Monday, February 13, 2017

Tell Me A Story

‘Data-Driven’ Campaigns Are Killing the Democratic Party

There’s a Southern proverb often attributed to Sam Rayburn: “There’s no education in the second kick of a mule.” One month into the Trump presidency, and it’s still unclear whether the Democratic Party will learn anything from a fourth kick.

For four straight election cycles, Democrats have ignored research from the fields of cognitive linguistics and psychology that the most effective way to communicate with other humans is by telling emotional stories. Instead, the Democratic Party’s affiliates and allied organizations in Washington have increasingly mandated “data-driven” campaigns instead of ones that are message-driven and data-informed. And over four straight cycles, Democrats have suffered historic losses.

After the 2008 election, Democrats learned all the wrong lessons from President Obama’s victory, ascribing his success to his having better data. He did have better data, and it helped, but I believe he won because he was the better candidate and had a better message, presented through better storytelling.

I’m not a Luddite. I did my graduate work in political science at MIT, and as a longtime Democratic strategist, I appreciate the role that data can play in winning campaigns. But I also know that data isn’t a replacement for a message; it’s a tool to focus and direct one.

We Democrats have allowed microtargeting to become microthinking. Each cycle, we speak to fewer and fewer people and have less and less to say. We all know the results: the loss of 63 seats and control of the House, the loss of 11 seats and control of the Senate, the loss of 13 governorships, the loss of over 900 state legislative seats and control of 27 state legislative chambers.

Yet despite losses on top of losses, we have continued to double down on data-driven campaigns at the expense of narrative framing and emotional storytelling.

Consider the lot of Bill Clinton. It has been widely reported that in 2016, Bill Clinton urged Hillary Clinton’s campaign to message on the economy to white working-class voters as well as to the “Rising American Electorate” (young voters, communities of color and single white women), but couldn’t get anyone to listen to him in Brooklyn. They had an algorithm that answered all questions. Theirs was a data-driven campaign. The campaign considered Bill to be old school—a storyteller, not data driven.

I feel his pain. And unless Democrats start to change things quickly, we’ll be feeling pain in elections yet to come.

Though the problem for Democrats is urgent, the challenge is not new. Before the clamor for a “data-driven” approach, the “best practices” embraced by much of the Democratic Party apparatus encouraged campaigns that were predominantly driven by issue bullet points. In 2000, for example, the Gore presidential campaign had no shortage of position papers, but it would be challenging (at best) to say what the campaign’s message was. In contrast, in Obama’s 2008 campaign, “Hope and Change” was not only a slogan, but a message frame through which all issues were presented.

Years ago, my political mentor taught me the problem with this approach, using a memorable metaphor: issues are to a campaign message what ornaments are to a Christmas tree, he said. Ornaments make the tree more festive, but without the tree, you don’t have a Christmas tree, no matter how many ornaments you have or how beautiful they are. Issues can advance the campaign’s story, but without a narrative frame, your campaign doesn’t have a message, no matter how many issue ads or position papers it puts forward.

Storytelling has been the most effective form of communication throughout the entirety of human history. And that is unlikely to change, given that experts in neurophysiology affirm that the neural pathway for stories is central to the way the human brain functions (“The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor,” as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written).

The scientific evidence of the effectiveness of storytelling is extensive. Consider the 2004 book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, in which Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff applied the analytic techniques from his field to politics, explaining that “all of what we know is physically embodied in our brains,” which process language through frames: “mental structures that shape the way we see the world.”

Convincing a voter—challenging an existing frame—is no small task. “When you hear a word, its frame (or collection of frames) is activated in your brain,” writes Lakoff. As a result, “if a strongly held frame doesn’t fit the facts, the facts will be ignored and the frame will be kept.” How then to persuade voters? How can we get them to change the way they see the world? Tell a story.

Further evidence was put forward in 2007’s The Political Brain, by Emory University psychologist Drew Westen. “The political brain is an emotional brain,” Westen wrote, and the choice between electoral campaigns that run on an issue-by-issue debate versus those that embrace storytelling is stark: “You can slog it out for those few millimeters of cerebral turf that process facts, figures and policy statements. Or you can take your campaign to the broader neural electorate collecting delegates throughout the brain and targeting different emotional states with messages designed to maximize their appeal.”

For Democrats, a useful metaphor to frame our storytelling is that while conservatives believe we are each in our own small boat and it is up to each of us to make it on our own, progressive morality holds that we are all on a large boat and unless we maintain that boat properly, we will all sink together. That metaphor could serve as our narrative frame, and addressing issues within this frame—rather than as separate, unrelated bullet points—would allow us to present emotional stories using language that speaks to voters’ values.

by Dave Gold, Politico |  Read more:
Image: uncredited