It’s another Sunday, so for those who tune in, welcome to another discussion of the Nuts & Bolts of a Democratic campaign. If you’ve missed out, you can catch up any time: Just visit our group or follow the Nuts & Bolts Guide. Every week I try to tackle issues I’ve been asked about. With the help of other campaign workers and notes, we address how to improve and build better campaigns, or explain issues that impact our party.
I come from a background of high school and college speech and debate. Rhetorical theory is something I have spent a huge amount of my life committed to understanding and learning more about, especially how it impacts our political lives. When we talk inside of a debate round, we can lay out the practice of claims, grounds, and warrants, as well as disadvantages, advantages, solvency, and topicality. It just doesn’t seem to work that way when it comes to discussing politics. You don’t hear political candidates, their advocates, or their allies discuss policies in these terms. Should we? Every cycle, Democratic candidates tell me they want to raise the bar for social debate between the conservatives they can win over and bring the Democratic base up to an informed level to make that pitch to their friends. It feels good to say, and appropriate to say. There is another part of rhetoric we don’t talk about enough, however, out of the classic Agent, Act, Agency, Scene, Purpose. What do we miss? The purpose. There is only one purpose to a campaign: to win. In that case, the act of debate may be falling short in current political work and is ill-advised for anyone not at the top of the campaign.
If there is resistance, move on
I sit through a lot of training programs every year. I do it because every year because there are so many great ideas and real data that can help inform me of new practices that can improve the way other candidates will perform. One thing I have been told frequently by others is “I can train field workers in minutes.” I generally reject that idea. I normally find it to be better to take a bit of time with someone who is going to be out knocking on doors to make sure they follow a set of known good practices. Near the top of that list is: Do not argue at a door.
If someone opens a door and they are resistant to your candidate, you thank them and you move on. Don’t work at all—and this is important—at all, in trying to persuade that voter. There are a few reasons for this, but the most important part is that people who are working a canvass are not the candidate. They can read a pamphlet, but they aren’t active surrogates trained to know the candidate’s positions in such detail that they can, or should, speak on behalf of the candidate. Almost as important is the fact that not only does debate with that one voter result in no net benefit, it slows down your canvass from reaching voters who you really need to turn out for you on Election Day.
The web is where reasonable debate dies
Maybe, you think, you can show some people, at least old Facebook friends, the error of their ways by arguing with them. Pew Research in 2016 found this is the way Americans feel about that:
When asked how they view the tone of the political discussions they see on social media, a substantial share of social media users feel these platforms are uniquely angry and disrespectful venues for engaging in political debate. Some 40% of users agree strongly with the notion that social media are places where people say things while discussing politics that they would never say in person (an additional 44% feel that this statement describes social media somewhat well).\
This doesn’t mean just leave information that’s complete nonsense unchecked, but at a certain point, know your limits. Don’t waste your breath. Know when it helps your cause the most to just say: “It’s clear you don’t want to have a reasonable discussion, so I have better things to do, like go burn my fingerprints off on the stove.”
Every moment you spend in front of an LCD screen fighting with someone whose attitude you aren’t going to change is a moment you are not using to do absolutely anything else that might actually help turn out Democratic voters.
Political debate isn’t a classroom, and you aren’t scoring a debate round
If you haven’t had time and you’ve done debate in the past, ask your local high school if they need someone to judge a round or two of high school debate. This will be the first season I haven’t actively been judging rounds. In those rounds, you set speaks and decide the round. There are clear winners and losers in a debate round.
A political debate is almost never that clear. In fact, even when it is clear, it just doesn’t seem to matter. It’s a fun event, and people enjoy it, but the fact is, it just doesn’t move the needle. I would argue that a candidate could sit up and refuse to speak, just announce, “I’m only here so I don’t get fined,” over and over again, and they would garner a big part of the Republican support. Now, if they were a Democratic candidate, they might lose some support, but not as much as people would think.
In this aspect, think of political debates as an opportunity to learn more about your opponent and to hold those positions against them for, well, future ads or mailings. That is the point of a debate. If you can find them making a slip that can go into an advertisement, that’s worth your while.
Comments, thoughts, debate? Respond below!