to cover autism treatment. They expanded BadgerCare. They reduced taxes, making Wisconsin go from 4th highest in taxes to 15th highest.

So why did Republicans win? Because Democrats are terrible at politics. Democrats want to go in 50 different directions all at once, and all talk about the things they care about and get into the details of it and get everyone to understand everything at once.

That's an awful strategy. People can't absorb it all. I've been closely following the budget battles for three months and I don't know everything about it -- and if I wasn't motivated, I wouldn't even follow that, as most people don't.

So if you rush up to someone and tell them that the budget does this and that and the other thing, they stop listening. And if you get into details, people tune out; people don't want to know the details of legislation. How closely do you listen when your mechanic explains what's wrong with your car? Not very, I bet -- what you want to know is how much is this going to cost me and how quickly will it be done?

Republicans get that message out: they tell their voters what it'll cost and when it'll be done, and they do that by appealing to the narrowest but most motivated sector. The Democrats' response has been to alienate their own base -- it took Obama two years to get around to kind of dealing with Don't Ask/Don't Tell and the DOMA -- and to try to sell the general populace by giving them detailed wonky lectures.

In other words, Republicans simply narrowcast to racist people and get them to the polls, while Democrats do their best to repel everyone.

Or, to stick with the metaphor: Republicans tell their people to call in for Bristol Palin. Democrats make people want to switch the channel.

It's amazing to me that with eighty percent of the people on their side, Democrats can continue to lose elections, and even more amazing that they ignore evidence that's right in front of them. If you want to see the efficacy of focusing on one issue at a time and simplifying it, look at the collective bargaining issue and recall elections.

Democrats looked at the budget repair bill and all its problems, and focused on one thing: It takes away collective bargaining rights. That was a very narrow issue, and one that was easy to understand and hit right at a motivated base, and man, did it motivate people. It's still motivating people.

And from that, Democrats managed to get more people in the state to pay attention to politics, at least for a little while, using a simple message and a single issue. They then took that motivated, focused message and turned it into action: As of today, Democrats have filed four recall petitions for Republican legislators, while the GOP has only managed to put one together.

Those recall petitions aren't all signed by people who work for state government or their relatives: Democrats took a single, focused issue and managed to convince people to sign a petition by focusing on that. Their highly motivated base managed to spread their focused message to a larger majority and as a result, Democrats are (for now) winning at the polls: there will be four recall elections for Republican senators.

Democrats didn't do that by telling voters about all the bad things Republicans did. They did that by telling them about one really bad thing.

So now, the whole budget is up for debate, and Democrats are "mobilizing" the way a firecracker mobilizes when you light its fuse: going off in 1 zillion different directions.

The argument I got against focusing on talking points, when I suggested it, was that the budget is too big to deal with on a 1-issue at a time basis, and that people care about different things. Those are both true, and both miss the point: talking about all the things wrong with the budget is what governing is for. Legislators in debate should discuss each and every point of the budget.

But politics doesn't work the same way. In politics you have 30 seconds... if that... to get your listener to listen, and people have busy lives and no time to work through the details. They want to know what's it going to cost me and when will it be done.

So I pointed out that the GOP, in trying to fight ObamaCare so that people could die in the streets, didn't pick at every single thing that they disliked about it. They picked on one or two things and hammered on those. It makes employers buy insurance and will hurt business they said, over and over and over.

Hypocrite Paul Ryan's "Roadmap For America's Future" has numerous proposals in it -- it's ninety-nine pages long -- but I dare you to name more than two. Name, right now, without looking at anything, three things in his proposal. I bet you can't, and I bet most Americans can't. They can say it lowers taxes, that it converts Medicaid to vouchers, and that it cuts the deficit.

You can say that because that's all they keep saying about it, and people will hear that and say "lower taxes? Vouchers? Hmmm."

So Democrats fire back with... what? Getting mad at Obama because he singled out Paul Ryan and said he's not going to do that? Getting into details? Google Respones to Ryan's Budget proposal and you'll find:

Nancy Pelosi saying the proposal will starve seniors

A response saying that Ryan guts social programs and we should create jobs instead.

An article talking about how Ryan converts Medicaid into a block grant.

A posting thread reminding people that Ryan's proposal favors the rich in tax cuts.

And boom goes the dynamite. I gave up there. Those are all true, and none of them got the message across.

Where were the unified Democrats going out and talking about one point... any one point... enough to make people listen? This is how things get Bristol Palin'ed:

Republicans propose the Ryan plan, and the highly motivated people who hate government go out and support it.

Democrats respond with a fragmented message, so that some people go and support not increasing taxes, while some people support not starving seniors, and some people support creating jobs, and nobody reads the "block grant" stuff.

And everyone ends up tied for first... unless enough Democrats simply don't care and stay home, in which case we get the Ryan plan.

Why would Democrats stay home? And why wouldn't the disinterested majority -- those 600,000 people -- back them? Because they weren't given a reason to care, or they were given too many reasons to care.

There's something admirable about the Quixotic attempts to change the way the wind blows or reverse the tide; I love underdogs and always want them to win. But underdogs rarely do that; that's why it's such big news when they do. If Don Quixote ever beat a windmill, he'd have been a legend instead of a good story.

So Democrats can continue their admirable quest to make people care about the details and get involved and they can continue to lose, mostly, for the rest of their lives, and things will continue to get worse and worse and worse, until we all live in a tax-free state and drive on private roads and have to get our drivers' licenses from Xe, and until we have the freedom to die in the streets the way the Republicans want us to.

Or Democrats can start doing things the smart way, and give their voters a reason to get to the polls, and start convincing the disinterested majority that they're right by talking to them the way they want to be talked to.

Get your voters -- me and other people-- to the polls by giving us something to go there for. Don't just say I won't do that but say I will do this!

Doing things, after all, is what people elect politicians for, a message even so-called conservatives understand: No person ever got elected to office by saying I won't do anything, even though that's the basic message of conservatism: government should do less, conservatives say, and then make it do more anyway: Bush presided over No Child Left Behind and TARP, two massive federal programs. Tommy Thompson created BadgerCare.

Obama got elected because he promised to do things, but he didn't do enough of them, and now he's saying he won't do things, but that won't work. He won't agree not to raise taxes on the rich, and he won't dismantle Medicare. Big whoop. Obama, if he intends to actually get re-elected (I think his heart isn't in it) has to tell people what he will do, and he has to convince them he means it this time. It's not that people will vote Republican; they'll just stay home.

They'll change the channel.

And Democrats have to tell the disinterested majority, that 600,000 people, why they care -- but they have to do that the way people actually listen. Quit saying 50,000 things at once; quit voting for everyone but Bristol. If people really wanted Bristol off that show, they all could have teamed up to keep voting for one person to make sure that person won and Bristol didn't.

If Democrats want clean water and collective bargaining and libraries and school funding and all the rest, that's great -- but win first, and you win by focusing your message and repeating it, over and over and over.

Start now, with the budget: don't talk about everything at once. Pick out the three worst things, and hammer on those, in brief, emotional, messages. People don't listen to block grant reduction blah blah blah blah.

They listen to: If you pass this budget, Christopher's parents are going to have to put him in a home, and the only people he loves won't be able to take care of him.

They listen to: If you pass this budget, every third grader in the state will have $1,100 less spent on her, and will have to use outdated textbooks and sit in moldy classrooms filled with 60 kids because the school district laid off your neighbor the teacher.

They listen to stuff like that. They listen when you say See that person next door? He's your neighbor, and he's a prison guard, and his pay just got cut by $2,760. He'll make $200 less per month now, thanks to Scott Walker. How would you like it if Scott Walker took $200 out of your paycheck every month? Vote for our side, and we'll make sure that your neighbor, and you, earn more, not less.

You can either learn how Bristol Palin does it, or you can sit back and watch her win week after week after week.

1 comment:

Rogue Mutt said...

Agree with everything you said. I think in 2008 a lot of the people who came out to vote for Obama (like college students) were voting against the previous Bush regime. Then Obama comes in and everyone thinks everything's going to be fine now, so they get complacent and don't bother going to the polls in 2010 and now we've got the Tea Party running things and declaring war on ordinary Americans.

Democrats should really watch the episode of "Family Guy" where Lois runs for mayor. She makes the mistake you mentioned of trying to beat crazy Adam West by talking about issues. Then Brian tells her to simplify things. So she goes up there and just starts saying, "9/11" to everything and wins by a landslide. It's not that easy in real life as Giuliani found out, but it's the same principle you mentioned. You don't go up there blah blah blahing about the issues; you speak in sound byte slogans people can remember later.

To reference another show, remember the "Seinfeld" when George got "By Men-nen!" stuck in his head and started using his slogan of "Co-stan-za!" to pick up women? That's the principle that ad men learned years ago; the public can remember a catchy 3-syllable jingle, but they aren't going to remember a lengthy speech about why they should choose one deodorant over another.

So really Obama and the Dems need to hire some Mad Men to work for them and come up with some catchy and short messages they can use in 2012.

And really when you think about it, isn't that what Obama did in 2008 with "Hope" and "Change." Who can remember the exact specifics, but we remember those two words and associate them with him.

Or maybe he could just start going around singing, "O-bam-a!" so we all get it stuck in our heads.