On messaging: Why Florida Democrats can’t speak their truth

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 2.55.44 AMA reporter from the Tampa Bay Times asked me recently what I thought Florida Democrats’ message was. Off the top of my head I said, “We stand for values that promote a stronger Florida, like a healthy environment, economically secure families and a brighter future.” Later I added another thought in an email: “Our measure of success is when everyone succeeds.”

In the final published piece titled “Florida Democrats plot a road to relevance,” I was a bit taken aback that some of our party leaders, when asked the same question, couldn’t quite spit out an answer.

Alan Clendenin, vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party, told the reporter, “Our brand is sound,” adding, “Our problem is being able to boil it down into something people can buy into in a guttural way.” I assume he misspoke, but the malapropism gave me pause. “Guttural” refers to a strange, unpleasant, or disagreeable noise made in the throat; an inarticulate growl of sorts.

“An inarticulate growl” is where Democratic messaging stands in Florida right now. I believe this isn’t for lack of talent, even though FDP Communications Director Joshua Karp has departed to the Patrick Murphy campaign. There’s plenty of great communications professionals in the Democratic family, and stacks of research to apply to our project.

The fact is, we can’t have a clear message until we resolve the tension between voter and donor interests. And, there’s no better place to observe this conflict than in the Democratic Presidential primary.

It’s clear that the brand of the Democratic Party is contested territory right now. You’ve got the Bernie Sanders vision, arguing forcefully that Democrats represent average Americans who need leaders to fight for us against Wall Street and other forces economic predation. Great. We can run with that.

But then there’s Hillary Clinton, surrounded by Wall Street insiders, lying low, seemingly focused on not being quoted on anything whatsoever.

Sanders is the rock-star of the two at the moment, rallying stadiums wall-to-wall with cheering fans. That’s no accident. He has the freedom and the courage to lay out specific policies addressing the realities of American households, whose median net worth plummeted by an average of 36 percent, thanks to Wall Street’s pump and dump schemes.

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Meanwhile, Clinton is playing defense; keeping it tight; doing roundtables with hand-picked small business owners, trying her best not to outline specific policy positions. A new tactic, perhaps understandably, is to make the claim that she’s the “most progressive”  candidate, largely based on her support of gun control. It’s one of the few areas Sanders is weak on, so it makes sense to try and make the most of it. Predictably it’s not catching fire.

For his efforts, Sanders has been rewarded with passion and momentum, while Clinton’s campaign seems increasingly cautious — literally roping off reporters; issuing press releases about how she’ll start doing interviews…”soon.” 

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We’d be blind not to see this same tension in the Democratic brand — between the energetically aspirational and the cautiously generic — reflected in our state party. Our leaders are vapor-locked, saying little, watching and waiting to see what the Clinton campaign does. Her triangulation is their triangulation.

But why? Why is our old, powerful moral narrative — the one catching the country on fire through Bernie Sanders’ Lollapalooza-like rallies — somehow considered too dangerous by our own leaders? Do they not understand that the message works? Or is it more a problem of not offending the donor class standing in the shadows?

The Messaging section of the LEAD Task Force Report actually recommends a significant pivot in framing. The report suggests that we appeal to an upscale “middle class” mentality, which leaves out low-income and working families who are struggling to make ends meet. This new, wealth-friendly language was in such heavy rotation at the Leadership Blue Dinner that it harkened to the absurd overuse of “September 11,” by Republicans in the 2004 election cycle.

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 3.48.46 PM“Middle class” is a poor a place-holder to represent the Democratic base. It’s boilerplate New Democrat Coalition (Wall Street-friendly) messaging that expressly excludes low-income and working-class people, and so implies that Democrats will leave those who can’t make ends meet in the dust when it comes to crafting policy. This is not a message that will fill stadiums — or voting booths. 

As a matter of fact, in terms of neutralizing the opposition and energizing our base, research by the Center for Community Change shows that one of our strongest messages is “America has swung out of balance, because economic rules unfairly favor the rich.” According to a recent report, this message, and a handful of others like it that confront economic predation, beat leading opposition arguments by at least 10 points.

What the faux middle class messaging communicates to working families is that if they can’t make ends meet, they don’t matter to Democrats. And worse, it makes it sound like middle class people are somehow turned off by issues pertaining to working class people. These ill-advised assumptions remind us of Bill Clinton’s DLC-inspired policy campaigns of the ’90s, like “ending welfare as we know it.”

That’s the messaging of the past, and Sanders is broadcasting the message of the future. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Bill Clinton’s time in office. Those, like myself, who were able to reach middle class status during the dot-com boom, have since lost jobs, houses and retirement savings in the Great Recession. Those who returned to jobs or remained employed have seen wages stagnate while productivity breaks records. We’re still scarred by the economic predation, because nothing was done to ensure that it won’t happen again.

This means we all identify with the economic justice message. Fewer people are drowning, but the trauma of The Great Recession still haunts us. And that terrifies Wall Street, as well as other big corporate interests who’d rather not be asked to raise wages or pay their fair share of taxes.

In terms of economic security, Americans are not okay. Not by a long shot. Young people coming out of school face an uncertain future with more debt than we’ve ever seen in the history of, well, debt. Seniors have been waiting for the other shoe to drop on The Grand Bargain to gut Social Security in the form of raising the retirement age, and cutting benefits. Families with children can’t afford day care to keep two incomes, and their public schools are being sold off to private companies.

The next election, and every election after, must address this, and Wall Street lobbyists know it. They’re willing to spend whatever it takes to stop that before it happens.

In the TBT article, 2010 Democratic nominee for Attorney General, Dan Gelber comes the closest to putting his finger on a message: “We’re looking out for you. We’re the ones who have your back.” Much better. Now let’s actually have our voter’s back on issues that matter.

And, let’s not double-down against having any message at all. One political insider shared this thought on Facebook recently: “I am sick unto death with ISSUES…How are we supposed to organize if we spend all our time talking about issues”? He suggests that we instead knock on doors and, I suppose, shame our neighbors into voting.

Please, don’t take this advice. Talking about issues is how we connect with voters. Shame is not who we are. Economic security, racial justice, a cleaner environment, healthy families and marriage equality — this is who we are. If the closest thing we have to a message is, as the joke goes, “the beatings will continue until morale improves,” then we’ve lost before we started.

When our party stops having the voters’ backs on the issues that matter to them, we matter less to voters, and rightfully so. We succeed when we’re working to ensure that everyone succeeds. If our leaders are frightened by this message, and the actions demanded by it, then it’s time to find new leaders. 


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  1. old guy on the bench · ·

    A suggestion in the form of a question and also a call for candor – when will Ms Hines, Ms Smith et al offer themselves as candidates for chair in our party? Or is that the road they wish to go on?

    I would suggest that going this way could well be more arduous than recognize. It is easy to be critical and certainly hindsight is vital – knowing where you have been and stumbled helpful. What we have not had and continue to lack is a single overarching message that encompasses the concepts of all the various constituencies of our party. Our friends on the other side of the aisle certainly have a distillate message – lower taxes, smaller government and more freedom. This has been their message that has united them and carried them victories that we have not enjoyed.

    When I suggested this previously I have had one or another person dismiss my question with the pointed retort that I am seeking a bummer sticker. If that is also your opinion you know you are correct. Here is my challenge to you, can you compose a message that encompasses all the various segments of our party? Ideally this message should be no more than 20 characters. This message is not tied to one or another individual’s effort to be elected rather it must a message rings out to everyone in our party to welcome them into the big tent. A message that speaks to the gut.

    Can you do it?


    1. patrianakos · ·

      You want a slogan? Dan Gelber nailed it: “We’ve Got Your Back”. Of course, then you get to back up your words – if you can.


  2. I have no desire to run for chair, but thanks for the suggestion.

    As I was cleaning old out campaign files yesterday, I found a door hanger that was shipped to the Hillsborough DEC from the DNC when Howard Dean was chair (2006?) as part of the 50 State Strategy. It was an excellent piece. The overarching theme: The Democratic Party — Rebuilding the American Community, Neighborhood by Neighborhood. There were six brief vision statements. I don’t think we’ve gotten anything like that since Dean left the DNC.

    Economic messaging appeals to all Democrats, indeed to all voters. The recent messaging project sponsored by the Center for Community Change, done in conjunction with Lake Research Associates and ASO Communications, and referenced above by Brook, gave great insight into which messages work and which don’t. The Democratic Women’s Club of Florida heard a presentation on the project last month. They shared audio of the presentation with the Democratic Progressive Caucus. I wonder if the DNC and FDP are working with organizations like the CCC, or are they relying on the same consultants that are so often referred to on this blog?


  3. Don’t show us a message, show us some movement.

    Yes, the the FDP and the party as a whole does have an incoherent message, It comes from incoherent policies. We don’t need to fix the message, we need to fix the policies.

    Message about lowering pollution, keep “All of the above” energy policy including drilling in the Gulf, Atlantic, Arctic and full speed on fracking. H.R. Clinton is BFFs with Noble Energy as is John Kerry. They seem to be running the State Department.

    Message about peace, but carry out policies of destabilization and war.

    Message about economic justice and equality but carry out policies protecting international banks, Wall Street. Twist every arm and pull every lever to enact the TPP TTIP.

    In Florida, talk about the middle class and jobs, but never, ever, talk about repealing “right to work”. Talk about environment, but do nothing about runaway development.

    And so on. No, the problem is not messaging. The problem is the inherent disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality.

    In short, the movement is the message and there is no movement within the DP.


  4. Doug Head · ·

    As the quoted “sick of Issues” guy, allow me to say that I was talking about the Party’s job, not the job of candidates and commentators. All the passion in the world will not do it if we don’t start talking to our neighbors, one-on-one. And the people who keep talking about themes and issues seem to feel that we can win this battle with spears, rather than nets; proposals rather than listening; rhetoric rather than working the neighborhood. The PARTY has a job and it is to build the infrastructure for victory, block by block. I’m not for “shaming our neighbors into voting”. but we better start talking with them. So please stop the out of context red-herrings.


    1. Here’s the whole quote. Can you point me to the part where this is aimed at the Party, rather than Dems in the forum who are discussing issues. Which, in the context of the timing of the posting would include “self righteous” celebration of marriage equality and racial justice work. Seems to me you’re suggesting folks exchange their fealty issues for fealty to party. But I could be persuaded otherwise.

      “I am sick unto death with ISSUES, no matter how worthy the cause. Nobody is persuaded. These Democratic Pages are loaded to the gills with self-righteous Democrats celebrating or complaining about some issue. Meanwhile, the Republicans are focused on identifying their supporters and picking them off one by one. Democrats in Florida talk about how they are “registering” voters, but fail to acknowledge that 25% to 30% of all the registrants did not bother to vote even ONCE in the last four years. Only 10% of the registered Democrats turned out to vote in both the primary and general in the last two cycles. How are we supposed to organize if we spend all our time talking about issues and not talking to our real live Democratic neighbors about why they do not vote? We can’t vote on the internet; people have to do that by MAIL or IN PERSON. PS. Your local Party is a good place to start.”


  5. the comments are so clearly on the message – I’ve been an active Democrat for way more than 65 years and don’t remember such b.s. and nonsense from a State Party – let’s get busy and design a 20-character (bumper sticker size) statement of policy (I personally do like the suggested “We Got your Back”) we’ve got to remember that it is ALAYS the economy, no campaign ever won with so many peripheral issues as we keep creating- so I say let’s quit the bickering and speak economy, economy, economy –


  6. D. Helmut · ·

    Thank you for this. Florida Democrats are currently in the hands of people who think of the Democratic Party as sort of watered-down Republican Lite. Same donors, same strategies; heck, let’s run Republicans like Murphy and Crist as candidates, even.

    We’ve been infiltrated. The Republicans drove away their boringest, run-of-the-mill conservatives with their whole Tea Party / snake flag / Fear the immigrants circus, and now they’re here, and they have a great plan for us:

    Be more like Republicans.

    All you have to do is promise all the same favors for all the same people writing checks to Republicans.

    This is why Val Demmings ran around telling all the caucuses that our biggest issue is that we need to stop being so “anti-business.” Where does that idea come from, unless you’re spending your time talking to Republican donors all day?

    It would be one thing if it even worked. “Hush, little progressives, the grownups are doing politics now; maybe later we’ll work on those cute things like healthcare and the environment and the little people.”

    But it doesn’t work. This hilariously misnamed “centrist” faction can’t elect their way out of a wet paper money bag, which they’ve proven repeatedly. Their messaging amounts to not offending whoever’s writing the checks.

    We’re supposed to win, maybe, based on raw turnout, which we’re apparently supposed to motivate without actually standing up for anything.

    We DO need a “guttural,” or at least a visceral message, which is what I assume Mr. Clendenin was after. We don’t need warmed-over Republicans with their COC-approved messages about reigning in entitlements or whatever their current populace-screwing nomenclature is.

    It’s mid-2015, and we don’t have anyone with the power or authority to say that we support the environment, healthcare for all; public education?

    What the hell is going on?


  7. It’s the INEQUALITY, stupid. It speaks to everything. Economic (jobs, equal pay, fair pay, taxes, universal health care, early childhood education), social justice (police brutality, laws, prisons, voter suppression, immigration, restoration of rights, LGBT, civil rights, ), environmental (corporate greed, short term profit, long term destruction, clean air, water and safe food. Voting matters.

    Liked by 1 person

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