(Bloomberg View) -- With Republicans already running shadow campaigns for 2020, Democrats need to settle on the messages they’ll use to compete with Donald Trump and his party in the upcoming elections. And their most effective narratives won’t be pretty.
True, President Trump has given Democrats plenty of cause for complaint, but that itself is a danger to the party. The risk is that, with so many issues and scandals to talk about, Democrats will end up with a fractured message.
Research shows that voters prefer simplicity. A 2014 study by researchers at Georgetown University and the University of California, Los Angeles found that people find information about politicians more persuasive when they’re presented with just three claims. When given more messages, they become more skeptical -- because they begin to realize they’re being pushed in one direction.
That’s why, to take Congress and the White House back, Democrats need to choose three key points and stick to them.
And those points need to seed dissatisfaction with Trump. “Voters vote retrospectively,” says my colleague Meena Bose, director of the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University. “If things are going well, they tend to stick with the incumbent and if they’re going badly, they tend to vote against the incumbent.”
But voters’ perceptions of the economy can be more important than reality. For example, one study concluded that George H.W. Bush lost his 1992 bid for re-election because of negative media coverage of the economy -- which was actually improving. This leaves Democrats an important opportunity to shape the national conversation around Trump’s economic record -- especially the fact that Americans’ incomes are barely rising.
Stephanie Cutter, deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama in 2012, says the party needs to convey that “He’s giving you a raw deal and we can do better, basically.”
Another reason Democrats should go negative is that it works: Research shows that negative information about candidates affects voters’ judgments more than positive information. (This could be because paying attention to threats offered an evolutionary advantage to our our ancestors, researchers say.) It takes at least three positive messages to undo the damage done by one negative message, according to Vincent Covello, director of the Center for Risk Communication, a strategic communications consultancy.
The best way for Democrats to go negative will be to convince voters that Trump doesn’t care about them. Former Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean says the most important question asked in polls is whether a candidate cares about “people like me.” “People vote on emotion,” he says.
So here are three key messages Democrats could rally around to convince voters that Trump doesn’t care about them:
- He tried to take away ordinary Americans’ health care by repealing the Affordable Care Act. Last week, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that four out of five Americans oppose repealing the law. According to the Congressional Budget Office, one such plan would have left 18 million more Americans uninsured and increased premiums by 20 to 25 percent in the first year alone. Then they’d keep rising.
Even if Trump ultimately abandons his campaign promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, his threat to let it “implode” will remain a huge risk for millions of Americans. The Trump administration agreed this week to make the subsidy payment required by the government under the law. But Trump had previously indicated he might not do so and hasn’t disavowed withholding future payments, which would leave about 16 million without insurers in the marketplace and cause premiums to soar for many, according to the CBO.
- He hasn’t done much to boost the economy. True, the stock market is doing well, and job numbers are growing. But, when the cost of living and inflation are factored in, Americans’ wages are barely increasing. And, under Trump, job growth and business revenue are actually lower than they were under the last four years of the Obama administration, while economic growth and consumer spending are about the same.
“What people care about is can they afford things, can they pay the bills,” Cutter says. “Those are the core things at the heart of most elections.” Indeed, according to Texas A&M professor B. Dan Wood, author of “The Politics of Economic Leadership: The Causes and Consequences of Presidential Rhetoric,” since the Gallup poll was established in 1946, Americans have typically said that the economy is the most important problem the country faces.
- He seems to lack respect for a lot of people: the refugees he’s banned, the women he’s objectified, and the minority groups he’s not-so-subtly targeted with his suggestion that police officers be “rough” and his Justice Department’s investigation into affirmative action at universities. Cutter points out that this isn’t just disturbing to members of those communities. “It’s not just the groups he’s offended,” she says. “Most Americans don’t like that divisiveness.”
Indeed, last month, a poll by PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist College found that 70 percent of Americans believe civility has declined since Trump became president. And the exodus of CEOs from Trump’s business advisory councils this past week over his response to the attack on anti-hate protesters in Charlottesville offers just another example of how his divisiveness has turned supporters into critics.
With so many questions and scandals surrounding Trump, the biggest threat facing the opposition party right now is the embarrassment of riches available for criticizing the president. Democrats need to stay disciplined and focus on the few messages that will actually move voters in the next election.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She previously served in the Obama administration.
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