Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | The best way to gain backing for your ideas—in election season or beyond—is to know how to court the undecided.
If you’re like me, you queasily anticipate the fall campaign season. Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, which are divisive in the best of times, become an extra toxic stew of vitriol during this time of year. By the end of the season, the onslaught of negative attack ads and antagonistic press conferences leave me wanting to throw my TV, laptop and phone into a lake.
In 2022, our nation seems even more polarized. Activists from both parties retreat to their respective corners and return to the center of the ring only to throw punches at their opponents. In many cases, the message of these hardcore partisans is: If you disagree with my opinions, you are evil, lying, corrupt or stupid, or you just don’t love your country.
For a dozen years, I consulted with political campaigns, supplied media advice, provided strategic insights and constructed talking points. I’m happy to say that those days of political warfare are long behind me. Regardless of the campaign outcomes, I was always very happy to reach the finish line.
Despite the mental and physical toll campaign season takes on most of us, I ultimately walked away having learned several important lessons from the political trenches about the best way to win support for your ideas—even outside of election season.
The Most Effective Way to Generate Support Is to Aim for the Middle
In every campaign—and on any public issue—there are essentially three constituencies:
1. Those who love you.
These are your essential allies who can become potent advocates for your cause. Your goal is not to sway them but to activate them. They can persuade others to rally for your cause because they’re energized and ready to get involved. They can host community meetings, post messages to their social followers, give money and persuade others to give as well. They can spread your message further than you can alone and should be prioritized as essential assets to your cause.
2. Those who hate you.
These are the folks supporting your competitors, opposing your cause or trying to distract you from your positive agenda. These individuals may even try to bait you, but it’s essential to your overall success to resist the urge to engage in negative interactions.
Rather than dismissing an entire group altogether, however, it is important to acknowledge their dissenting opinions. Even outside of election season, giving those who oppose you room to air their concerns—without you trying to convince them otherwise or intervene—may prove to be beneficial for your overall cause. Inclusion is better than dismissal, and your willingness to listen may even bring about changes in heart.
3. Those who are undecided.
Those who are undecided are the veins of gold you’re mining for—the most important group of people if you’re trying to move public support toward your cause. Too often in these divisive times, we ignore the silent majority who worry about important stuff unrelated to policy and politics. The quiet middle is usually focused on more personal and relevant matters, such as whether they and their family are safe, whether their bills are paid, and whether their kids or grandkids will have better futures.
The quiet middle doesn’t engage in political shout-fests or create a stir on social media, but they do vote based on who they believe fits their needs the best. Occasionally, they may even call or email their elected officials on high-profile issues. They’ll do even more if you remove the barriers that keep most folks from participating in public policy discussions.
Make your requests to the quiet middle straightforward. Use plain, direct language that focuses on the impact on their lives and respects their busy schedules. It’s important to provide two to three actionable steps they can take in between all their other responsibilities. This could look like asking them to learn a bit more about your cause and then sharing what they learn with their family and friends.
Ultimately, you should respect the quiet middle and their busy lives by giving just a slight nudge so they can get involved. By remaining conversational and staying away from overbearing tactics, the undecided middle group will be more inclined to offer their support and subsequently feel like it was worth their limited time. If you reach them effectively, their support is key to helping your cause succeed.