3 Reasons That Conservatives Lose Elections

Whether you’re living the reality of the Trump campaign or watching it from the relative safety of being in Canada, it seems that conservatives are having an especially tough time lately. There are a lot of different reasons that candidates lose elections, but conservatives too often are the authors of their own misfortune.

As a communications consultant, I’ve noticed that the errors that conservatives make — whether it’s PC Party in Ontario, the federal Conservative party leadership candidates or GOP candidates in the USA — are often more about message than money. Although partisan fund-raising is important, elections today are won and lost by winning over the ‘independent’ voter.

In crafting a communication strategy, the focus should be on reaching the independent rather than ‘energizing the base’. The problem with communication strategies that energize the conservative base is that the messages that work for the base tend to put off the independent voter, whereas a messages that engage independent voters usually don’t put off the base. This is particularly noticeable in Canada right now — there are some leadership candidates who seem to be running to be the leader of the Conservative Party — and there are other leadership candidates who are running to be the next Conservative Prime Minister.

Independent voters turn away from conservatives because of three major communication errors.

1. TALKING ABOUT VALUES.

No one ever used the phrase ‘holier than thou” as a compliment, yet too many conservatives can’t resist the temptation to extol their ‘values’ as a reason voters should support them. The problem isn’t that people of faith and conscience make for incompetent politicians but that in the pluralist society we live in, people are wary of the government interfering in their personal lives.

One unalterable reality about today’s pluralistic society is that whatever your values or religious beliefs are, you are probably in a minority of people who agree with you 100% of the time on 100% of the issues.

The prospect of the full resources of the state being brought down on someone with different idea as to what ‘values’ mean than your candidate is a deal-breaker for the independent voter.

Live your values. Don’t talk about them.

2. TALKING ABOUT TAXPAYERS.

Leaving aside that corporations are ‘taxpayers’ too, and don’t get to vote, it is Communications 101 to avoid using words with a negative connotation whenever possible. “Tax” is one of those negative words. Replace ‘taxpayers’ with ‘citizens’ or ‘Canadians’ and you get a more positive statement — every time.

Years ago, I worked for a company whose president was a prominent Democrat and he told me that the secret to winning an election in the USA was to say, ‘this is the greatest country on earth — but together we can make it even better.’ The brilliant optimism of that message is what all campaign speech should emulate — a positive path forward. (Remember “The Shining City on the Hill”?)

Keep it positive.

3. APPEALING TO FEAR.

Whether it’s talking about ‘law and order’ or immigration, conservatives have developed an unfortunate knack for trying to frighten people into voting for them. One of the reasons this backfires is that people create negative associations with speakers who use negative language. Remember ‘the medium is the message’? It’s true.

If your candidate has a scary message — you have a scary candidate.

If you try to frighten people, they will be frightened. Of you. Conservatives who campaign on optimism (remember “Morning in America”?) do much better than those who campaign on fear and loathing. There was a time when conservatism was about promoting freedom and economic growth. To listen to today’s conservatives, it doesn’t seem to be about that anymore.

Maybe a new generation of leaders can change that.