One of the most important documentaries for political junkies of my generation is The War Room, which follows Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for President. In one scene, James Carville — the lead strategist for the campaign — is on the phone emphasizing the importance of staying focused on the campaign’s message. He utters four words that have been emblazoned in our collective memory: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Even if you haven’t seen The War Room, even if you didn’t follow Clinton’s 1992 campaign, and even if you weren’t alive in 1992, I bet you’re familiar with that phrase. The phrase has its own Wikipedia entry, for crying out loud.
In the world of campaign strategy, this phrase gets referenced a lot. Having an argument about what your candidate’s message should focus on? “The economy, stupid!” Well, obviously.
But many strategists have taken the wrong lesson from this famous phrase by believing that getting the campaign’s message right equates to getting the issues right. Issues matter a great deal because they signal our priorities, and for a candidate to build trust with voters, their priorities must sync. But knowing what to talk about is only the first step. The process shouldn’t stop there.
The harder part is knowing how to talk about the issues. Take healthcare as an example. We all know it’s a top issue, but our understanding of why it matters so deeply to Americans informs the stories we tell: people denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions, patients with diabetes struggling to afford insulin they need to survive, families going bankrupt because a child or parent got sick. Understanding how people are feeling about their healthcare experiences — hopeless, angry, betrayed, anxious — shapes how we connect with them. Understanding who has credibility (nurses and moms) and who doesn’t (insurance providers and big pharmaceutical companies) affects the messengers we choose. This kind of deep understanding is key to framing the issue in a way that will resonate.
And science tells us that our ability to connect to people on an emotional level matters. Decades of neuroscience research has taught us that it is the emotional brain that drives decision making. Social psychologists continue to uncover the extent to which moral values shape how we think and talk. With his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman has popularized the idea that the automatic, unconscious brain is constantly influencing our behavior.
It’s time we let go of the idea that simply selecting the right issue set, or presenting the right facts will persuade or activate people. We need to embrace the science. And we need to embrace an approach that appreciates the complexity of the human condition — one that is centered in empathy and understanding.
I’ve spent the last twelve years working in politics and movement-building — first as an organizer and campaign staffer, then as a consultant and strategist, and most recently as a co-founder of Arena, a political organization that trains and supports the next generation of candidates and campaign staff. And in that time, I’ve observed what has been borne out in the research about individuals also holds true for campaigns: emotional intelligence is the highest predictor of success.
The campaigns that succeed, whether they be for candidates or for causes, are those that understand and speak to the psychology of their voters — not just their opinions and positions on issues, but their thoughts, feelings, values, attitudes, mindsets and lived experiences. We too often treat campaigns as exercises in winning an argument, when they are actually exercises in building relationships and trust.
For years, we’ve relied on a combination of polling and focus groups to understand voters. Polls are designed to quantify and measure levels of voter intention and support with questions like, “If the election were held today, how likely are you to vote for Candidate X? Very likely, somewhat likely, somewhat unlikely, or very unlikely?” and “Which of these 10 issues is most important to you?” The answers to these questions matter, but they do not paint the whole picture. People are more complex than that. Our decisions, attitudes, and behaviors are driven by our emotions, our moral foundations, our identities, and our sense of belonging.
Traditionally, we have supplemented polling with focus groups to deepen our understanding of these important qualitative, human dimensions. However, focus groups are far from ideal with very small sample sizes (~15 people), highly subjective facilitation, and group think dynamics, all of which typically amounts to anecdata.
But the landscape is changing. New tools and technologies are making it possible to listen more deeply and better understand not only voters’ opinions and positions, but their thoughts and feelings. Instead of asking closed-end questions to hundreds of people or asking open-ended questions to fifteen people, we can now ask both closed- and open-ended questions to tens of thousands. We can move beyond analysis that simply plots voters on a support spectrum, and ethically gather and make sense of data that helps us understand voters for who they are: human beings, who contain multitudes. For the first time, technology enables us to do this work at scale.
As a result, we have an opportunity to gain insights that will re-shape how candidates and causes approach messaging. We have an opportunity to engage people on a more meaningful level. We have a chance to build campaigns and movements that are emotionally intelligent and grounded in the simple idea that trust is built when we take the time to listen and empathize. It’s the smart thing to do, and it’s also the right thing to do. For these reasons, I’m thrilled to share that I’m joining Avalanche Strategy as the EVP of Political Strategy.