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The Texas Blue
Advancing Progressive Ideas

The Message Discipline Equation

After the 2004 elections, it seemed the Republican Party spin machine was invincible. They could just throw a few 9/11 references in a television ad and victory was almost inevitable. In congressional districts across the country, Democratic candidates saw mail pieces questioning their patriotism and, in some cases, tying them directly to terrorist organizations. Republican candidates up and down the ballot tapped into the post-9/11 fear that had shaken our country’s core and effectively used it to win elections. They found a message that struck voters and hammered it home with amazing discipline.

But there’s a reason that Republicans lost control of Congress after only twelve years and why the same trend is repeating itself in Texas – the GOP spin machine has screeched to a halt, as voters are no longer buying a message of fear. Instead, they are focusing again on the issues that directly affect their everyday lives. They are discovering that behind the rhetoric, Republicans have no real agenda to address the war on terror, much less the needs of Americans at home. Once the legs of fear were yanked out from under the GOP message machine, no amount of discipline could keep it standing.

Message discipline is a two-step equation. We talk a lot about “staying on message,” but no level of discipline can make up for a flawed message that does not resonate with voters. Simple though it may sound, messaging is about identifying issues that matter to voters and finding a way to connect with them using those themes. We as Democrats have a solid grasp on that first step. The second step, which is where we sometimes falter, is remaining focused on that message and incorporating it into our daily political life.

Voters are hungry for change and ready for something other than Republican business as usual. Democrats are that something different. On issue after issue, Democrats stand with the vast majority of people who are dissatisfied with the status quo. Like Democrats, who have vigorously fought for more public education funding, Texas voters see the value of investing in our schools. Like Democrats, they believe a family’s future should not hinge on whether they have access to necessary health care. Our fellow Texans also share the belief that we have a responsibility to protect our brave men and women fighting abroad with the proper equipment, develop a plan to bring them safely home, and honor our veterans for their distinguished service. And like Democrats, they believe our government should not be bought and sold to the highest bidder or used as a safe haven for political cronies.

On the things that matter to everyday Texans, Democrats stand with them. You and I both know it, but what really matters is whether or not voters know it.

Our Party has made great strides in effectively communicating with Texans from all walks of life, and our success in the 2006 elections is a clear indication that voters in every region of the state are responding to the Democratic message of change, which is the first and most important step in the message discipline equation.

But to keep winning elections and achieve statewide success, Democrats must deliver the message Texans want to hear in a smart, disciplined and consistent manner that is based on substantive facts. With research and polling, we can identify the best way to package our message, and with an echo chamber of elected officials, Party leaders, progressive organizations and grassroots activists, we can use it to connect with voters on a personal level.

As a political communications staffer, I am often at a loss to come up with new ways to say the same things and even get bored listening to myself from time to time, but it’s most often at the point where I've grown tired of repeating a message that people are just starting to hear it. In a world where we are constantly bombarded with words and images, repeating the Democratic message over and over again and applying it to every facet of our communications effort is the only way to get through the din. Everything we say and every topic we discuss – whether it be college tuition, SCHIP, utility bills or homeland security – should always come back to our overarching theme of change and hope, of Republican failure and of Democratic commitment to move Texas forward.

But repeated message isn't effective if it's not delivered consistently. A critical part of effective message, and one that Republicans excelled at, is maintaining their consistent message across different groups and organizations. Over the last few decades, the Republican Party has used various wedge issues to successfully mobilize activists, but they were not alone. The talking points used by GOP leaders on those issues are the very same ones coming from groups like the NRA, Focus on the Family and other conservative organizations. Often, Democrats and progressive organizations do not have that sort of consistent message we see from the other side. The Democratic Party has historically been a “big tent” of many different individuals. But if we choose to advocate primarily for our individual point of view at the expense of the broader message, we are less likely to be heard than the united front on the other side — and less likely to win elections.

Today, Texas Democrats are facing a truly historic opportunity. After defying expectations in 2006, our Party is heading into this election cycle more energized than ever. The political pendulum is swinging in the Lone Star State. It is vitally important that we make a clear distinction between our two parties and show voters that unlike Republicans, Democrats share their values and understand their concerns. Our party's success now hinges on meeting the challenge of speaking to voters with one united Democratic voice.

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