Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Messaging Publicly Financed Campaigns: Carrots and Sticks


by Barry Kendall

A successful messaging strategy needs to present the recipient with both reasons to dislike and reject the problem/status quo and reasons to care about and aspire to the solution. Sticks and carrots, in other words.

It is our sad good fortune that recent history has given us plenty of reasons to dislike the way that political campaigns are currently financed-- corporate contributions, pay-to-play, and of course, lobbyists. There are a couple of films coming out next year about Jack Abramoff -- one documentary from Participant Media, the other a feature film, both (oddly) called Casino Jack. They present good opportunities to "name the enemy" and mobilize public resentment against lobbyists.

The carrot, however, always seems harder. Why should ordinary citizens care? When compared with pressing needs like healthcare or crime prevention, or more aspirational programs like public education, what's so exciting about fixing the money in campaigns?

At the Tides Momentum conference a couple of weeks ago, I attended a breakout session on money and politics led by staff leaders from Maplight and Change Congress. One idea that I threw out to that group was a "contrast" message, a la the famous "I'm a Mac / I'm a PC" ads. (You may remember that CAP (Center For American Progress) and the Glaser Progress Foundation produced a couple of ads that used this same framework for progressive v conservative.) The contrast is between two state legislators (well, probably between two actors playing state legislators), one from a state that already has publicly financed elections (eg AZ, ME), and the other from a state that does not.
A: "I'm a state legislator."

B: "I'm a state legislator, too."

A: "My state has publicly financed campaigns."

B: "My state... doesn't."

A: "I spend my time talking with my constituents, and drafting legislation that will help make their lives better."

B: "I have to spend my time going to fundraisers. And listening to lobbyists."

A: "I promised my constituents that I'd look out for their interests, and I can deliver on that."

B: "I have to look out for my corporate donors' interests."

A: "Last year I sponsored legislation to clean up our water [or protect worker rights, or...]

B: "I wish I could do things like that!"


I think the tone of the "B" legislator shouldn't be defiant, but rather regretful-- the system *forces* them to play the special-interest game. The real point is the improved efficacy of the "A" legislator. This line of messaging could be persuasive with both legislators and their constituents-- a fundamentally aspirational "carrot" that could go well with the more well-known "stick" of dirty lobbyists.


Barry Kendall is the executive director of the Commonweal Institute, a think tank focused on building a more coordinated and effective progressive movement. He is also the Co-Chair of the Progressive Ideas Network, a nationwide alliance of multi-issue think tanks and activist organizations. Holding a doctorate from Stanford University, Barry is an expert on the role of religion in American culture and politics. He is a 2009 recipient of the "40 Under 40" Award from the New Leaders Council, and he is proud to serve as an adviser to Netroots Nation.



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