My website traffic for 2016, through Nov. 11

Local Politics & How Candidates Communicate

Oh this election. I don’t know what to do with you.

I usually try not to blog about politics. I did too much of that in previous cycles and said stupid things and annoyed even myself.

Early on this year, I couldn’t hold back and had to try to understand the Trump phenomena as it was happening. Even now I don’t understand it (though the Anxiety, Nostalgia & Mistrust Survey explains a lot), but I’m trying not to engage in the endless what ifs and blame and the rest (though I am being very vocal about stopping hate and violence).

I think instead of engaging on the national scene, I’ve been talking up the local scene. It’s bothered me for a long time how difficult it is to research local elections. Technology was supposed to make that easier, and in some ways it has. Most serious candidates have websites or at least Facebook pages these days (but not all of them).

But in other ways technology just allows politicians to spread the same misleading information they always have. And voters are stuck with just as little information to sort it all out.

This election I tried to sort out who said what, who did something questionable and who blatantly made stuff up assuming people wouldn’t research it. My only hope is that I’m making it easier for other frustrated voters like myself.

You know what? People liked it.

Sometimes I can be a data nerd, so here are my blog stats for the year:

My website traffic for 2016, through Nov. 11

Now granted I did blog more in October than I did in the previous five months combined. And I’ve been blogging since 1998, so I clearly don’t do this for the stats. But those spikes beginning in mid-October are because people are craving local election information.

Lessons for Local Candidates

I shared that at a local DFL meeting this morning. I’ve never been to a political meeting in my life, but I went this morning. We’re going to be analyzing the 2016 election for ever, and everybody’s going to have their take on it. It was helpful to hear everybody share their takes—the pros and cons of door knocking, what kind of failures the DFL had, what things they did right, etc.

This is my take on local candidates:

The average person on the street knows nothing about you, they don’t know where to get that information, if they can find that information they don’t know if they can trust it, and they don’t have the time to hunt down that information.

Candidates and political parties need to figure out how to do that.

I get that personal contact is huge. Door knocking and phone calls can forge a real connection. So can public meetups. But it’s not a very sustainable solution.

Here are five things I think might help:

1. Content

Now I’m a content guy, it’s what I do for a living, so this one may feel a little biased, but I think candidates need to create and share content. Answer questions. Don’t give me the campaign jargon that shows up on postcards, full of buzzwords designed to signal the right people and not actually communicate anything. Give me a real position. And if it’s complicated, so be it. Simplify as much as you can, maybe give a short version and a long version, but don’t shy away from specifics.

2. Assume the Best of Your Competition

Back in college I learned a lesson from one my good friends who was a philosophy major. He always talked about how effective debate assumes the best of your opponent. You don’t go for the cheap shot. You take on your opponent’s strongest, best argument. Don’t resort to strawman arguments or ad hominem attacks (this list of logical fallacies might be helpful; I wish I knew it better). Political discourse shouldn’t be about winning points, it should be about coming up with the best ideas for everyone. And that also means you don’t engage in tit-for-tat crap. Just because the other side used that tactic doesn’t mean you can. Michelle Obama said when they go low, we go high. How about we go high no matter what they do?

3. Actually Engage in the Issues

Many of my blog posts were tackling issues where a candidate had made a claim but nobody challenged them on it. Too often we get the candidate questionnaire where they can say anything they want and voters have no idea if it’s true. While I don’t want candidates to go negative, there has to be a way to engage what your opponent is saying and challenge it without turning it into an attack.

4. Back It Up

When you do engage in the issues, back it up with real facts. Here in West St. Paul, so many candidates were talking about taxes being too high. Well what were the taxes? How much were they going up? I had to call the city finance director to get that information because nobody was talking about it. Don’t just make a claim—back it up.

5. Find a Way to Be Balanced

The final ding against candidates is that we assume what they’re saying is biased and slanted, and voters question if we can believe it. I’ve never seen a candidate do all of the above on their website, but even if they did I think voters would still question if it’s fair (however, if a candidate is effectively backing up their claims with facts and treating their opponent with respect, I think that goes a long way to creating a sense of balance). We all know everything out there is biased. The stuff I wrote certainly was, but I think people could sense that I was trying to be balanced and they could sort out my biases themselves.

And maybe none of this matters. Many of the winning candidates in this election didn’t do any of these things, and they still won without a problem.

But I’d like to see more from our candidates. I know it’s hard. It’s a mud-slinging world where everything is limited to 140-character sound bytes, and you can’t debate detailed policy on Twitter.

But I think we (speaking of all of us, not just candidates) have to find a way. I think we need to engage people and not just lob arguments. We need to have those tough conversations with our family and friends, understand how we’re looking at different information (“If two smart and logical people disagree, it’s most likely because they are acting on different information.”) and find a way to move past that.

Because otherwise it just gets uglier and uglier, and people get more and more disillusioned. Democracy requires people to be doing the work.

So we’ve got work to do.

3 thoughts on “Local Politics & How Candidates Communicate”

  1. I appreciated your comments at the meeting on Saturday and that you are a clear, concise and effective communicator of ideas, and next steps without the partisan divide. Thank you for your comments, and ideas.

  2. I phone called for the DFL in 1992, and you know what most voters wanted? “Where are the candidates on the issues? We decide on the issues.” You know when the Star Tribune and other local media came out with the candidates’ position on the issues? The Sunday before Election Day. The voters were asking for this information four months before that.

  3. Great post Kevin! I agree, it’s so hard to find info about local politics. Several years ago I started a hyperlocal website as an experiment and discovered firsthand that there is a big need for this type of content. Thanks again for sharing your ideas.

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