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Would Bernie Have Won?

By Joshua B. Gardner, Vice President, Qorvis MSLGROUP

“Welcome to the election from hell.”

That was my intro to a piece I co-wrote with several former colleagues for a major magazine this past May, just a month before I joined MSLGROUP.

We were a rag-tag group of market researchers led by an even more rag-tag founder and CEO. The five of us – our founder/CEO included – crisscrossed the country listening to and talking with American voters.

What we heard then should have prepared us for what happened this November. But all we could come up with was that opening line. To be fair, it was the election from hell.

But we didn’t need to visit Cleveland or Los Angeles to see how bad things had become. There was ample proof that our politics now reside in an intellectual cul-de-sac. People only want to hear themselves pontificate, or listen to those who confirm, affirm, and validate.

Still unsure? Ask yourself:

  • How many Democrats regularly listen to Fox News?
  • How many Republicans frequently tune into MSNBC?

Thirty years ago, voters rewarded politicians who spoke with vision and compassion about a “shining city on a hill,” “a thousand points of light,” or, “I feel your pain.” As recently as four years ago, we sought presidential candidates who were ultimately respectful, presidential, and statesmanlike.

Today? Both candidates in this year’s general election were so equally distrusted and despised by polarized sections of the electorate that their most effective message was, “Well, at least I’m not [insert other candidate].”

That was my conclusion then – back when I was part of that rag-tag group trying to put American voters’ beliefs into words. And sadly, it remains my conclusion today. Since Donald Trump blithely rode down an escalator, voters have demanded that politicians give voice and volume to their outrage. Anything less is politics or pandering.

As I said, I got it wrong. My job was to listen to them, and I didn’t hear a single word. But I’m not alone. Never has the political class/industry/elite so misread the electorate and so misunderstood American priorities. The echo chamber of journalists, politicians, corporate leaders and the international community kept reassuring itself that there was no way “a man like him” could win, even in times like these.

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But for decades, millions upon millions of Americans have felt looked down upon and left behind. They are mad as hell, and Donald Trump got it.

Bernie Sanders got it, too.

Bernie echoed Americans’ fears of a rigged system and spoke to their frustrations about a government that doesn’t have the courage to take on “Wall Street and the billionaire class.” But what Bernie got even better was how to communicate those shared fears and frustrations.

Here are the four ways Bernie did that:

1. He talked about ACTION, not INTENTIONS.

When your language centers around what you believe, intend to do, or even “can” do, many will assume they’re just hearing more empty promises. Make them trust you through directness and decisiveness. It sets you apart from just about everyone else – in Washington, on Wall Street, and on Main Street.

2. He talked about their daily struggles.

The most effective way to connect with voters – especially when they are so angry – is to present your argument through their eyes. Take the debate out of the distant and discouraging halls of Congress and into the homes of real Americans. Simply put: your language must humanize, personalize, and individualize.

3. He told them he “got it.”

It’s a simple phrase. Three words, in fact: “I get it.” And yet such a simple phrase can be the most powerful opening. Any speaker can disarm a skeptical audience or calm an angry crowd by leading with empathy – showing that you have compassion.

4. He focused on “what YOU deserve.”

Bernie didn’t forget that people are scared and angry. But he also knew that negative attacks would only get him so far. Instead, he offered solutions. Americans want to know that the problems they see can be fixed, and our job is to not merely tell them what is wrong; we must tell them ways to make it RIGHT.

There’s so much more Bernie Sanders did, and so much more that he didn’t do. He lost the Democratic primary, after all. But along the way, he proved how the right words at the right time can have an impact. Just like Donald Trump.

And just like Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders’s supporters came to his rallies in force – full-throated and ready to let him know just how much they cared. In fact, turnout in the 2016 Democratic primary rebounded from 2012 lows.

Whether that rebound was a result of voters’ enthusiasm for Sanders is hard to say. But what’s clear is that Hillary Clinton wasn’t able to get out the vote herself and that she lost both Democrats and independents to Trump, while Sanders had notorious luck with independent voters.

I’ll chalk that up to Bernie Sanders’s language. But then I’ve been wrong before.

josh-gardnerJoshua Gardner is a Vice President Qorvis MSLGROUP, focusing on CSR and corporate communications. Gardner joined MSLGROUP from Luntz Global Partners, where he managed all aspects of client engagement, including research, strategy, and message development. Whether working with Fortune 500s, professional sports teams, or candidates seeking elected office, Gardner helped them build their brands and shape their reputations with the language that wins.

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