Framing the Populist Message

This election year, the populist message just might pay off

Drew Westen
Drew Westen

"On a whole range of issues, and the economy is clearly one of them," says Emory University professor Drew Westen, "Ameri­cans are actually much more progressive than you would expect." So why do progressive candidates have such a hard time translating those sentiments into votes? It's all about how the message is delivered, says Westen – the author of The Political Brain – and that's why he and his colleagues at the Campaign for America's Future ( have created an "economic war room" to "deliver daily poll-tested talking points to candidates," bloggers, and other activists.

"Populist messages, at this particular point in history, people are responding particularly well to them," Westen said in a teleconference last week with campaign Co-Director Robert Borosage and pollster Celinda Lake. "We've heard for years that America is a center-right country. In fact, strong messages on everything from abortion to taxes to national security, strong progressive or center-progressive messages, actually win by 10 to 20 points, if you take the time to develop them carefully and think about who your audience is and remember that your goal is to communicate both your policy and your values."

The economy is the top issue for voters right now, says Lake. The disapproval of Americans' current political leaders, she said, is "rooted originally in disgruntlement with the war, but now really shifting to being upset about the economy."

Lake says 86% of Americans say the economy is in bad shape, and 75% believe we are now in a recession. Two-thirds believe their children won't fare as well economically as they have. But it's not enough for progressives to just state the obvious. "One thing we've found is to just say, before you even ask people to vote for any candidates, that the economy is in recession and Washington is doing nothing to solve the problems facing our families. Voters wildly agree with that sentiment. ... When we frame the race in those terms, the candidate who is talking about change picks up 5 to 10 points."

She says she tested a typical Republican message on the economy vs. two alternatives: first, a Democratic critique of the economy and then against a "populist message that offers solution."

"We actually lost when we talked just about the critique," Lake said. "People said: 'I can get together with any three of my neighbors and tell you what's wrong. I want to know what you're going to do about it.' When we offered a populist and positive solution, talking about taking on the economy for the middle class instead of CEOs and multinationals, making the wealthy pay their fair share ... we actually won that debate by 26 points. Among independents, the difference was even more dramatic.

"We're doing this because the economy is a mess," said Borosage. The Campaign for America's Future economic war room hopes to offer "both a critique of the conservative policies that have driven us off the road and into this ditch and putting forth a progressive set of ideas that will give us a shot at getting out of the ditch. ... We believe this is a time when Americans have really understood that the current arrangement doesn't work for them."

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Campaign for America's Future
Naked City
Naked City
Headlines and Happenings from Austin and Beyond

July 7, 2006

More by Lee Nichols
From the Music Desk
From the Music Desk
On Willie, Billy, Stevie Ray, Blaze, and more highlights from four decades of covering Austin music

Sept. 3, 2021

Game Changer
Game Changer
A new football culture for Austin bars

Oct. 23, 2015


Campaign for America's Future, Robert Borosage, Celinda Lake, Drew Westen, election

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle