Heather Higgins: Moving the Needle

Conservative warrior reveals the secrets to tipping the scales in the Right's favor at the Freedom Center's Restoration Weekend.

Below are the video and transcript of Heather Higgins’ speech which took place at the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s 2015 Restoration Weekend. The event was held November 5-8th at the Belmond Charleston Place Hotel in Charleston, South Carolina.

Heather Higgins from DHFC on Vimeo.

Heather Higgins: If you think about it, what percentage of the voting population at this point are Independents; whether they are formally Independents in the Independent party or they simply think of themselves that way?  What percentage of the electorate – any guesses?

Next Speaker: (inaudible).

Heather Higgins: Correct.  So it’s actually larger than Republicans. And now to be fair a lot of these people are more conservative than Republicans or more liberal than Democrats.

Next Speaker: What was the number?

Heather Higgins: It’s about 40, 45 percent, and it’s because they don’t self-describe that way, but that’s a ballpark number.  It used to be about a third.  It’s now grown because of the disenchantment with both parties.

All right, women.  Women are now – would anyone like to guess what percentage of the electorate women are?

Next Speaker: (inaudible)

Higgins: I heard 54, but it’s 55. Thank you. You’ve made my case even better.  Women also vote at a higher rate than men do; so for the men in the audience who think that the last thing they want to do is support a women’s group, understand that if you have any interest in winning elections you have to think of this as a market segmentation issue and you can’t leave out that part of the market if you want to win.  So if you want to win these constituents, you would think that we would be good at going after them, but in fact the Republican Party has had a pretty terrible track record at going after exactly these people.

And so my theory was, well, if you want to get a different result maybe you ought to do something different.  And so for the last 5 years I have been working to provide the margin that matters in races that are toss-ups or worse.  We have had a string of wins because when we look at these things we try to think, how do you play chess rather than playing checkers?  And we approach it much as the way the NRA does.  When the NRA decides that they want a particular candidate to be elected because he’s good on their issue, sometimes they run ads on guns, but very often they run ads on something entirely different and never even mention guns because their goal is to win the race, not to make themselves feel good about the ads that they’ve run.

Similarly we try to think about what is it that we need to say to have impact with these people. It’s been remarkably successful. In the back of the room there’s a two‑sided handout for those who are interested. We now have effectively a 90 percent win rate on races that were dubbed toss-up or worse as well as some messaging campaigns, just to see how much we could move the needle.  And you would think that this would be a good thing, but in fact Pat Cadell is not the only one who feels like he is racking up people who don’t like him.  I have been racking up a number of cohorts that basically wish I would go away, and that’s political consultants and campaign consultants. And they dislike me because I’m different.  I do different things and the comparisons get awkward and it’s particularly awkward for them when they get a lot of donors who keep urging them to be more like me or to do what we’re doing.

Just some areas of difference – in deployment, they tend to support their friends and we tend to go do what the data tells us to do.  Their driver for what they do tends to be commissions, sadly.  Money goes where the commissions are greatest, as opposed to what will actually win, and their metric of success (as you can really tell in 2012, but elsewhere as well) is how much they spend, and ours is whether we actually win and the data and the results that we get for where we were able to move the needle.

I’m not complaining. It’s good to be wanted to be gotten away with for the right reasons.  And there are lots of people who, as a corollary to that, actually like us, including long-shot candidates that others had given up on, donors who want a high return on their investment for their political dollars and Americans who may not be large donors themselves but they want to see things that are strategic that win and that start getting the country back on track.

So here’s what I’ve learned and that I want to encourage you to steal and incorporate.  I’m going to break it into three categories.  The first is talking about the messenger, the second is about messaging and the third is about the message vehicle.  All three components work together if you’re going to be persuasive with audiences that normally don’t tend to like to hear from Republicans and conservatives.

Let me talk first about the messenger.  Branding matters.  If you get a piece of mail, or you see an ad, or you get a phone call, and it’s from some group that you think you don’t like, you never pay attention to what they have to say.  You’ve hung up on it or tuned it out before you ever get a chance to penetrate.  So we have worked hard to create a branded organization that does not carry partisan baggage.  It’s called Independent Women’s Voice.  Being branded as neutral, but actually having the people who know know that you’re actually conservative puts us in a unique position.  Either groups are conservative or they tend to be genuinely mushy middle, in which case you have no idea where they’re going to come out on a particular policy issue.  Our value here (and what is needed in the Republican conservative arsenal) is a group that can talk to those cohorts that wouldn’t otherwise listen but can do it in a way that is taking a conservative message and packaging it in a way that will be acceptable and will get a hearing.

And measures of how this plays are indicated by the fact that we’ve used it in places as diverse as Massachusetts.  Our first effort at this strategy was the Scott Brown race in 2010 – redefining that as being about healthcare in the 41st vote when everybody else was talking about the economy and national security issues that had polled well that September, but by January were not the ones that were going to close his 20‑point gap.

On the other side of the ledger we went into this Mark Sanford race after the NRCC had pulled out.  In that case we needed to be able to talk to evangelicals to get them to frankly hold their nose and vote for Mark in order to be able to hold onto that seat and not have the liberal win it and hold onto it as has happened in other states when liberals pretend to be moderates.  Or, most recently in Kentucky where we went into the race right before the end.  Everybody was sure that Bevin was going to lose the governorship and we looked at it and said, “This is really close.  We think we could make a difference here.  It’s worth trying.“  I think only 15,000 of the people we spoke to were Republicans and all the rest were Democrats and liberals and Independents.  So, by having this branding you can go places that perhaps if you’re the Republican National Committee or the RGA – which play incredibly important roles, but they can’t get access the way that we can.

On the message there are four different areas that I want to focus on if you want to be effective with these cohorts.

The first is tone.  We’ve all heard the phrase, “don’t ask, don’t tell.”  My variant on that is don’t bash and don’t yell.  If you want to get a hearing with these audiences you need to be much more polite, much more giving, much more generous, much softer, much more empathetic.  You want to lead with concern for people; not things, not money – even though for male Independents economic arguments matter, but you need to frame it in a way that shows that you care.

And that leads us to our second point, which is the style.  Humor and facts are incredibly important – facts from trusted sources.  One of the examples of humor working well – floating around this conference somewhere is Richard Miniter, who runs a new group called American Media Institute, which I would encourage you all to find out about it.  It’s a non‑profit that is also very important in the facts department because he is getting news stories published as news stories in mainstream media rather than just as opinion pieces.  So they’ve got tremendous weight, resonance, and we can then use them in a way that you can’t use an opinion piece to have credibility with these cohorts.

But I was working in 2012 on trying to move women who were soft Obama approvers into being Obama-disapproving and I wanted to make an ad that they would like and that they would think was speaking to them from somebody who understood them and that they would then share with their friends.  And we in fact – I was talking about this with Rich and he said, “Oh, you mean the women that I’m dating.  I’ve dated tons of women like that.“  Obviously, this means that all of us ought to go find Rich better dates.  But he in about 15 minutes wrote the script for me of all the things that these women complain about in their other boyfriends.  And then we pivoted at the very end where you have two women on a couch, talking about this relationship that had not worked for the last 4 years.  It had started with such promise but he’d been so disappointing in so many possible ways and at the very end you zoom in on a hope and change poster and Obama winks or smiles.  It’s incredibly funny and when we showed it we were able to move disapproval 9 points in the right direction and diminish approval by 6 points.  And, so, we did a series of these ads and they worked really well.

We found out later that a bunch of people had said to the RNC, “You need to give Heather money to get this more broadly on the air,” and instead what happened was the RNC came out with its own version of that ad – same concept of a woman talking about her breakup with her boyfriend who at the end turns out, in their version, to be a cut‑out of Obama sitting on the other side of the table.  But they took out everything that made it empathetic and funny to these women and turned them into the butt of the joke so that Republican donors would think it was funny, but no swing-voting women would ever think it was funny, and if anything you would kind of harden them in their defensiveness about this position.

So, using humor to get a viewing, using it the right way with the right tone is important.  Using facts (which I’ll talk about in a little bit) and often as doing it in the form of questions where you assume that the listeners can make up their own mind rather than being a hammer on an anvil and telling them what to think.

Men in the audience – how many of you have wives who like you to tell them what to think?  Oh, there’s a dearth on hands.  I wonder why.  Okay, and for people who think that they are Independents – how many of them want to be told what to think?  By definition, male or female, if you self-describe as an Independent you want to believe that you’re making up your own mind.  So, part of the subtlety of this is to make sure that even though you are leading people to a conclusion, you don’t do it in a way where you say, “This is what you need to think.“  Because all you’ll do is create a backlash.

The third piece of effective messaging is the values component.  And by values, I would recommend to all of you that a marvelous book to read is by Jonathan Height.  It’s called, The Righteous Mind, and it explained to me why what I was doing instinctively actually had scientific validity and worked.  He wrote this as a liberal Democrat trying to explain to the Democratic Party why they were so tone deaf about issues that mattered to conservatives and obtuse about why we would care about the flag and why we would care about family and why we would care about religious freedom (among other things).  In the process of writing the book he had an epiphany that he actually agreed with the conservative understanding of human nature.

If you get to Chapter 11 and 12 (which are the most important chapters in the book for his epiphany, which most reviewers did not get to; so if you cheat and just read the reviews you won’t get to that); he has since actually moved even further to the right and he’s now self-describing as a conservative because he was trying to have a class at NYU showing films about how people reacted to other statements and one of the lesbians in the class decided that he had triggered her and that that was micro-aggression.  And he then got embroiled in one of these dramas that you’ve heard so much about in colleges and it has totally finished the move of him along the philosophical trajectory.  But it is where – for those of you who are familiar with Arthur Brooks – a lot of what he says at AEI about values – Jon is one of his best friends and that has influenced a lot of that.  It is a great book to read.

And the reason that I reference it here is that a lot of the values that conservatives talk to are only held by conservatives; whereas if we talk about fairness and harm, they are held by 100 percent of the country.  Now on fairness, the hard left will have a definition of fairness that is redistributive and different than everyone else although the words still will work with them.  So you’re still talking to 80 percent of the country.

If you talk about money, that works with nobody because it’s not a value, except for very few people who sort of internally translate what that is.

So, repackaging your arguments in terms of who they help and who they hurt, and whether or not they are fair is incredibly helpful and I will show that in the next example when I talk about content, which is the fourth piece of messaging.

I have finally figured out, I think, why this is the case that the right always wants to talk about what moves the base.  They don’t believe that people’s minds can be changed and so, therefore, they use a form of, essentially, consumer brand marketing in which (if you are making Cheerios cereal) you go out and you find out people who love Cheerios cereal and you figure out why they love Cheerios cereal and then you do in your ads those arguments that work for them in the hopes that other people who share those values will also then discover Cheerios cereal.

The left does it very differently, and I discovered that I am an instinctual Democrat.  The left says, ”Hey, the base are going to vote with us anyway.  I don’t need to worry about them except in a primary.  The reach voters I’m never going to get.  That’s not a good place to spend my money.  What I need to worry about are the people who make that incremental difference about whether or not I win or lose.  That’s the swing.  Those are the people I need to talk to.”

And, if you have ever wondered why Obama, and Hillary and all the rest talk about, for example, the middle class – and what they want to do and how the rhetoric is a mile away from their policy – it is because they are talking to the middle.

The model of the right is we talk to the base and then compromise on our policy and give up what we should be going for on our policy.  Whereas the left talks to the middle, but then implements their policy, as they understand it to be.  And I would argue that the left has a far superior model.  We should be talking to the middle and then doing the principled thing in our votes, but explaining it in a way that it is appealing to the average American voter.

The thing that I do that goes one step beyond that is, where possible, I look to try to figure out – and this is because in my youth I was Bob Bartley’s first-ever intern at the Wall Street Journal.  And, so, when you’re writing editorials there and you’re trying to be persuasive, one of the things that I tried to think about is, “Why do people disagree with me?  What is it that’s stopping them from agreeing with us and is there something that I can say that will change that predicate thought that will change how they vote?”

And I have started to implement this as political practice after Wisconsin.  You all remember the legislative walk-out.  You were probably glued to your television sets as I was watching what was going on.  I was distressed to discover that the longer it went on the more Walker’s numbers went south on this union fight.  I started Googling up the ads that our friends were running to support the Governor and was very concerned.

Full disclosure – I’m from Manhattan.  I know that gives me horns.  I’m from New York.  It’s a curse – Sodom and Gomorrah on the east.  But, growing up there as a conservative means that you have a different ear.  And I took one look at these ads and I went, “Oh, my gosh. This certainly will not help and it may very well hurt.“  So, I raised some money and I went into Wisconsin right after this had happened and did survey work and polling work and came away not only with the conclusion, which the Governor reified, but also it was really clear that our ads had hurt.  But, more importantly, I thought I had an insight into why Independents and women had gone upside down on the Governor – which was that the people who were supporting the unions (outside of the hard left, who have their own reasons for being there, for collective everything) were locked in a 1950s understanding of union compensation for public sector workers.  And, they believed that they were sacrificing to hold these jobs.  That meant that it was already unfair – the situation they were in – and what Walker was proposing would have been even more unfair to these people.

So, I was able, finally, before the Walker recall, to raise some money to do a test and this is where I had my epiphany.

I got a call from my pollster and my political guy telling me that they had done the baseline test because I was going to break the universe of Independents into two cohorts – one that was going to be my control group and the other was going to be my treatment group to see if what I wanted to do actually worked.

And, they said, “We have good news and bad news.  The bad news is that there are only two issues that work in Wisconsin.  The good news is that they work really well; and so we should do ads on the billion dollars saved and the differences in the teacher outcomes because those are the issues that work.  We should put all the money in that.“  And I said, “Thank you very much, gentlemen, but we’re not going to do either.“ ”What do you mean, we’re not going to do –“  And, I said, “Well, if you look, if there’s reportedly $10 million that’s being spent by the Walker campaign and the outside groups, and it’s on exactly those issues…so, that’s already being done.  We’re going to do this other thing of trying to see if we can change people’s minds about the predicate thought that is leading them to believe that what he’s proposing is unfair.”

They spent an hour and a half arguing with me on the phone – that they had had 30 years of campaign experience each and what I was going to do was a total disaster and couldn’t possibly work.  And I’m perfectly happy to be proven wrong.  I have just been itching for over a year to try this.  And, so, they finally decided they would humor me and were looking forward to explaining to me how wrong this was.

But, to their shock and amazement when we got done, while the control group was right where the rest of the state was with Walker leading Barrett (this was 2 weeks before the election) by 5 points, the people who had gotten our messaging were now at 36 points for Walker – so, a net 31 point gain.

You’re not going to repeat that all the time.  The state of Wisconsin was unbelievable fixated on this issue so there was a staggeringly high listen rate to the phone calls that we drove into people’s houses with quizzes and so‑forth.  We had four different calls, two minutes long each.  Seventy-five percent of households listened all the way through to all four calls.  Ninety-five percent of households listened all the way through at least one call.

But the point was proven, and we have since done that on healthcare and we’ve done it on economics.  And I think there are other opportunities to do that.  And it’s part of what we did in Kentucky.

The third piece of messaging after the messenger and the message itself is the message vehicle.  And, obviously, this can take an awful lot of forms.  TV ads are the first things that people think about, but there’s also phone and radio and mail.  There’s grassroots.  There’s social media.  In this I would encourage you all to focus on what is effective, not just what brings in the biggest commissions.  And there are wrinkles to this that I think that our team really needs to work on and one of the biggest is in the gray area of grassroots.

Charlie Kirk is sitting in the back.  I would encourage all of you to – you’re talking the last day, aren’t you?  So change your planes and stay for the very last panel.  Charlie runs Turning Point USA, which is a wonderful new organization which is trying to round up college kids and now high school kids (in fact, he’s captivated my son, who’s going to start a chapter at Stuyvesant High School in New York) and turn them into basically Moveon.org for the right.  And he’s doing a wonderful job with it.

And the reason that I want to flag this as particularly important is one of my frustrations with the Republican Party and conservative efforts generally is that so much of our grassroots effort is wasted money.  We go in, we parachute – either we have single-issue groups or we have groups that are so top‑down that they don’t have indigenous buy‑in (although some of them are now starting to change that for the good).  Or, most often, you will find that political campaigns will parachute into an area, pay top dollar to consultants and staffers to round up people from other groups (and often people – so a lot of your volunteers are not from that area and sometimes not even from that state) and then they go and dismantle what little organization they’ve created after the election is done and have to go do it all over again.

And part of that is because they believe that the secret to all this is data.  But if you look at the left, the left understands human psychology far better than the right does and they know that data is just a tool.  And, what really grassroots is about is relationships.  That’s why Organize for America is in on the ground and stays on the ground.  And once they’re there, they don’t leave.  They’re there in off years.  They’re there in on years.  It’s the same person who’s there for 3, 4, 5, 6 years.  When you get a call on the left that you should vote for somebody or turn out for something, it’s from somebody that you’ve met.  It’s from somebody that you have a relationship with.  And yes, the left has great data, but they do it to advance the relationship.

We have dismantled a lot of our infrastructure for relationships on the right and it is tremendously important to build them back.  When I was playing in a lot of the closely contested senate races in ‘14, one of the things I was given money to do was to see if we could – we’re trying to build out something called Independent Women’s Network, which is a grassroots effort for this genuinely indigenous, for women who are not yet (and men) part of (because it’s interesting – men want to go where there are a lot of women – don’t blame them) and create these groups that are not for people who are already members of grassroots groups (because why waste the money getting them twice), but to encourage and persuade.

Basically the small evangelical group model for getting people to feel that there’s a community that actually agrees with them and they will do what they do because that’s what their friends do.  We forget how incredibly hard it is if you’re, say, a 25‑year‑old female; you don’t even know any Republicans.  All of your friends are Democrats.  How difficult it is to even say that you might be a conservative on some issue or other?  We’re talking about identifying with social pariahs.  What 25‑year‑old wants to do that, or even 20‑year‑old?  So, creating communities where people can find others that they like and then slowly absorb their views is important.

On New Hampshire we didn’t have time to build that kind of an infrastructure, so I had always wanted to test the efficacy of issues messaging versus standard political messaging.  And so we created two groups against the test groups and I will tell you this – with Republicans it really doesn’t matter what you send them because they’re going to vote anyway.  But if you’re talking with swing voters and independents, it’s incredibly important.  We gained an additional 6 points for talking in an issues-only non‑partisan way.

But if you look at the data overall, it actually cost Scott Brown 3 to 4 points to have a household be visited by somebody from out of the state and out of the area.  It creates a backlash.  It’s basically not too different from Chicago where if you’re going and knocking on doors and you’re not from that ward, it matters.  It’s part of why the effort by Moveon.org to turn Texas blue backfired, because they were importing people to tell people from Texas how to vote.

So, building indigenous infrastructure – the social relations of grassroots – is going to be incredibly important to a successful effort to reach out to these cohorts.

So, I have given you my observations built over the last several years and I ask that you join me in taking back our country, winning races that we are not supposed to win, and building a majority that will do the hard work that we need to do in order to stop the metastasizing march of the ideas of the left.

Thank you.