Messaging strategy on the AHCA

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Something bugging me is the lack of strategic messaging in opposition to the American Health Care Act (AHCA). There is of course plenty of room for opinion on this one, but I want to make a case for how labeling the AHCA can advance progressive goals.

This is not a policy discussion, just a branding and messaging analysis. Here, what the people think and believe is truly more important than facts.

  • Trump is still popular among Republicans. The most recent poll I could find showed 84 percent approval versus 14 percent who disapprove. [1] Among those who voted for Trump last year, it’s worse: 92 percent of Trump voters approve of how he’s doing.
  • Democrats eventually need to win over these Trump voters if they hope to get any power back. It’s basic math which I’ve covered in past posts. Achieving this, I argue, is the primary goal.
  • There is at least a group of Trump voters that dislike Congress and the Congressional leadership. [2]
  • The details of the AHCA are unknown to most Americans; they’re just trusting their own sources to tell them what to think. [3] An AHCA brand must then convey a built-in message, breaking through the media bubbles, so that by acknowledging the branding one receives the message. A good brand can harm the AHCA, but a better one can also harm Trump and Congressional Republicans by association.
  • Trump has distanced himself from this legislation. He was not involved in its drafting, so it will be difficult to make a failure of this bill an indictment of Trump. He can easily pin the blame on others if this, or even Obamacare replacement more broadly, fails.

So with the above points in mind, let’s look at branding attempts and how good they are.

First, let’s dispose of the incredibly lame WealthCare. I just don’t get this one. “Wealth” should be a pejorative for this to work, yet it’s not clear to me that Trump voters are automatically going to think of it as a bad thing; in the right context (one’s own wealth), it’s a good thing. It could undercut Trump’s populism, but it’s too easy to deny the premise; showing that the AHCA benefits the wealthy requires citing wonky CBO numbers. Weak sauce.

The most prominent brand circulating among the left right now seems to be Trumpcare. It has an advantage of reminding us of Trump’s vanity since his name ends up on everything. It could also play to Trump’s ego and keep him from enthusiastically supporting an unpopular bill. Before we go further, though, this is a brand based on Obamacare so we should look at that as a guide for what it can, and cannot, do.

By branding any reforms to the health care system as a name followed by “care,” three things are accomplished:

  1. It alludes to a nanny-state politician taking care of people in a bureaucratic and inflexible manner (but this only resonates with those who lean conservative).
  2. It ties the politician’s popularity to the law (but this backfires if the politician is popular; see Obama embracing Obamacare).
  3. Now that Obamacare has established a pattern like “-gate,” new brands that build off the pattern can evoke feelings of that original brand, for better or worse.

So now that we’ve covered all that, let’s evaluate Trumpcare more closely. Are we trying to convey an idea of Donald Trump telling people what health care they should get? I don’t think that is going to resonate among liberals, and Trump voters probably won’t see it that way. Republicans’ messaging already resists this as they claim this bill increases “choice” and “access.” Does evoking Obamacare help us? Not really; Democrats want those who support Obamacare to dislike the AHCA. Finally, is the Trump brand going to tarnish the bill? Among Democrats, yes; but not among the 93 percent of Trump voters who still approve of him! Look at this quote from a Trump voter in Michigan: [3]

“I want them to pass all of Trump’s ideas in the next hundred days,” said one man.

If you call it Trumpcare, you’re just making the AHCA look like one of “Trump’s ideas” and his supporters will like it, even though it is not his. [4] So we can expect this brand to create negative feelings about the AHCA only among Democrats and some independents, while perhaps increasing support among Trump voters who hear it. The brand itself has no effect on Congressional Republicans and minimal personal effect on Trump. FAIL.

Now let’s look at Ryancare. First, this one “feels” right because House Speaker Paul Ryan is publicly out in front touting the bill, while Trump seems half-committed. Next, does tying Ryan’s name to the bill hurt its reputation? I do not know Ryan’s national approval numbers, but Democrats clearly do not like him and many Trump voters remember how noncommittal to downright disloyal he was during the campaign. [2] So if we place ownership of the AHCA on Ryan, Trump voters could be more open to denouncing it, especially for the parts that break Trump’s promises as a candidate. This might be why conservative websites that oppose the AHCA are using Ryancare in their messaging.

There’s another huge benefit to calling it Ryancare: the effect this has on people’s feelings of Paul Ryan and Donald Trump, in addition to the AHCA itself. The brand evokes the idea of Paul Ryan, not a nationally elected politician, placing himself in charge of the health care system that we all depend on. That sounds undemocratic. Further, naming the bill for someone else can annoy Trump; he will obviously not be the top dog in the push to sell it. Headlines on The Hill could read “Trump pushes desperately to sell ‘Ryancare’ to a skeptical public.” Imagine the SNL sketch of Kate McKinnon as Paul Ryan parading Trump around on a leash to sell his agenda. Trump would be furious!

The use of Ryancare also can be an underhanded slight that gets Trump voters to pay attention. One might think: “Why is Congress wasting its time on this silly bill that Paul Ryan wrote? Just do it the way Trump wants!” Trump is even reinforcing this idea, telling his Nashville crowd last week [5]:

“I want to get to taxes, I want to cut the hell out of taxes… I would have loved to have put it first, I’ll be honest…”

This and other quotes are admittedly vague, but what’s clear is that Trump is not getting to do what he wants. Democrats can interpret that as weak and incompetent leadership; Trump supporters can interpret it as obstruction from Republicans who refuse to work on his terms. If this damages Trump’s working relationship with Congressional Republicans, it can only benefit Democrats. It will put a halt to Trump’s legislative agenda, stabilizing the country somewhat and infuriating his supporters more. It might increase Congressional will to investigate the administration. Most importantly, though, Trump voters hostile to their Republican representatives give Democrats a fighting chance in red districts in 2018.

This is what a strategic brand can achieve in politics. One word can be used to attack a bill and sow discord in the other side at the same time. It might be too late to do all this with Ryancare, but it’s likely that a similar opportunity will arise with the next piece of legislation. Don’t give Trump credit for anything in Congress and message it like he’s following establishment Republicans instead of leading them. This is what we can do if we overcome our own emotional reactions, understand how the other side thinks, and apply some basic persuasion tactics.

Learn more:

  1. Trump approval rating poll (Reuters/Ipsos; data from March 16, 2017)
  2. Macomb County in the Age of Trump (Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research/Democracy Corps), pages 15-16. One key piece:

    We showed these voters pictures of Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and by their responses it was clear they do not trust them. They describe them as “shifty,” “only look out for themselves,” and “like the CEOs.” In contrast with Trump, they believe Republicans have “always been for the upper class” and “do what they have to do for what used to be the middle class and lower class things, I think, just to… keep you satisfied.”

  3. Whom to trust when it comes to health care reform? Trump supporters put their faith in him. (Washington Post). Key quote:

    “Until you hear it from Donald J. Trump himself — and not the news media — then don’t even worry about it. Wait until you hear the man say it, because he will tweet it, he will Facebook it or he will go onto national television and tell everybody at the same time.”

  4. This pattern was poll-tested: Republicans like Obama’s ideas better when they think they’re Donald Trump’s (Huffington Post with YouGov, from Sep 2015)
  5. Trump can’t hide how eager he is to be finished with the health care debate (Washington Post)

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