I watched the CPAC speech from conservative donor and philanthropist Foster Friess. Friess said we have to learn from the left:

They speak to the heart and the emotion. We have a tendency to speak to the brain and the intellect.

I don’t think that is the problem. I think that conservatives do pretty well among people whose worldview was shaped by the 1970s and 1980s. If you associate the Democrats with the Iran hostage crisis and the Republicans with Grenada and the fall of the Soviet Union, then the Republicans have a narrative for you. I think that goes a long way toward explaining the limited public fallout from the Benghazi affair. If it had happened twenty years ago it would have played into a narrative of Democratic weakness and paralysis. But if you were born or came to the country after 1980, that isn’t your experience. You see the party that screwed up the Iraq War ankle biting the president who got Bin Laden. I’m not saying this view is right, just that context matters. It has worked the other way too. The Iran-Contra scandal didn’t do the Republicans more lasting damage because the median voter doubted that the Democrats (or the kinds of Democrats who got the party’s presidential nomination) would be tougher on America’s enemies than Reagan.

The same thing is true on economic policy. Many people (not all of whom understand themselves as conservatives), have a certain memory of the late seventies and early eighties. The late seventies were a period of runaway inflation, bracket creep forcing middle-class tax papers into paying higher tax rates, and high gas prices. The eighties were a period where tighter money, lower taxes, and deregulation of oil led to prosperity. That is exactly the story that Karl Rove and Crossroads tried to tell in the last election. Obama’s taxes and regulation were choking small business. Obama got the Federal Reserve to spark inflation through expansion of the money supply. Seems like old times. The problem is that an ever larger fraction of Americans don’t remember the old times. Most people hadn’t had their taxes directly increased by Obama. Inflation was fairly low. Unless you had the context of the late seventies and early eighties, those Crossroads ads didn’t speak to you.

The problem isn’t that we don’t speak to the heart. The problem is that we don’t speak intelligibly to any parts of the majority of younger and nonwhite voters. Republicans and Republican consultants are talking to experiences and policy priorities formed a generation ago. It is only normal that people who grew up under lower marginal tax rates and lower inflation interpret events differently. If we want people to support conservative policies and candidates, we have to talk to them in terms of the world they know.

So what combination of visuals, words, and policies would work best for Americans whose experiences are defined by the last twenty years? We don’t know. We might all have theories about what would work and what wouldn’t, but we don’t actually know. And we probably won’t figure it out just by talking to each other. What we know is that the Republican ad template form the 1980s doesn’t work anymore.

This is where conservative donors can be so helpful. We need good data on the policy priorities of younger people and different populations of nonwhites, how they respond to different policies and different explanations of those policies. We need to know about their experiences with the health care sector, with their understanding of rising premiums and the problem of the uninsured. We need to know how they respond to different explanations of what is wrong with Obamacare and how they react to the range of conservative alternative policies. We need to know how they respond to a range of conservative tax policies and how they respond to the obvious critiques of those policies.

This kind of research would be tricky for the Republican National Committee to pull off. It isn’t their job to pick among different conservative policies on taxes or health care. That would be stepping on the toes of Republican office holders. Conservative donors could fund survey research, in-depth interviews, message production, and trial and error experimentation with small groups of voters. This would produce valuable knowledge, and the sooner it begins the better. It increases the chance that donor money will be effectively spent, that the donations will inform and change minds. If we don’t improve our knowledge of public opinion and sensibilities, it will be just giving money to the same old Republican consultants to produce the same kinds of ads that worked in the 1990s.

Articles by Pete Spiliakos

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