Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Catch of the Day

Great post from Dan Hopkins about how a belief that "messaging" works gets politicians into trouble.

What I've become interested in are the incentives for politicians to believe the myth. There are a couple of things going on here, I think.

One is to recognize the distinction between candidates and candidacies and the analogous distinction between elected officials and their full operation, their offices (we don't really even have a proper word for that one). Within those candidacies/offices, there are a number of people -- the communications operation, probably polling, media, maybe more) who have a direct interest in believing that the words that politicians say have a direct effect on public opinion in a way that really matters.

The other one is about efficacy.

In some situations -- campaigns, in particular -- "messaging" actually does have some marginal utility, and while it's only on the margins, it's one thing that is actually within the control of the candidates, so they might as well do it as well as possible.

But even when it has no effect whatsoever on  public opinion, it's likely to produce tangible results. Take for example the House mini-CRs during the shutdown, or the First and Second Battles of the World War II Memorial. We know that they were utterly unsuccessful at moving public opinion. However, they also were heavily reported, especially within the GOP-aligned press. In other words, they had tangible effects, even if they didn't actually have meaningful effects. And within most organizations (and remember, House offices, Senate offices, political parties, the White House, campaigns, and federal agencies are all organizations), tangible accomplishments tend to be rewarded. Even if tangible may not, at the end of the day, be as substantive as something else which doesn't have any visible gain that one can point to.

And as I've said, I think this is particularly a problem for Republicans, both because their party-aligned press is a bigger deal, and because it is generally even more accepting of GOP spin than the Democratic-aligned press is. Which means that GOP spin becomes tangible more easily, which should mean, all else equal, that Republicans will be even more susceptible to the trouble that Hopkins talks about than Democrats will be.

Also: Nice catch!


  1. I think that the campaign to make same sex marriage legal is one of the best examples of issue messaging going. Those guys are doing an incredible job altering public opinion. But it's taken years.

    1. I agree, and we still have to ask what effect messaging is actually having. I don't doubt calling it "marriage equality" versus "hom-o-sexual marriage" helps on the margins, but I'm inclined to attribute a lot more of the effect to activists and even more to factors driving cultural changes that we can't yet accurately catalogue.

    2. I don't think calling it "marriage equality" has made much of a difference. If anything, I think the phrase has a potential to alienate some people who might otherwise be open to persuasion on this issue. From what I've seen, the phrase is used mostly by people who believed in and were committed to SSM to begin with. And anyway, I think the whole Frank Luntz business of choosing wording that supports what you want to say is wildly overhyped.

      What I do think is that the "evolving" of many Democrats on this issue has probably helped move some Democratic voters who were on the fence. (And I think a lot more people were on the fence to begin with than is usually acknowledged. Even back in 2004 when polls showed majority disapproval for SSM, I've long suspected that only a minority of Americans were intensely opposed. Many people I've talked to over the years held anti-SSM views almost by default, simply because they found it too novel and weird at first, but were actually quite open to changing their minds once they got more used to the idea.) This brings up a point that often gets overlooked in discussions on the effects of messaging: partisans are influenced by what party leaders and partisan media are saying.

  2. Another thought on messaging in campaigns: Demonstrating an ability to message well and avoid PR gaffes signals to party actors that you are a serious, capable candidate, or in some cases might cause them to (falsely) believe that your messaging skills make you more electable. Think back to the rationale among some conservatives for giving Newt the nod: he will crush Obama in the debates. Of course this view was mostly espoused by rank and file Tea Partiers, and not more sophisticated party actors, but surely there are some in the broader party networks who hew to false ideas about messaging and spin and will look to those qualities to help them decide where to send their dollars and endorsements.
    This should incentivize any politician who wants to get elected, re-elected, or pursue higher office.

  3. Historians routinely credit messaging in campaigns as an important factor--cf FDR, JFK--at least as major contributing factors. You don't think better messaging could have made enough of a difference to change the outcome in 2000 and 2004? Is it even possible to even retroactively prove what individual factor made the difference? It doesn't seem possible to know when the campaign is ongoing--so the campaign's pov must be that good messaging is better than bad, it could be the spark. My small experience indicates that messaging does ultimately get votes, perhaps by giving the voter a way to look at the candidate, to see if the candidate and policies comport with the message, if it's attractive.

  4. I agree with you about messaging. However, I think we can all acknowledge that it is absolutely essential for politicians to get the right hashtags trending on Twitter.

  5. How about this theory: when you are a local politician, maybe spin matters more. As you become a national politician, you use the same tricks you learned back when, even if they don't get you much. As long as their isn't a direct cost, you're unlikely to notice it growing less effective. I guess I'd want to know if long-serving national politicians do, in fact, learn and spend less time spinning.

  6. You left out a couple of the big reasons people like to think messaging matters:

    1. The media needs it to matter, or else 99 percent of its political coverage is BS. That's all they ever talk about.

    2. Partisans want it to matter, because if it doesn't, it means when they lose it is because their ideas are unpopular and they need to compromise, which they hate.

    And Jonathan doesn't emphasize enough a third point.

    3. There's a lot of people who make a lot of money because it is believed that messaging works, and who would see their salaries decline or their jobs disappear if politicians suddenly figured out that it didn't.

    As for the comments in the thread, I don't think the gay marriage battle is being won because of messaging. I think it is being won on the merits. My day job is as a litigator. Most lawyers like to think we have superhuman powers of persuasion. But in fact, most cases are won on the merits. Juries convict the guilty and acquit the innocent.

    Messaging is only important on the margins, like Jonathan says.


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