It’s tempting to think that better messaging is the key to advancing good policy and getting big political wins.
Think tanks, pollsters, cable news pundits, and elected officials constantly debate which messages will be the most effective at moving public opinion and mobilizing people to vote. It’s also easy (and fun!) to debate messaging. It’s something everyone who speaks and writes about politics feels qualified to do.
But the truth is that messaging choices often don’t matter as much as we think they do. Far more important is our ability to deliver a message in the first place.
Messaging only gets you so far
Historian Lara Putnam calls an over-reliance on messaging advice the Magical Messaging Unicorn. Indeed, messaging advice often comes with the unstated assumption that the right words alone can unlock right action.
But that’s rarely the case because messaging never happens in a vacuum.
In 2009, many climate advocates started emphasizing “clean energy” messaging to secure more support for climate legislation. After all, they found that “clean energy” polled a bit better than “climate change.” Who doesn’t love solar and wind power?
But in response, fossil fuel companies started calling fossil fuels “clean,” too. Even Barack Obama bought into the misleading rhetoric of “clean coal.” More broadly, politicians did embrace clean energy, but they did so along with dirty energy sources like fracking and coal as part of an “all of the above” strategy that polled just fine, too.
Opponents of policy goals aren’t sitting on the sidelines. They’re ready to counter-message and counter-mobilize, too.
Further, advocates—even powerful elected officials—also don’t have free rein to deliver messages on big media platforms for the simple reason that they don’t control them. For instance, in 2018, Democrats unveiled a “Better Deal” platform that was supposed to provide the backbone of their messaging over a two-year campaign cycle. But how often did they really get to talk about it? When I was working in the House in 2019, mainstream…