The Utah Republican Party has a communication problem

While I may agree with Sir Winston Churchill when he said that “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter,” in my experience this is not the public perception a candidate or party should strive for.

The Utah Republican Party has a communication problem
By Randy O’Hara

Many books, articles and papers have been written about the “art of politics.”  In any of these you will frequently find two items mentioned:  1. Don’t tell the voter you are smarter or better informed than they are; and 2. (very closely associated with the first point) Have a clear, concise message.

In 1773 a group of people in Boston got together and threw a bunch of tea into a harbor, using the mantra of “taxation without representation.”  And thus the American experiment began.  A few years later we had the Declaration of Independence, followed a decade after that with the Constitution allowing white, male, property owners to vote.

By the time we reached the Civil War, most states had extended voting rights to all white males.  And so, throughout American history we have progressed to allow more people the right to vote.  Starting with the 14th Amendment, which allowed all male citizens to vote, the 15th in regards to race, the 19th allowing women the vote, and the 24th ending poll taxes.  In 1964, we passed the Voting Rights Act and in 1970 we lowered the voting age to 18-year olds.

In short, we have a history of extending the right to vote to include more voices.  Here in Utah, the Republican Party has even pushed the Vote by Mail program in order to increase voter turnout in the general elections.

The Utah Republican Party has a communication problemThe Republican Party is constantly asking what it can do to reach out to young voters. And yet, perhaps the solution is as easy as doing what we’ve done for our entire history: expand the vote.  The Utah Republican Party needs stop disenfranchising young voters.  The caucus/convention system the Utah Republican Party uses to select candidates is antiquated and intimidating to young voter.  Many of these young people are working or caring for their young families, and the caucus/convention system makes it hard for them to participate.

It is a fundamental belief in America that voting is the way we speak, particularly when it comes to public policy.  President Lyndon Johnson said, “A man without a vote is a man without protection.” Any system that eliminates participation for any people is fundamentally wrong.  When we remove from participation the traveling businessperson, the gas station or hotel attendant, the single mom with a special-needs child, a bed-ridden elderly person, someone serving their church or their nation, then we need to look at making changes so more people can participate and cast a vote.  And those changes need to be safe and secure.

In my opinion, it is time for change in our political system here in Utah.

You might ask, how is this relevant?

Communication starts at the top

The Utah Republican Party has a communication problemIt is relevant because here in Utah our Republican Party is being fractured.  The leadership of the Party is going in one direction, while the general public is moving in another.  We have seen the results of several public policy polls showing that overwhelmingly Utahns support moving to a primary system with 60-65% of registered Republicans supporting change, yet Republican Party leadership continues to push back, reluctant to make meaningful changes to our nominating system.  My fear is that if the party continues to be stubborn and hard of hearing, like an old man, younger voters will find their way to another party.

When county parties give money to support a cause, one not supported by its general membership, the membership will walk away, as will the donors.  When the party apparatus is used to intimidate and bully the rank and file, by threatening them and trying to strip them of positions, as has happened in some counties, the Utah Republican Party will lose some of its most faithful and hardworking members.

Let me give a recent, real world example.

Senator Bob Bennett, just before he lost reelection in 2010.

While I was out campaigning for Tim Bridgewater, time and time again I would hear the Senator tell constituents that he was right and they were wrong.  If given the opportunity to do so again, Bennett said that would still vote in favor of the bailout and for TARP.  What came across from Bennett was easy for voters to understand: I am smarter than you, and you don’t know what you are talking about.  Now that may be true; Bennett may have been right, but people don’t want to hear that.

Political messaging tends to be very tricky mostly because politicos over think it.  When consulting any campaign, my first message to the candidate and all staff members is to remember the old rule: K.I.S.S. or, Keep It Simple, Stupid!

As soon as a candidate gets into the weeds of policy, it is difficult to hack their way back out.

Stay on message

Let me use an example.  Whether you like him or not, President Obama is always on message…as long as he has his teleprompter with him.  It’s a simple sure-fire way to keep him on message, and all modern presidents and most governors use them, as well.  But what happens when Obama speaks  off the cuff?  We all know it.  He says something completely off message and it tends to make headlines.

As a contrast, I would be willing to bet Mitt Romney would have liked to have had a teleprompter at the fundraising event where he was recorded making the 47% comment.  That one statement derailed the campaign and gave evidence to what many voters–common, ordinary people–already felt about him. Romney was out-of-touch with everyday voters’ needs.  While the political insider might know Romney better, the voter did not, but was skeptical of this wealthy candidate, and the comment gave justification to their skepticism.

On the other hand, most of us remember the another message of a campaign from 23 years ago.  In 1992, James Carville’s “It’s the economy stupid” sank into the American psyche and will not soon be forgotten.  He took what everyone was thinking about, simplified it without the need to use charts or a degree in economics.  It was vague enough that no matter what your knowledge level of economy was, it fit your need as a voter.

Another example is “Morning, in America, Again!” from Ronald Reagan. Once again, simple, but every voter understood what it meant.

These slogans are not easy to come by, but when we are able to simply state our message as a party or as a candidate, we will win the day.

marketing-man-person-communication-largeSo how is the Count My Vote movement relevant to a discussion on effectively communicating?

The Utah Republican Party has a perception problem and, honestly, I think it is more than perception.  We appear to be rigid and unwilling to change.  Our leaders make statements like “it’s about principle.”  But I would ask what good is principle if you can’t win an election or are unable to enact any policy or policy changes?  On the other hand, how much more powerful would it be if you were able to create a simple message based on those principles that the average voter understands and, more importantly, is willing to support?

When our party leaders stand up at a Utah Republican Party State Central Committee meeting or at convention and claim that voters just don’t know or are ill-informed, they are doing us all a disservice.  When our nominated candidates make statements that effectively say what former Senator Bennett was saying, it gives the party a black eye. And leads to senators losing elections.

Listen to voters

My advice to you as a candidate, party or community leader is this:

  • Listen
  • Restate what you just heard
  • Find an area of agreement
  • And then take action on what you and the other person just agreed upon.

In Utah, it is easy to take Republican voters for granted.  Remember, though, that  Salt Lake County is not Republican and it wasn’t too long ago that Utah had a Democratic governor, house and were close to having a Democratic senate, too.

Message matters, and right now I fear our message is turning more people off than on.

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