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Message testing for legislative elections

by Eric Ferguson on November 21, 2015

pothole signThe state senate district where I’m the DFL chair happens to be deep blue, not one where we have to worry much about holding on to our legislative seats. However, as our incumbent legislators remind local DFLers, they can’t get much done when they’re in the minority. Even their seniority and designation by their caucus as a committee ranking member won’t stop vindictive Republicans from kicking them off said committee. So our safe-seat legislators need more DFLers to win in not-safe seats, which gets to why our district did some message testing when it would appear we really don’t have to — and maybe, doing the minimum, we don’t have to. But we want to win; as in a majority of seats, not just the easy-to-get majority of the votes in our district.
Now when I say “message testing”, I don’t mean some proper bit of research your political science professor would have approved of. We don’t have those sorts of resources, at least with other things we have to do. But we can still do something. We can’t pretend what we did is strong research we could get published in a proper political science journal. But we think we have something useful.
Specifically, we have two issues where we did some testing, one intended for offense and one for defense: the offense being automatic voter registration, and the defense being paying for transportation infrastructure. The forum was the tables we set up at neighborhood events in our district as we do each summer and autumn. Usually we have a passel of candidates to talk about, but most of our district, ironically enough given my plea to pay attention to local elections this year, had no elections, and it happened that was the part of the district with neighborhood events where we could set up. Normally our top priority at these events is voter registration, and next trying to strike up conversations so we can find out what prospective voters are thinking about. If anyone wants some jargon, this is sometimes referred to as an “untargeted canvas”. Generally of course, most people are already registered (though some aren’t, and they would not have shown up in a list of registered voters) and they don’t have an issue to comes to mind right at that moment, so we took advantage of having no candidates to test reaction to messages on those two issues. We had flyers on each issue (which we’re willing to share with other party units) but no one sees those right away, so we’re bringing up whichever issue we bring up and flyers are details and follow-up. Basically it’s verbal communication combined with paper they can take with them.

I’m really not trying to undercut our work, but best to be up front about the caveats. Besides this being done by volunteers, our district is just one district, and our results might not apply everywhere — or they might. Can’t tell unless and until someone decides to do their own testing. Our district is mostly urban, partly inner suburban, and heavily Democratic. The people who come up to a table that has a DFL banner tend to be DFL already, and they’re definitely self-selected, but that’s also why this test applies only to DFLers. Don’t assume Republicans, minor party supporters, or independents would react the same way.
Going on offense — again pending someone testing elsewhere — my sense is that automatic voter registration is an issue that will work with any DFLers. Almost no one had heard of it before we raised it, but they grasped it so intuitively we barely started explaining it before they understood it and supported it. Voting rights isn’t just something where Democrats tend heavily to agree, but it’s one of the issues that motivates them. That’s why I advise our candidates not just to support automatic voter registration, but to run on it. Use it to motivate turnout. It’s a great issue for us because Democrats tend to understand that more eligible voters voting is generally going to help Democrats. If we get voters to register, they’re likely to turn out. We can also frame it in terms of streamlining government, since we’re taking out the need to fill in a form, and the need for election workers to decipher handwriting and manually update a database. Those are the two places where human error gets in to the voter registration rolls. Republicans oppose automatic registration on the grounds it will lead to fraud, though they can’t say how fraud might occur, plus we can point out that we just removed the opportunity to commit fraud through the registration process.
For all that our one district isn’t representative of all Democrats, it’s also the case that California and Oregon recently passed the first automatic voter registration laws with Democrats being somewhere near unanimous. So Democrats get it intuitively, are motivated by voting rights, and Republicans will have an awkward time trying to argue against it — that’s everything a party or candidate could ask for in an issue.
We chose that as an issue because we were looking for something where Democrats could go on offense. We chose to test messaging on paying for transportation infrastructure because Republicans have already been going after us on the gas tax increase Gov. Dayton proposed. A Republican-aligned group was even sending out attack mailers before the session ended. Yes, they were already campaigning against vulnerable DFL incumbents a few months after the election. Speaker Kurt Daudt cited blocking a gas tax increase as one of the last legislative session’s main accomplishments (start around 5:05). So clearly, the gas tax is an issue the MNGOP is running on. Not that it’s a complete surprise; we’ve been battling Republicans on this a long time. A long, long time.
Republican taxophobic attacks seemed unlikely to work in a liberal district like ours, but what if we were wrong? If even the DFL urban base was swayed, then we would have a bigger problem than we thought. As it turned out, we guessed right that MNGOP gas-taxophobia attacks wouldn’t work, but now we’re not guessing, we know. We even tried a Republican frame, asking people, “What do you think about raising the gas tax?” without any context, no priming to see things the Democratic way. We tried reframing the issue in terms of personal maintenance costs, namely, we pay for bad roads through higher maintenance costs on our vehicles. Non-drivers didn’t particularly care, but drivers understood it right away.
The closest thing to a surprise was how many people were non-drivers. Minneapolis is big on bicycling of course, and our district has a light rail line, so it’s attractive to non-drivers, but there were more than expected. Most Americans have no good alternatives to driving, and that’s partly why, besides our liberal lean, I’m suggesting testing wherever you are. I’m not saying what we did won’t work elsewhere, but I am saying to DFL parties and candidates outside our district that first, you’re going to be on defense on this issue — Republicans will run on it as if it was a Senate office building; second, this frame of paying for bad roads through higher personal vehicle maintenance costs is likely enough to work to be worth testing. In fact, my guess — pending testing — is that this frame will work better in rural areas and suburbs since on average they have to drive more than us urbanites. It’s probably too much to hope that committed taxophobes will do the math and change their minds, but anyone more committed to saving money than to avoiding taxes ought to get it.

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