The shellacking delivered upon American Democrats during the 2010 midterm elections did not need to happen. And if Democratic strategists had applied a psychological principle utilized every day by millions of people all over the world, it may not have.
Conservatives’ resounding electoral victory in 2010 was fueled by anger over what would eventually become the Obama administration’s signature legislative achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.” For liberals, the act marked a necessary improvement upon a broken health care system. For conservatives, it was the signal of a massive government takeover.
What the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats failed to fully appreciate was that passing the bill was only half the goal. The other half was managing public opinion so that the momentum of this massive reform would carry over into the midterm elections. A Democratic victory there would help facilitate passage of the party’s other priorities for at least two more years.
To be fair, Democrats attempted to lure voters to their side through a series of town hall meetings, but these were destined to fail. They focused too heavily on what people think, the set of rational justifications for reform like, for example, that patients would no longer be denied coverage for preexisting conditions, or that children would be able to stay on their parents’ health plans until they reach 26.
Few people are wonkish on policy and most develop their opinions based on gut instincts and basic premises. Rare is the blue collar worker who can discuss the merits of a cap and trade system versus a carbon tax, for example.
Instead, Democrats should have focused on how people think. They needed to understand how two identical proposals can be viewed into two totally different lights depending upon the path taken to get there.
Their fundamental flaw was the choice of starting point. As any haggler or negotiation expert will advise, start high and let the other side come to you. But President Obama, the eternal mediator, believed in letting Congressional Democrats set the stage. They began with a collection of “reasonable” proposals that conceded so much to conservatives right off the bat, that many liberals considered the bill’s starting point to be right of center.
The key the Democrats needed to understand was that the purpose of a “high starting point” was not to compel conservative legislators towards the center – that was never going to happen within a party for which compromise is anathema. Following Obama’s election, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell proclaimed that making Obama a one-term President was his “single most important political goal along with every active Republican in the country.” It should have been clear to Democrats that earning any concessions from the other side of the aisle would be extremely difficult.
Rather, their purpose should have been to use negotiation tactics to persuade the public at large. By launching with a strongly leftist health care proposal, then migrating towards the center, centrists and conservatives would have had no choice but to view each new version of the bill relative to older, more liberal versions.
And as psychological research reveals, people are more sensitive to relative position than to absolute position. For instance, someone who enters a 55 degree room from a winter blizzard is going to perceive the temperature to be more favorable than someone who’s been sitting there for an hour.
While it is not always consciously acknowledged, this principle is employed by commercial outfits all the time. Skilled real estate agents admit to showing undesirable properties first, like those in dangerous neighborhoods or near busy highways, not because they expect them to be purchased, but because it will make the better houses they intend to show later look plum by comparison. Run the experiment in reverse by showing mansions first, and the plum house will seem insufficient in contrast.
Step into any Best Buy and you will doubtless be confronted by walls of HDTVs. The majority cost several hundred dollars, some will top $1000 and a select few “elite” units retail for over $7000. Without the elite sets, the $1000 items are the most expensive of the lot, and consumers rarely purchase the most expensive item available. Offer a couple HDTVs that are 7 times the price, and all of a sudden a $1000 unit looks like a huge value by comparison. The presence of the extreme option enhances the perceived value of the mid-range option.
The same premise that works in business manifests itself in personal relationships. Schadenfreude and the idea of “keeping up with the Joneses” both capture the idea that human happiness is a function of our position relative to others. Several years ago when I asked one of my more ambitious friends from MIT about his career plans after graduation he commented, “Well, I’m either going to get a job at Goldman Sachs, or I’ll become a bum.” While this statement seems objectively ridiculous, it’s far less so when you realize that he, like most of us, tends to measure our worth relative to those immediately around us.
For Democrats, their great missed opportunity in the health care debate was their failure to offer their own “elite” version of health care – the type of over-the-top plan where the government pays for any health care you want, offers it instantly, forever and throws a popsicle in to boot.
This broad relinquishment of power to the government would have admittedly been too much for many conservatives to stomach, but the point would never have been for them to swallow. The proposal would have been a straw man created for political opposition like Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Party to lash into and eviscerate.
But as in business, moving towards a more reasonable position adds value en route. Infomercials advertise the ShamWow not for $60, not even for $40 – but for only $19.99! And if you buy right now, you’ll get a second set and
the ShamWow mop absolutely free! These types of sales pitches are ubiquitous because they are effective. The base price is kept artificially high so that the discounted price they intended to sell at the entire time seems like a tremendous value in comparison.
Gradually, the Democrats could have reined in their plan, approaching the house they intended to sell the entire time. Each center-converging policy iteration would have added value in the eyes of the swayable center and saddled the conservative media with the burden of railing against a plan that conceded to many of their objections. Should the criticisms persist long enough, the unwavering opposition runs the risk of being perceived as increasingly petulant and unreasonable.
However, this value added approach is no panacea. Hardcore conservatives and Republican lawmakers dead set against health care reform would have voted against it regardless of how the final proposal was reached. But since relative reform adds value, a Democratic proposal reached via concessions would have had greater worth in the eyes of the public than the same version which was just dropped on the country. Ultimately, a series of value added liberal policies could have shifted the political center leftward and better facilitated a sustainable majority.
They say you never realize what you had until it’s gone. If the Democrats are smart, they will take their 2010 electoral walloping as a lesson in messaging and missed opportunity. If they do, the Democrats of the future just may be smart, competent and persuasive – if only by comparison.