A Failure to Communicate

The line, "What we have here is failure to communicate," from the film, Cool Hand Luke, might describe of the single greatest failure of Republican conservatives.

As those on the Right sought to analyze the loss of the 2012 Presidential race, one of the most frequently cited reasons was the superiority of the Democrats' "ground game" -- their ability to turn out thousands of voters on short notice. In truth, the primary cause of the defeat had less to do with actions taken on Election Day than with the recurring problem affecting all the days leading up to it. And that is the ability to communicate effectively.

Conservatives are excellent at communicating -- to themselves. Some of the most brilliant political writing of the present day appears in periodicals such as the Weekly Standard and National Review. Syndicated columnists such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer present our case with clarity and precision in the periodicals that carry them. They and many others who appear on Fox News and panel shows rarely fail to acquit themselves well. Our case is made in books ranging from scholarly studies to commentaries that are irreverent and humorous.

Unfortunately, as valuable as these messages are in enlightening conservatives, they are not being received by the majority of the electorate.

Both in terms of technology and content, communication has changed vastly in the past quarter century and continues to evolve. Cable television has added multiple programming choices. Radio has been augmented by satellite services. Most local newspapers have been in decline, and many traditional magazines have vanished or gone digital. Social media adds an entirely new dimension, and video games are now mainstream with more than half (52.4%) of the U.S. television population having access to a console.

The same media segmentation that bedevils advertisers attempting to sell product is equally problematic when it comes to political and social questions. Sophisticated communicators know that building a relationship with customers is not a short-term proposition. Consistency is key, and frequent exposure produces the best results.

That said, it is clear that the Left has a very real advantage when it comes to building awareness and preference. The so-called "Low Information Voter" is exposed to multiple messages delivered by the mainstream media on a daily basis, many reflecting topical issues. Equally important is what the media does not cover. Lack of coverage of Benghazi and other issues problematic to the Obama administration has been pointed out numerous times.

Another drawback faced by conservatives is the complexity inherent in so many of their stands in such areas as abortion, economic policy, and personal freedom. Rather than articulate a position, it's much easier for the Left to "sloganeer." You will recall that the first Obama campaign was based on such platitudes as "Hope and change" and "We are the ones we have waited for."

Despite the expense and the difficulty, it is clear that conservatives must do a better job in strategic communications if we are going to be successful. Attempting to communicate to the body politic in the eight weeks prior to an election is about as effective as the student who misses class, takes no notes, and spends the night before the test trying to "cram" enough knowledge to pass.

It is essential to be represented in the major media on a consistent basis and to address current questions openly in plain language, and without fear -- something many conservatives are not used to doing. This reluctance came to the fore recently when the conservative Crossroads GPS organization ran a commercial touching on the Benghazi tragedy and Hillary Clinton's attitude toward it. The organization was taken to task by a major conservative pundit for pointing the finger at Hillary Clinton when there was no election in sight. This was later supported by a leading conservative television host who felt that the message might be politically damaging.

The attitude of both of these individuals is symptomatic of the belief held by many on the Right that we must always tread with caution lest we give the Left mud to sling at us. The Left will make the mud and sling it at us regardless. Their accusations and misrepresentations never stop. The most effective means of combating them will involve a more sophisticated communications plan that educates the public -- including and especially the Low Information Voter -- on a continual basis and on our terms.

This will not be easy, and it will not be cheap. The favorable representation presented by the mainstream media costs those on the Left nothing. Additionally, much of their digital media is supported by well-funded individuals and organizations, while Hollywood and the music industry supplies them with more than an ample number of "opinion leaders."

Success in communications will require collective action. It will also demand a paradigm shift in attitude on the part of those who favor caution. It represents, however, more than an "advertising campaign." It is an educational effort designed to bring the public to an appreciation of what the Founders gave us and what we stand to lose if it buys the wrong "brand."