Thursday, June 4, 2015

Connecting the dots: How to make voters care about big money in politics - and vote against it

A recent CBS news poll shows two beliefs held by a large majority of voters.

  1. Americans are well aware of big money in politics and think it is a very bad thing. They think there is too much money in the system, that identities of donors should be disclosed, that spending on ads should be limited, and that current campaign finance benefits only the wealthy. And most respondents in the poll do not view money as speech!
  2. Given this overwhelming antipathy towards the consequences of Citizens United, one might think that this is a hot button campaign issue for 2016. Not so. The poll shows that Americans have a more meat-and-potatoes agenda: the top concerns are the economy and jobs.

So, you see, my headline is wrong. Voters do care about big, dark money. But they are not making the connection about how big money works against what matters most to them - their economic security. That is the Democratic challenge for 2016. Following is a concrete prescription for action, that is, messaging to connect big money to economic concerns.

Greg Sargent writing in his Plum Line blog at the Washington Post reports an interview with Rep. John Sarbanes (D, MD). (Sarbanes' quotes are in italics.)

... Dem Rep. John Sarbanes, a longtime campaign finance reformer, insists it is anything but hopeless. In an interview today, he laid out how he thinks Democrats can make the issue matter to voters.

Sarbanes — who has long championed reform that would give candidates who restrict the size of their donations public matching funds, boosting the influence of small donors — told me that the key to making the issue matter to voters is, above all, not to discuss it in isolation. Sarbanes told me:

"It is hard sometimes as a stand-alone issue. But the way you can motivate people around this is, you go to an issue people care about — the environment, food safety, jobs and infrastructure — and you lead them from there to the fact that money is standing in the way of progress on that issue.

"It’s about how you describe that connection to people. Once you do that, they will carry it with them. You’ve built a narrative around something they care very, very deeply about. We just have to get better in our messaging and in making that connection for people."

"If I stand in front of an audience of randomly selected Americans, I know that 95 percent of them sitting out there think that Washington is bought and sold by big interests and that their voice is inconsequential. So I can go right to talking about the minimum wage, job creation, and infrastructure, knowing that they’re saying, ‘You can’t get any of it done, because the system is rigged.’

"Or I can start by tapping on the microphone, and saying: ‘I know that 95 percent of people in this room think government is bought and sold by big money special interests. And you’re right.’ All of a sudden they wake up and say, ‘maybe this guy actually knows how we feel and has something to say to me’."

Scriber has blogged before about the need for this kind of gut-level, emotional messaging that comes from our Democratic candidates and the Democratic party - completely up and down the ballot. The GOPlins are good at this and we Dems are not. It is time to make a profound change in our messaging and Sarbanes has given us a way to do it.

The American voter believes big money has a bad influence. That same voter has deep-seated fears about basic needs like economic security and health care. Now it is up to our messengers to make the connection.

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