Conservatives have spent billions creating and testing successful anti-government and -tax messages over the past 40 years, to build support for dismantling policies that regulate the free market and redistribute economic opportunity. They well know the power of ideas and well-crafted messages in this media-saturated world; in fact, their ideas now dominate public thinking. How many times have you found yourself reflexively criticizing government or qualifying a pro-tax position? Only 32% of Californians support progressive tax reform, according to recent Public Policy Institute polls — and only 13% strongly support it. In order to build majority support by reaching the “moveable middle,” a smart communications strategy is essential, with ideas, messages, even “memes” — concepts that go viral and are grasped by everyone — to attract fresh support for change.
Given the priority on communications by the Right — and their extraordinary success — there has been surprisingly little countervailing, sustained investment by progressives in developing a positive narrative on government or taxes. And what little there is has not been directly linked to any large-scale civic engagement, particularly with “new voters” — communities of color, immigrants, youth. The California Alliance plans to change that fact. Over the past four years, the Alliance has been methodically investing in a three-step process: (l) research and analysis on the changing California electorate through a “social-values” lens; (2) creation of a new strategic story about government and fiscal reform that speaks to target voters; (3) fine-tuning and field-testing of the new narrative and messages. The Alliance is currently through two-thirds of this exciting process.
The first step was clarifying who needs to be reached, what values motivate them, and what are their current attitudes on government and taxes. Working with a team of researchers from American Environics, the Alliance identified two key constituencies (COOs) that must be moved to win systemic tax reform at the ballot box: “Aspiring People of Color” and “Balanced Suburbans.”
“Aspiring People of Color” (APOC) represent 15% of the population, are concentrated in urban areas, and are young; 51% are under 44 years old. Nearly half are children of immigrants. They are not protesters or joiners; they value propriety and status recognition, and, above all, family. Education, hard work and discipline are valued so they can stay on track and succeed. They support active government, and are embedded in the Alliance’s base communities, but are underrepresented in the electorate. Reaching and mobilizing them is vital.
The second group, “Balanced Suburban” (BSUB) voters, constitutes a full 27% of the population. 49% are people of color. While open to change, they seek practical solutions and balance; they are characterized by a lack of intense values or motivations. They see society as an organization and they see government as manager of that organization. They vote regularly and are a vital swing group; the Alliance cannot win without making the case to them for change.
Last year, Alliance groups in South LA, San Jose and Oakland experimented with targeting voters in these two vital segments, and tried tailoring messages — and even style! For example, instead of wearing their usual “movement activist” garb — political t-shirts — young door-to-door Alliance organizers donned Polo shirts to respect and connect with “Aspiring People of Color” in their communities. To reach B-SUBs in San Jose, ad content, walk and phone scripts promoting a hospital bond were pragmatic and problem-solving in tone, resulting in a surprisingly strong margin of victory; 78% of voters approved the measure.
The second phase of the multi-year strategic communications project has been to develop themes about government and tax policy that will resonate with these target COOs. In January, the Alliance, along with smartMeme – a San Francisco-based communications firm, began a process of creating a new “meta-narrative” – a universal story – that would speak to target audiences as well as Californians across the board. Alliance representatives have participated in over 100 hours of creative process together, guided by the able smartMeme professionals whose specialty is the collaborative development of “story-based” strategic messages. The firm synthesized Enviornics’ existing social-values research, the national body of work by think-tanks such as Demos, Opportunity Agenda and FrameWorks, added in lessons learned from Alliance members’ extensive organizing experience, as well as their own innovative thinking. In July, The results of this process will be tested through focus groups and polling. Will APOCs respond to an inspirational message of reviving the California Dream more than a call for “more responsible rules to stop corporate tax cheats”? Will the idea that a Simple Majority (on budget and taxes) equals Real Democracy resonate with Balanced Suburbans? And what “meta-narrative” can tie together these divergent electoral strands in a compelling fashion?
By the fall, the Alliance will have a body of robust research and field-tested messages that can contribute to the critical imperative of restoring faith in government and progressive taxation.