Understanding what a voter can absorb
In this approach to reaching voters, the key idea is that many of them have doubts about what a campaign or candidate can actually accomplish. Most voters, the theory assumes, think too many candidates promise things they have no chance at all of accomplishing, and that leaves them feeling as though they are setting themselves up to be disappointed. The theory also says that large platforms with tons of issues are fine, but when it comes down to it, in most races, voters prefer an easy-to-understand system of a small number of issues that they think the candidate actually believes in.
When you talk to future candidates, they say that if you give a large number of proposals, voters believe that you are checking boxes on a list and that you probably are actually motivated by very few of those issues. Voters want to know what you are most passionate about, not receive a laundry list, they say.
As a result, Republicans tell their candidates to whittle the issues down to items they can speak about with clear conviction, and when other issues come up, simply to say things such as, “I’m with the caucus and will certainly listen to leadership on those issues”. This also completely excuses Republicans from talking about distasteful issues in states. Running as a Republican in a purple state? Stick with the issues you care about; when real Republicans press them, they simply respond, “I will be with the caucus and listen to leadership,” and move on. Bland enough that it couldn’t be used to excite people, but enough of a reference to tell Republican voters you would toe the party line. It also allows them to spend more time seeming, well, passionate about their issues.
So, how did they sell the rule of threes?
The campaign guidance on the rule of threes is simple enough. Pick three issues: one which you are passionate about and believe you can accomplish within a single term of being elected. A second issue that will be more difficult, but could be accomplished, though it might take more time. And finally, pick a third issue that you care about that will be very difficult to accomplish, that your constituents do want, and that you can work on.
So a candidate could say, “This year, I’m running for a seat in the statehouse. I’m going to tell you three things I plan to work on for you if you vote for me. First, it is time to make sure that the state does its part and puts traffic markers on the state highway in our community. This is dangerous and should be repaired! Second, I am going to make sure we have good schools in our community. Finally, if you elect me, I will work on commonsense gun control to protect our future!”
Now, these are a bit more generic than what your candidate may actually promote, but whatever issues they are, the pattern is the same: something you can accomplish, something that will take time, something difficult but that your voters want. As a campaign method, this helps many voters believe that you may have big dreams that they share with you, but you are also aware enough to understand what you can accomplish. Republicans have argued that if nothing you presented to voters was ever likely to become law, voters would view you as unlikely to be effective, and even if they agreed with you, they wouldn’t vote for you.
Are Democratic voters the same? I would contend that, in many ways, most Democratic voters also want candidates who they believe both provide a vision for the future and also maintain a realistic projection of what can be done, and the smaller the race—say, city councils and state offices—the more all voters focus on what can be accomplished.
What is the point of including a difficult issue and an issue unlikely to be resolved, then?
If voters like the idea of attainable goals, why go out and pitch ideas that would be difficult or unlikely to accomplish? And this is where campaigns start laying out the hopes of a reelection and a way to help their entire caucus before they are even elected.
By bringing attention to two issues that more difficult to achieve, and one that you can achieve, you offer yourself and your caucus a way to talk to voters about success and work. Let’s say you are elected, and within your first legislative session, you accomplish your achievable goal: The state commits to putting proper traffic controls on the highway in your district! Now the doors are open to you on the three issues you have laid out. You pen an editorial or a Facebook post, send email to your campaign supporters, saying:
“Today, I am proud to announce that we have passed legislation that will fix the issues on the state highway that cuts through our district. During the campaign, I made a commitment to my district that I would work to make sure we accomplished something important—and we have.
“I bring that same level of commitment every day to our work to provide a better plan for our schools. I thank everyone who has come to the state house, helping to make sure our concern for our public schools receives attention.
“In the next legislative session, I will be joining with my fellow Democratic caucus members, and we will focus on (another issue you can resolve in a legislative session).”
In other words, Dole contended, voters like to feel that they have elected someone who is successful, and the more successes you can show—promises kept—the more likely you are to stay in office. This also offers candidates the chance to fundraise for their next election off of a success, and encourages new voters in their district to see them as elected officials who pay attention to their districts; that they recognize new community issues while they are in office, and that being in the state house or the federal government hasn’t cut them off from their home communities.
Does it work for Democratic candidates? I think there will always be room to discuss what campaign messaging and issues strategies are out there that can be effective. Over the years, though, I have never found anything more effective in a campaign than keeping the message simple and understandable, and for thousands of candidates, over decades of time, the rule of threes has been simple and effective.
Now, my question for you is this: What has worked for YOUR candidates?
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