From bumper stickers to amygdalae: Democrats try to figure out voters

Last year I blogged about the Democrats’ attempts at getting to know voters by checking out the bumper stickers on the back of their cars. It would appear that their strategy has shifted to an examination of neurons:

Democrats are losing the battle for voters’ hearts because the party’s message lacks emotional appeal, according to a widely circulated critique of House Democratic communications strategy.

“Our message sounds like an audit report on defense logistics” wrote Dave Helfert, a former Appropriations spokesman who now works for Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii). “Why are we defending [the State Children’s Health Insurance Program] instead of advocating a ‘Healthy Kids’ plan?”

Helfert sent the memo this week to an e-mail list of all Democratic press secretaries and communications directors after staffers met on Monday to discuss rolling out the Democrats’ latest message.

He said the meeting left him cold because it focused on what polling shows voters want rather than how to present persuasive messages. Republicans have done a better job by developing poll data into focus group-tested messages like “culture of life” and “defending marriage” along with attacks like “cut and run” and “plan for surrender” in Iraq, he argued.

In particular, Helfert points to Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who helped develop the 1994 “Contract with America” and is credited with helping Republicans come up with terms for polices like “Healthy Forests” and “Death Tax.”

“Republicans have been kicking our rhetorical butt since about 1995” Helfert wrote.

Democratic leadership aides were not impressed, and indicated that the memo did not have a vast and immediate impact.

“Everybody’s a message expert” said one Democratic leadership aide. “The fact of the matter is Democrats are working hard to communicate our accomplishments. There is work to be done and that’s why Democrats are working together and mounting an aggressive campaign to discuss the real victories we have won for the American people.”

So what will save the day for Democrats? Appealing to the amaygdalae:

His memo is sharply critical of Republican policies but also suggests a neurological explanation for Republican message success: By using emotional appeals and warning of dire threats, Republicans can trigger neurons called “amygdalae” in the temporal lobe, which is the seat of the “fight or flight” response in the brain.

“Almost every Republican message contains a simple and direct moral imperative, a stark contrast between good and evil, right and wrong, common sense and fuzzy liberal thinking” Helfert wrote. “Meanwhile, we’re trying to ignite passions with analyses of optimum pupil-teacher ratios.”

All kidding aside, Helfert’s point does have some merit. After all, contrary to his assertions, Democrats have been “winning” arguments/debates based on emotional demagoguery (like “we must do it for the children, the sick!” etc) for years. It’s one of the things they do best. However, with the terrorist attack we suffered on 9-11, the priorities of average Americans shifted from concerns about healthcare and retirement to worrying about terrorism both home and abroad. Republicans didn’t win elections in 2002 and 2004 based on emotion – more people simply trusted them to protect them from terrorist threats than Democrats. Over time, the combination of growing apathy amongst the general public on fighting terrorism and Republican corruption scandals strongly aided in the Democrats winning Congress back last year. And now that they’re in the majority, they’re trying to figure out how to keep that majority and the way they think they’re going to do it is by making the emotional arguments that they’re infamous in conservative circles for using.

Oh, and what I mean by “apathy” is that it’s been 6 years since we’ve been attacked on our own soil, and so many people have moved on from that to the point that it’s a distant, fading memory. I think that more people now are of the mindset that hey, it hasn’t happened in 6 years, so it looks like – in their eyes, anwyay – that we’re immune “again” from a terror attack. I think the polls prove me right on that belief. You’ll see Iraq listed at the top of most of those polls about what Americans believe our priorities should be, but as far as that goes, the priorities polls don’t focus on whether or not Americans believe the war in Iraq is part of the overall global war on terror, but instead on what we’re going to to do win or get out. You’ll see that terrorism itself ranks very low on most of the polls on that page.

With what I see as intensifying apathy amongst the electorate on the issue of fighting terrorism with more focus being put on what to do about Iraq, as well as domestic issues that Democrats love to make emotional arguments over (not to mention the growing number of Republicans who aren’t running for re-election), next year could be another good year for Democrats, both in Congress – and in the WH.

More: Jules Crittenden has a more humorous take on the Helfert’s memo, while Michelle Malkin quips:

The Democrats’ problem isn’t understimulation of the amygdalae. It’s overstimulation. Perhaps a political lobotomy–separating the nutroots lobe from the party’s thalamus–might be a far more effective prescription.

For related thoughts, Pam at Right Voices has a spot-on take on the Democrats’ underlying “emotional” message: failure, to the left, is an option.

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