How can Democrats win the messaging war? It turns out there's actually a science to it, as strategic communications consultant Anat Shenker-Osorio tells us on this week's episode of "The Downballot." Shenker-Osorio explains how her research shows the importance of treating voters as protagonists; how Democrats can avoid ceding "freedom" to Republicans by emphasizing "freedoms," plural; and why it actually makes sense to call out "MAGA Republicans" (even though, yes, it's all Republicans).
Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard also break down a major retirement in Delaware, which paves the way for the state to elect its first Black senator, and discuss how the entrance of a prominent candidate in Michigan's Senate race likely means that Democrats will in fact host a genuinely contested primary. It all adds up to the possibility that more Black women will join the Senate in 2025 alone than in all of American history. Finally, the Davids lay out the five-year plan for Democrats to win back the North Carolina Supreme Court and drive a stake into GOP gerrymandering—again.
David Beard: Hello and welcome. I'm David Beard, contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections.
David Nir: And I'm David Nir, political director of Daily Kos. “The Downballot” is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency, from Senate to city council. Please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review.
Beard: What are we going to be covering on this week's show, Nir?
Nir: We had a big Senate retirement in Delaware and the possibility that the state could send a Black woman to the Senate. We also have a new candidate entering in Michigan who is also a Black woman. In fact, we could see more Black women elected to the Senate in 2024 than there have been to the Senate in U.S. history. And finally, we are going to talk about how Democrats have a long but definitely viable five-year path to winning back the majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court. And finally, once again, putting an end to GOP gerrymandering. After that, we are going to be talking with strategic communications consultant Anat Shenker-Osorio about messaging and her research into what works and what doesn't.
Beard, we have a big Senate retirement on the East Coast. What is going on in Joe Biden's home state?
Beard: Yes. And Delaware Senator Tom Carper, he's a pretty moderate, tending towards centrist Democrat who's held statewide office in one form or another since 1976, announced on Monday that he wasn't going to be seeking a fifth term in office. And in his retirement announcement, he also made it pretty clear who he would like to see succeed him, and that is Delaware’s single U.S. Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester.
Blunt Rochester has certainly implied that she would be interested. She said that she wasn't going to make any announcements obviously on the day that Carper's big retirement announcement was happening, but it's pretty clear that she would like to run. Carper wants her to run. Chuck Schumer has said that he would like to see her run as well.
And so she's pretty clearly going to become the establishment favorite, obviously already holding statewide office. It puts her in a really good position to succeed Carper. And she would also be only the third Black woman to become a U.S. senator, though there's a couple of other potential folks who may join her in 2025 if she does indeed win a Senate seat. Angela Alsobrooks, who we've talked about in Maryland, and then another person that we'll talk about here in a few minutes.
But back to Delaware, Blunt Rochester running for Senate would actually open up Delaware's at-large congressional seat. And a really interesting name there has popped up. That's Sarah McBride, a Democrat who became the first trans person to win a seat in any state Senate chamber in America. And an unnamed advisor to her said that she'd be quite likely to run for that House seat if it got opened up by Blunt Rochester running for Senate. And I think that would be a really good important thing to see given the attacks on trans people and the LGBT community that's been going on these past few years. It's become more vitriolic. It's become more aggressive, particularly on trans issues from the far right. And to see a trans member of the U.S. House of Representatives, I think, would be a really positive step for the country.
Nir: I couldn't agree more. And also if Blunt Rochester winds up succeeding Carper, that would be a boon, not just for the cause of more diverse representation in the Senate, but it would also very probably move the Democratic Senate caucus in a more progressive direction. Carper is actually one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate. I'm not saying he's a conservative, but he's on the right edge of the caucus.
Blunt Rochester is not a particularly outspoken progressive. She's certainly in the party's mainstream though, and I think that we could expect a better voting record from her.
And also Carper has this annoying tendency to jab at the left from this classic centrist position. Maybe a micro-Lieberman. I don't know if I'm being too mean with that one, but I feel like Blunt Rochester would not emulate that model. Also, Delaware obviously been a blue state for quite a while. But if we're going to have an open seat in Delaware, I think probably the best time has to be with favorite son Joe Biden at the top of the ticket. I really can't imagine Republicans showing much interest in this race. So yeah, this feels like a good time as any to bring in some new blood.
Beard: Yes. I don't think this will be particularly competitive when it comes to the general election. I do think Carper has certainly made his interest influences felt, particularly more behind the scenes. He's never been like a Manchin or a Sinema. Particularly obviously when the Senate was evenly divided, he was not the person rocking the boat holding up things. But he's had a lot of influence, obviously, on committees and in other ways to push things to the center and away from progressive priorities. And we can be hopeful that Blunt Rochester will improve on that front.
Nir: We, of course as you mentioned just a moment ago, have to talk about another very prominent Black woman who also could wind up in the Senate if successful in next year's primary and general election.
Beard: Yes. Up in Michigan, state Board of Education President Pamela Pugh kicked off her campaign to succeed retiring Senator Debbie Stabenow, and she highlighted in her announcement that the upper chamber doesn't have any Black women as of right now, as we just talked about. And in fact, if Pugh were to win, if Alsobrooks were to win in Maryland and Blunt Rochester were to win in Delaware, that would be more Black women elected to the Senate in 2024 than there have ever been Black women elected to the Senate in a history of the chamber. Because there is now only two Black women have ever been elected to this, to the chamber, Kamala Harris and Carol Moseley Braun.
Now, Pugh acknowledged to the Detroit News that she was in for a tough race against the current apparent front-runner for the Democratic nomination. That's Representative Elissa Slotkin. Slotkin has been in for a couple of months now. She's a proven fundraiser. She already has $2.3 million in the bank. So one of the first things Pugh is going to have to do is prove that she can keep up financially with what's probably going to be a fundraising machine in Slotkin.
Now, for a little background on Pugh, she earned her first eight-year term on the Board of Education in 2014. Then she rose to prominence really by becoming Flint Mayor Karen Warren's chief public health adviser in 2016 during the Flint water crisis. She recently won reelection to the Board of Education just in 2022, and now of course is running for Senate.
Slotkin, of course, is aware of the fact that obviously she's a white candidate running where there's a healthy African-American electorate in the Democratic primary. And she said she can appeal to Black voters. She said, quote, "All I can do is introduce myself to leaders in places like Detroit and Flint and demonstrate that I care and I'm willing to fight on issues that are really important to people."
So clearly, Slotkin is aware that this is something that she's going to have to tackle and deal with and work to appeal to African American voters against an African American candidate. So it's definitely a primary that we're going to have to watch as it shapes up. And it's not going to be a walkover for Slotkin like we thought it might be.
Nir: Yeah, there was an article in Politico a couple of months ago where it seemed that Stabenow and Chuck Schumer, Schumer wasn't quoted in the piece though Stabenow was, were doing maybe a bit of a premature victory lap about clearing the primary for Slotkin. And Stabenow in particular talked about urging various candidates to run for other office.
Like you said, Beard, we don't know if Pugh is going to be able to contend with the fundraising juggernaut that is Slotkin. Slotkin has a ton of establishment support as well. But yeah, I don't think I would want to really say that this race is over already. It's only May of an odd-numbered year. Michigan has very late primaries. They are not until August, so we're talking August 2024.
I think a potentially big difficulty, though, for Pugh is the fact that there is in fact one other Black woman already running in the race, former state Representative Leslie Love, and another Black candidate might get into the race, actor Hill Harper. He's on “The Good Doctor.” I haven't watched that show, I have to admit. Are you familiar with that one?
Beard: No. So I'm sure he is good at acting. I don't know if he's any good at politics.
Nir: Well, he's also interestingly a law school chum of none other than Barack Obama. He says the two of them are still friends. They play basketball together. So he does seem to have some political connections at the very highest levels. So yeah, I don't want to sound super reductionist. I obviously don't want to suggest that one Black candidate can't win if there's a presence of another Black candidate. But when you're already going up against a difficult opponent like Slotkin, then I think it's even tougher if you're not dealing with a one-on-one race. But there is really a lot of game left to play here.
Beard: Yeah. And I think we'll see in the months to come, will she be able to raise the money? Will she be able to separate herself from those other candidates that you mentioned to be a one-on-one contender with Slotkin? Because I think that would benefit her, versus being grouped in the other non-Slotkin candidates is important. And then of course there's some more establishment support, things like labor unions, other groups that are pretty important in Democratic primaries. Are they going to all endorse Slotkin? Can Pugh get some of those endorsements or at least keep them away from making an endorsement, keep them neutral in that race? All of those things are going to matter well before we get to the actual primary next August.
Nir: There's another factor as well, which is geography. Slotkin is from the Lansing area that's in the middle of the state. Pugh is actually from Saginaw to the north. Love is the only candidate so far who is from the Detroit area. Obviously, that's the beating hub of Michigan politics in so many ways, and particularly Democratic politics. So we'll obviously have to see how things divide along regional lines because in primaries, I feel that you can often see very clear breakdowns along geographic borders when candidates have different bases of support that are simply going to be local to the areas that they've known and represented longest.
Beard: Yeah. Though I will say, obviously, Detroit has suffered from some population loss in recent years. And as Oakland County has become bluer and bluer, it's become more of a dominant part of the state's Democratic establishment as well and could also have a big say in who wins.
Nir: So switching gears, we are going to talk about a state we talk about all the time, David Beard's home state. If you're a “Downballot” listener, you already know that that's North Carolina. But I'm going to take the lead on this one. We had some big news late last week when Democrat Mike Morgan announced his retirement from the state Supreme Court. Morgan is one of just two Democrats left on the Court. Just a few years ago, Democrats had a 6-1 majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court, which is just hard to believe. Now, they're all the way down to a 5-2 Republican majority. And the question we have to ask ourselves now is how can Democrats win back the state Supreme Court?
And the reason why it's so crucial is that the GOP has a total hammerlock on state government right now. They just got the brand new GOP majority on the Supreme Court to overturn a very recent decision by the previous Democratic majority that had ruled that partisan gerrymandering violated the state constitution. So that means Republicans can gerrymander for their hearts' content. North Carolina doesn't have a ballot initiative process so citizens can't put a redistricting commission on the ballot.
Obviously, we know that the federal courts are completely closed to challenges on partisan redistricting grounds because of an infamous Supreme Court ruling a few years ago. So the only way realistically that North Carolina Democrats can clamp down on GOP gerrymandering is to win back the state Supreme Court. And it's going to be a long process, but we've peered into the future and this is what needs to happen.
So first up, Democrats have to defend Morgan’s seat next year.
Now, there's actually a bit of a silver lining to his retirement. North Carolina has a mandatory retirement of 72 years of age for Supreme Court justices. So Morgan would've had to retire in 2027 anyway even if he had run for reelection and won next year. So if we get a younger candidate to take his place on the ballot, then they could serve a full eight-year term.
And also, Morgan is a very traditional jurist. He's been on the bench in one level or another for a very long time. I think a new face might be more inclined to run the more aggressive Janet Protasiewicz campaign that we saw in Wisconsin. We talked about extensively on last week's episode. And I think you probably really need to run that campaign to win in North Carolina to get over that final hump to get to a majority, which eludes so many Democrats in the Tar Heel state.
In 2026, we have to defend the seat of Anita Earls, who's the other Democrat still on the court. She and Morgan, by the way, are the only two Black members of the court. And then the key thing is in 2028, three Republican seats will be up. And in order for Democrats to get back to a 4-3 majority on the Court, they would need to win at least two of the three seats that would be up in 2028.
There's one other wrinkle here, which is that Democrats really, really, really need to win the governor's race next year. And that's true for a ton of different reasons. But if Josh Stein, who's the Democratic front runner, wins, he'd be responsible for filling any vacancies that might arise on the court over the four years of his term. Whereas of course, if a Republican wins, they would get to fill any vacancies.
And there's another issue as well, which is that, in the past, North Carolina Republicans have talked about adding two more seats to the Supreme Court to pack it with more conservatives. And they haven't done so because Democrats keep winning the governorship and they obviously don't want to create two brand new seats in the Supreme Court that a Democratic governor could then immediately fill. But if let's say Mark Robinson, who is the Republican front-runner, wins the governor's race next year, then whoa, the GOP could pack the court and go to 7-2 Republican majority.
I know five years might seem like a really long time, but I do want to point out that in Wisconsin, progressives there had to fight for 15 years until Protasiewicz won last month. So in comparison, five years is not that long a time. I think, though, that in politics it's so easy to get distracted by the race that's right in front of us, the election that is coming up soonest and it really behooves Democrats and progressives to take a long-term outlook, to really plan for the future here. I think that the conservative movement has been brilliant in developing and sticking to these decades-long plans. All we need here is five years, half a decade. I think we can do it.
Beard: And I think one thing that we've seen is these races have often been very, very close. It's not like it's a state where Democrats are getting blown out. And these races that we've lost in recent years, they've been losing close races consistently, which is obviously very frustrating and disappointing, but is a lot better place to start than losing by 10 plus points because then you're really in a hole that's going to be hard to dig out of.
I also think that abortion is going to come more to the forefront in the North Carolina Supreme Court races in a way that it didn't really show up much in 2022 in North Carolina because Roy Cooper was governor. And so everything sort of seemed like it was going to be pretty status quo. Now obviously that good old Tricia Cotham switched parties and now the North Carolina Republican Party is starting to increase restrictions on abortion.
Cut down the number of weeks that abortion is available in North Carolina, that's going to become a lot more of an issue. It's definitely going be an issue in the governor's race in 2024. I would expect it to be an issue in the 2024 Supreme Court race and into future races as well. Also, all you can do is work at these races. Don't lose hope because we've had a bad run of close losses that have been very disappointing. I know as much as anybody, but we've got two really important races in 2024 among others in North Carolina. So focus on doing that and then look towards the future as well.
Nir: And coming up after the break, our guest this week is strategic communications consultant, Anat Shenker-Osorio who is going to be telling us all about her research into how Democrats can win the messaging war. A very interesting conversation, so please stick with us.
Nir: Joining us today is Anat Shenker-Osorio, a strategic communications consultant, the principal of ASO Communications and a fellow podcaster who hosts the show Words to Win by. Anat, thank you so much for joining us on “The Downballot” today.
Anat Shenker-Osorio: Thank you for having me.
Nir: So we'd love to start by asking you to tell us how you came to the field of strategic communication and messaging and how you got where you are today.
Shenker-Osorio: How I got where I am. Well, I studied a variety of things as an undergrad, among them linguistics. And in that was exposed to really seminal work by people like George Lakoff, Deborah Tannen, Zoltan Kavachi, who work and operate out of a field called cognitive linguistics, which is really about how people make sense of and come to judgments about different information using as our kind of proving ground pattern recognition source language.
And so in that I became exposed to the idea that there are systematic patterns that we can rely upon and we can explore and understand that make people understand our issues in certain ways, and other wording choices, phrases, narratives that kind of have us get in our own way. I then worked in sort of traditional political communications, everything from helping my then-Senator Russ Feingold from Wisconsin get reelected at the time that he was back in the day. That's how old I am.
To working on issue advocacy. And what happens when you work in comms, hate to give it away, is that you find out that a lot of messaging is people sticking their finger up in the wind and saying, "we'll call our campaign that" or "we'll use that URL because it wasn't taken" to which I frequently respond, "wow, that must mean it's a very popular concept if that URL wasn't taken. Good criterion". So a disconnect between how messaging was done in the real world and stuff that I'd been exposed to around how it doesn't need to be guessing all the time. There are actually knowable ways to explore and investigate why certain messages resonate and others don't.
Fast forward, I went to graduate school, I got a degree in public policy, but also did coursework in cognitive linguistics with Lakoff, who is emeritus at Berkeley but at this time was still teaching, and then was exposed to a lot of quantitative methods that enabled me to be able to actually get into, if I have a hypothesis that message A is going to be better than message B, how do I examine whether that's in fact true or just sort of my instinct by setting up different kinds of qualitative experiments, or more importantly, quantitative experiments.
And from there went off to work with Lakoff at a no-longer-existing think tank called the Rockridge Institute. Helped found my own organization with colleagues who are linguists that have been with us at Rockridge and then went off consulting on my own and have been there ever since.
Nir: It almost sounds to me like what you're describing resembles the analytics revolution in sports that once upon a time, for the longest time really, the coaches and the scouts and the general managers were all going on their gut about what worked and what didn't. And then along came some folks who had some different ideas and said, 'Hey, we can actually use numbers and math and quantitative methods to analyze this stuff'. And maybe it's a little bit more belated in politics. I'm not sure, but it does feel like a sea change to me.
Shenker-Osorio: Yeah. I mean it's a sea change where we are playing massive catch up because it's something that the right wing has been doing for a very, very, very long time. And in fact, I think when you know that you're selling people a steaming pile of shit, you recognize that you have to wrap it in some pretty nice wrapping paper, hopefully smell proof.
And so for much longer than us, they have been engaged in intentional marketing. And there's lots of reasons for that. The first, I already named right that their policies, they're attempting to sell people on our own destruction. And so you've got to come up with a pretty clever way to wordsmith that. So that's one, another they're just much more comfortable in the language and in the realm of Madison Avenue and being corporate and so on, that just kind of is a fit for them.
And then number three, conversely for a long time, though this has changed, it's not exactly like this. Democrats and progressives were really stuck in this kind of Enlightenment-era reason idea, which is we have better policies. So we just tell the people the thing, you just tell the people we want to raise your wages and that will be better and it will be magically delicious because they will just understand. And messaging or being intentional about our wording choices was seen even as dirty or anathema or spin when, in point of fact, what we know is that the way that people take in information, we can actually alter the judgments that they come to on the basis of altering how we describe something.
So to make this a little bit less intangible, super simple example, I do a lot of work abroad. I lived for a time in Australia and I was working there on a project changing people's minds, attempting to change public opinion on people seeking asylum, which is a very, very bad issue there.
The government had developed and was shunting people seeking asylum to offshore prisons for decades. It's still not fully resolved. And what we found is number one, just simply saying people seeking asylum versus asylum seekers made a meaningful difference. That's that people-first language that many of us know. But I think the more interesting example is that what we found when we would do a forced choice, so half the sample gets which of the following more closely represents your views. Even if neither is perfect, we need to take care of our own people first and we can't just welcome those who come seeking asylum. Or: as Australians, we have a duty to those who come seeking asylum. So you have to pick between those two.
Second half the sample gets the same opposition statement verbatim. We can't take care of everyone and we need to look after our own people first. We can't look after people seeking asylum. Or: as caring people we need to look after those who come seek asylum.
So as Australians, as caring people, those are the differences. The opposition statement is verbatim. And what we found to me unsurprisingly, is that when you ask people to consider this question of people seeking asylum or refugees or immigrants, because the same finding holds in the United States with as Americans and as caring people, when you ask them to think of the question through the lens of nationalism, through their identity as Australians or as Americans in our case, they become more xenophobic and why wouldn't they? You've just brought top of mind to them, the exact thing that they don't share in common with the group on whose behalf you're advocating. And so small things like that. And that's just one little example, but it goes all the way to the realm of which metaphors we use, which broader narratives actually do make a difference in terms of what policies people prefer.
Beard: So we watched your closing keynote at Netroots Nation 2022 and something you hit on pretty early in that presentation was the idea that the election was a story and the voters were the protagonist of that story. And that was an important way to think about trying to persuade them, is to think about the voters as protagonists. And I don't think that's something a lot of people even who work in politics full-time think about and frame it that way. So explain how that can help when you're messaging to think about it through that lens.
Shenker-Osorio: When we're talking to people, we always want to keep in mind, what is it that I need this person to believe? What is it that I need this person to feel, and what is it that I need this person to do. In the realm of electoral messaging as opposed to, 'I'm trying to get you to change your habit', or 'I'm trying to get you to come to my rally', or 'I'm trying to get you to give me money' when the objective is, 'I'm trying to get you to not just vote for my candidate, but vote in the first place'. Which we often forget is actually the big task for a lot of people, right? It's mobilization in its own right, nevermind persuasion. There are huge chunks of voter eligible people. I call them high-potential voters because I refuse to call them low-propensity voters because if you call them low-propensity voters, you are in fact giving social permission for them to sit out.
So high-potential voters, we got to get them to vote in the first place. So when I'm thinking about what is my message to them, what is my election ad to them? If the ad is 'Democrats are going to come save you' and 'MAGA Republicans are pieces of shit' in these ways. Then where is the viewer, the listener, the voter in that story? They're nowhere. And the purpose of that story is to make them do a thing. And so it's actually vital to cast them as the protagonist and to say, for example, in one of the ads that I showed in that presentation and one of the best-testing ads that we had from the slate that we created as part of that Protect our Freedoms project, we had an ad where it said, which side are you on? And we depicted a wonderful, beautiful, across-race place, different kinds of folks doing the right thing for each other.
Which side are you on, everyday Americans who are working for our families, or the traitors who tried to overthrow our very government? And of course we're seeing images of January 6th. Which side are you on? People who believe that liberty and justice is for all, and we should have the freedom to make our own decisions. Or the macro Republicans who want to take away our freedoms and control our lives? And we're seeing dueling images on both of those sides. This November, it's time to decide which side you're on. So that's telling the voter, the listener, the viewer, "Hey, this is on you, actually. No one's coming to save you. This isn't about Republicans versus Democrats. This is about MAGA versus America, and we're going to need you to step up."
Nir: So Anat, in that same keynote, you talked a lot about messaging on a topic or an idea that often I think Democrats kind of shy away from, and you even alluded to that in your speech, and that's freedom. And yet in 2022, Democrats actually seemed to do pretty well with messages in that broader framework. There was one line in particular that you said that really struck me. You talked about how ‘freedom,’ singular, tinges conservative, but ‘freedoms’ plural, tinges progressive. I found that was really compelling. So I'd love for you to walk us through your research and your findings about this concept of freedom/freedoms and how best Democrats should be deploying this.
Shenker-Osorio: Yeah. So I've been on this freedom train for a while. Obviously there are people on the freedom train that preceded me. It's many, many, many generations old. And when I was doing work in, I think it was 2014, 2015, with a whole slew of different unions dealing with the Janus case and the "right to work," we were testing messaging around unions. And what we found is that the top-testing message was, in America, we value our freedom, and CEOs are free to negotiate their wages and bonuses as they see fit.
Working people just want the very same freedom, the freedom to join together in union and get a fair return on our work. Real freedom means more than making a living. It means you have time to take your loved one to the doctor, go to a parent-teacher conference and retire in dignity, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So freedom, freedom, freedom.
I start there because many people, even if they are willing to adopt this freedom discourse, which many feel is inherently right-wing (not so in fact), freedom has been integral to progressive victories from the Freedom Summer to the Freedom Riders, obviously more recently to the Freedom to Marry. Freedom is a core concept that when we ask Americans, and this is true, this is a very, very robust finding. We see it in public polling, we see it in our own research.
When you ask Americans of all different shades, varieties, ages, geographies, what value do you most closely associate with the United States? The number one, and it's far above the number two, is freedom. So we cannot afford to let them have this thing that would be like letting them have family or letting them have future or as we've seen to our peril in the abortion debate, letting them have life.
These are concepts that are so integral to who human beings believe they are. And in the case of freedom, what Americans believe is sort of good and correct and valuable and desirable, that if we let the right own that we're basically screwed because they really matter to people. So with freedom, it's not just that it is effective in "social issues." So the freedom to decide whether and when we have kids, the freedom for our kids to learn the truth of our past so that they can create a better future, the freedom to be who we are without people policing our bodies, our clothing, or the way that we express ourselves. Freedom lends itself really easily to a whole range of concepts, including economic ones. And the reason I started with the economic one is because many people are like, “yes, freedom, you can talk that way about social issues but not economic ones.”
And I really want to underscore that's not the case. We can talk about freedom to retire, we can talk about freedom to thrive, we can talk about freedom to make a good living. So what we find when we go deeper into the research is that, as you said, when we talk about freedom in the singular left to their own devices, if we have people free associate, (apologies for the pun, that was definitely not intentional), free associate around that, they would be more likely, at least some of them, to come back with things like freedom of religion, Second Amendment. But when we talk about ‘freedoms’ plural, their free association is more likely to yield the list of things that I was talking about, about essentially the freedom to live a good life, the freedom to decide, the freedom to have kids, be able to be who they are, and so on and so forth.
Nir: And how did that freedom message play out in 2022 on what was obviously the number one issue of the campaign, abortion?
Shenker-Osorio: Yeah. So what's interesting about the freedom message (and not for nothing) was the formerly named For the People Act renamed the Freedom to Vote. That was a very deliberate thing, and it was part of all of this research that we had been doing in 2021 around how to best frame voting rights and electoral issues where again, we saw that freedom came out on top.
So what ‘freedom’ allowed is, both in the abortion case and in the artist we formerly know as democracy case, so when we want to talk about January 6th or when we want to talk about the voting rights or when we want to talk about making sure that every one of us can cast our vote and have it counted or as we sometimes message it, most of us believe that voters pick our leaders. Our leaders don't pick which voters to hear and which to silence.
That's a line that we've tested a million times. It always does very, very strongly. What freedom does is it allows us to both talk about those "democracy issues" and about abortion. And so that is where we would get into freedom to pick our own leaders who will govern in our name, freedom to cast our votes and have them counted, freedom to decide for ourselves whether and when we have kids. It's that same repeated thing, and I haven't gotten there yet, but repetition is among the most important things that we have in our arsenal to actually be effective at communication. So the ability to talk about seemingly disparate issues using the same framework is really important.
Beard: And I think that something people often forget, they see a powerful ad or something eventful happens and is on the cover of all the newspapers or leads the news in a certain day. And people think that it's a big deal. But we notice, unless it's literally when people are voting in late October, we have October surprises and all that, one day of news almost never makes a difference in elections. So talk about how that repetition is important and how a campaign successfully does it throughout a months or sometimes years long campaign.
Shenker-Osorio: Yeah, and I will go back to also to answer that and the part of the previous question that I didn't mean to neglect. We had candidates like Josh Shapiro, governor of Pennsylvania who really hit the … was all freedom all the time and more specifically ‘protect our freedoms.’ And what that enabled his campaign to do, and we had other candidates as well in that vein who did a really great job on hitting this freedom idea, was to take the issue in the case of abortion and Dobbs and make it what we call a salient exemplar of the fact that MAGA Republicans want to take away our freedoms.
That abortion case turned that from kind of your classic, oh, that's just politics as usual, and team blue says shitty things about team red and vice versa, and it's all just kind of hyperbole and you're all just slinging mud at each other, and I'm going to tune it all out because that's what I want to do.
The Dobbs decision made it real for people that we were not kidding, that this was not a political ad, this was reality. And so by having this framework of ‘protect our freedoms’ on our side and charging them with wanting to take away our freedoms, plus this super salient example, that it was really, really true and that there could be a slippery slope, that made it real for people. And so how do, to your question, we do this? Well, the number one thing is that we say fewer things and we say them more often.
It's astounding to me how difficult it is for people to take this advice. They want a new campaign and a new name and a new slogan and a new banner and a new whatever every single time for every single issue. I don't know, I guess people like being burned out. I guess they like having too much to do. I do not.
So it's really a matter of having the equivalent (and I'm sorry to use this repugnant example, but here I go) of that red MAGA hat, that is that red MAGA hat will always be that red MAGA hat. Even that brief flirtation that he had with Keep America Great when he was running in 2020 for reelection. Still the kind of core symbol and the central idea was MAGA. Because what we find is that a message that is more familiar to people is rated to be more credible and more desirable.
And the reason that that happens is because it creates what we call cognitive ease. You hear the beginning of the phrase and your brain fills in the rest. And when your brain does that for you, it gives you a little itty bitty dopamine hit because you feel like you're getting it.
It's a little bit like when you get a joke and you feel good about getting the joke. So when I go da, da da da da, and your brain goes, da-da, that's us co-creating a line, that's you anticipating what I'm going to say. And when I say it, you're like, "I was right." This is all unconscious. You're not literally saying this and that feels good to you because you guessed what I was going to say and you were correct and you didn't have to work for it. It functioned in what Daniel Kahneman calls the ‘system one’ part of our brain, the sort of automatic thinking as opposed to the more reasoned, more effortful kind of thinking in which we also engage.
So what campaigns do if they're successful, is they come up with a core idea, core concept, a core value, and they turn it into a very simplified slogan and they stick it on everything.
So we saw this, for example, in one of the episodes in the podcast that I cover, Jacinda Ardern becoming Prime Minister of New Zealand, her slogan, super simple. It was, "Let's do this." What does that mean? Who the hell knows? Doesn't matter. It's everywhere. Let's do this. It suggests a sort of forward motion. It suggests like, we can. Obama, "Yes we can." Was that the most original thing in the world? That dude didn't even come up with that idea. That wasn't his idea. Did that bother him? No, because guess what? And this is something I have to tell people all the time, there is no three or four word phrase in the world, let alone just in English, that no one's ever thought of before. That doesn't exist. So stop thinking that it will and figure out what is going to be effective.
So in a campaign that we did, for example in Minnesota in 2018, which was very, very successful in terms of electoral outcomes and helped start paving the way, though they'd been working and organizing for very long time beforehand, to the beautiful, amazing stuff. If people are not looking at Minnesota, making the rest of the country embarrassed for ourselves at just passing progressive law after ... as a person from Wisconsin, I have to personally tell you that it's repugnant, but also I have to give props and I work with them so I can swallow it a little bit easier.
We engaged in a campaign that we called Greater Than Fear, and we made a Greater Than Fear message about driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants. We made a Greater Than Fear message for clean energy. We made a Greater Than Fear message for education funding. We made a Greater Than Fear message for raising taxes on the rich. You name the thing and there was a message for the particular constituency or group to go knocking doors in the context of the election to talk about their issue but with the same thematic. We had hats, we had shirts. They were long sleeved because it's cold in Minnesota.
Why did we pick Greater Than Fear in that time? We picked Greater Than Fear because Minnesota has a weird affectation that they call the rural parts of the state, Greater Minnesota. So they talk about Greater Minnesota and the cities, what happens in the cities and Greater Minnesota as opposed to saying rural, which is what most places say. And that was of course the epicenter of the anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, race bating, fear-mongering that the right wing was attempting to utilize in order to win because they had seen that they had narrowly done it.
Hillary Clinton did take Minnesota, but it was one of the closest margins, and they of course had a divided government and they had had Republicans in the governor's mansion. So the quintessential purple state and the right was like, oh, we know how we get more. We get more the same way we always get more by dividing in order to conquer. And so that's why we called it Greater Than Fear.
Nir: Is it possible though that that repetition can be a two-edged sword because I noticed in your ads and you talked about this net rich nation about branding Republicans as MAGA Republicans. You've even mentioned it on this podcast. So MAGA, MAGA, MAGA is super familiar for them. The Red Hat is disgustingly iconic and it works for them, but it's also managed to work for us in a particular way. Joe Biden has really made a big deal about going after MAGA Republicans and even explicitly dividing MAGA Republicans from, I guess, whatever he conceives of as the remainder of the Republican Party. So can you wind up having this thing boomerang on you?
Shenker-Osorio: Yeah, it's a great question. So the MAGA Republican branding... And to be clear, when this first came about, and it was something that I was part of the research collaborative, which is the little name of an organization that does continuous research that I'm part of, coming up with this idea and making it stick and then the White House really taking off with it. At the time, I was actually pushing hard to be Trumpist Republicans, and I have all sorts of feelings around MAGA, one of which is just people actually are less familiar with it than you might guess. I know that's hard to believe given who we are and how much politics we imbibe.
That's less an issue because if you do a good enough job repeating a thing, you can make people, the same way they made War on Terror be a phrase that all of us have burned into our brains when it was a phrase that didn't exist at all before, or family values. I could go on and on, death panels. They can kind of popularize a phrase and will it into not just existence, but have it have a meaning that is very particular and kind of inscribed in our brains the way that family values means a particular thing when it could actually mean something good but doesn't.
So the thing with MAGA that more gives me a bit of pause, but the ship is sailed. It is the phrase, and I promise I will explain why, is whether or not it feels like punching up or punching down, whether MAGA Republican feels like we're naming the school teacher in Oklahoma who just wears her red hat. And I'm not trying to say, I'm trying to hang out with that lady and be best friends with her. What I'm trying to say is that the purpose of the phrase is really to impugn the leadership. Nevertheless, that is sort of the phrase that has caught on. The purpose of the phrase, and this is where I was really pushing hard, is that you do need to have a qualifier.
And I get a lot of questions about this, so I appreciate you letting me expound on it. People are like, it's all Republicans, who is left? And while I absolutely agree with that, because honestly if you're aiding in abetting fascism, you're a fascist. You don't get a pass. What a qualifier lets us do, and by a qualifier, I mean a word prior to Republicans, something that creates a subcategory of that category, is two things.
Number one, for people who at some point in their lives have identified as Republican or even presently identify as Republican to some degree, it creates what we call, in psychology, the ‘permission architecture’ for them to come with us. It really creates this idea that there is an us, and the us is America, the real America, the America that has signed up for the proposition of liberty and justice for all as yet never realized, and is working to actually make that come true … and this dangerous, divisive, noxious faction.
If you say that that's Republicans, then people listening to you who are Republican or have been Republican or have a loved one who is a Republican, they're like, ugh, how am I supposed to be on team us when it sounds like you are keeping me out of that? So that's the first thing the qualifier does.
The second thing that the qualifier does is that one of the most difficult things that we run into, and this is the downside of doing constant focus groups, it's not a way to feel good about America. And I wish that I could tell you differently, but watching everyday Americans of many different kinds and permutations in different groupings talk about what's going on. You have to live in a state where marijuana is legal in order to really deal with that. Luckily, I'm in California.
So people are so disgusted by politics. People think that the dividing line is left wing and right wing. That's really less of a dividing line than people who do not give a shit about politics, and please keep that as far away from me as humanly possible. I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to think about it. I don't want to read about it. I don't want it in my life. And people like us who exist both on the left and the right, who are like politics is my life. I'm very engaged. That is a massive division and most people are on the ‘keep this away from me.’
So when we say Republicans do this or Republicans do that, or Republicans are like this or Republicans are screwing you over, what people hear is yes that is why I hate politics. Politics is when team blue says shitty things about team red, vice versa. Everyone's just fighting. There is no both sides, right? So much both sides in focus groups, horrific amounts of both sides. Both sides are just as bad. Both sides are indistinguishable. Both sides do this thing, and that's why I have no interest in politics.
So the second thing that having a qualifier lets you do is get a little bit away from that sense that this is just politics as usual in order to have people see, no, this is not a policy difference. We are not in the realm of reasonable.
People can disagree, and some people might think $12 an hour and some people might think $15. Or even some people may create a justification for a flat tax, which I personally find repugnant and inexcusable and indefensible. But that is categorically different than some people believe that you shouldn't be allowed to vote, and they should determine for themselves the outcomes of elections. When we've meandered on over into book bans; you get a gun, you get a gun, you get a gun; essentially the creation of private militias as we're seeing fearmongering and so on.
So in order to get people to see that we've entered another category, this is not like Democrats and Republicans disagree on things. This is a separate faction that is really imperiling all of us. That's the other reason for the label.
Nir: We have been talking with Anat Shenker-Osorio who is the principal of ASO Communications, a strategic communications consultant. And also, as we mentioned at the top of this segment, a fellow podcaster who hosts the show Words to Win By. Anat, can you tell us a little bit about the show and also where our listeners can learn more about your work and find you on social media?
Shenker-Osorio: Yeah. So Words to Win By is a podcast about winning. I decided to take some of my own advice. My number one piece of messaging advice, which I would be remiss to not drop, is say what you're for, say what you're for, say what you're for. If all the seconds you have are five seconds, then you need to get at what you're for. And all too often, progressive and democratic messaging is a no and a don't and a stop and a can't.
And I found myself over various years being somewhat hypocritical by pointing out what is wrong with lots and lots of messages, and so I challenged myself to make a podcast in which every single episode is about a campaign that we won somewhere in the world and how we did it. So it's not a standard interview format; it's a narrative. So there's the story of how Jacinda became prime minister of New Zealand. There's the story of the Greater Than Fear campaign in Minnesota. There's the story of the teachers strikes, which some of us remember from a number of years ago. Red for Ed. There's police reform in Washington state. There's abortion access in Ireland. And in the most recent season, I actually did two episodes entirely in Spanish. One about the Dominican Republic and one about abortion, winning abortion access in Argentina, but they're also in English. You can listen either way.
People can get more of my stuff. We operate on an entirely open-source model. Any research project that we do for a client, we write into our contracts that it is open IP. So on our website, asocommunications.com, you will see a section called Learn. And there are messaging guides aplenty. There are ads. Anything that we make, we try to make it available to people. I mostly, as far as social media, I'm just on Twitter. My handle is @AnatOsaurus in deference to my very complicated last name, Osorio. And also because anatosaurus is a kind of dinosaur, which is fun.
Nir: Well Anat, thank you so much for joining us on “The Downballot” today. This was fascinating.
Shenker-Osorio: Thank you for having me.
Beard: That's all from us this week. Thanks to Anat Shenker-Osorio for joining us. “The Downballot” comes out every Thursday everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can reach out to us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If you haven't already, please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our producer, Walter Einenkel, and editor, Trever Jones. We'll be back next week with a new episode.