[Up front, a disclaimer: This is not a “why Hillary Clinton lost” post. I’m as sick of those as you are. This is sharing some thoughts on a lesson I think we might learn, and improve on in the future.]
In addition to my various creative endeavors, in my day job I’m a nonprofit fundraiser. I don’t talk about it much because, frankly, I don’t think most people would find it especially interesting. But I’ve been doing it for about 15 years, and I’ve learned a lot of things.
The most important lesson I’ve learned as a fundraiser, I think, is talk with the donor about the donor. A lot of people, when they want to convince someone’s support, they start listing great things about the organization. How long they’ve been around, the great staff, the many people they’ve helped, and so on. But that’s wrong.
People want to hear about themselves, not about you.
Donors don’t want to support an organization, they want to do something good for the world. When you see a hurricane or a flood, you don’t give to the Red Cross because you’re worried about the organization. You give because you want to help the victims.
In that respect, philanthropy is a selfish act. Donors want something from their donation–they want the knowledge that their gift is doing good, and the feel-good feeling that comes along with that. For that reason, a good fundraiser doesn’t talk about how great the charity is. They talk about how great the donor is. Don’t talk about “me,” “we,” or “us.” The important word is always “You.”
Credit is due here to Tom Ahern and Jeff Brooks, from whom I learned this rule. In Brooks’s book How to Turn Your Words into Money, he goes so far as to present a template for a fundraising letter that is just the word “You” over and over again. From there, says Brooks, you fill in the blanks.
What can successful politicians learn from fundraisers?
So why do I bring this up now? Because I’ve been reflecting on the 2016 Election, and how Hillary Clinton failed to follow this rule.
One of the most common complaints I heard about Hillary was that she was “too ambitious.” This was from both Trump voters who hated her, and reluctant Democrats. Now, I will not discount the role sexism plays in this assessment. It’s classic sexism to regard ambition as a negative quality in a woman.
However, I think there may have been something else at play here as well. Hillary Clinton talked about herself a lot. I wonder if this created a perception that her campaign was about her, rather than about the voters, and if this might be what some voters meant when they said she was “too ambitious.”
Obama, and even Trump, talked more about the voters
I’ve been trying to recall how often, during his first Presidential campaign, Barack Obama even mentioned the fact that he would be the first Black President. I’ve asked friends, Googled, watched some old speeches, and I don’t think he ever mentioned it once. Other people did, certainly, but I don’t think Obama himself ever addressed it.
Hillary, by contrast, mentioned her opportunity to become the first woman president quite frequently. If it came up in every speech, that would not surprise me.
I don’t fault her for that, any more than I would fault Obama for mentioning his own historic opportunity. I mention it not because of his race, or her gender, but because that focus made Hillary’s rhetoric more self-oriented than Obama’s. Even the slogan, “I’m with Her,” put the focus on the candidate herself, rather than the people she sought to serve. While it would lack the clever double-meaning, “She’s with You” may have worked better, from that perspective.
In some respect, Hillary’s experience might have worked against her. Yes, she ranked among the most qualified candidate ever to run for President. And yes, as a woman she was under an unfair obligation to state her qualifications. But every time she recited her remarkable resume, she was talking about herself instead of talking about the voters.
The remarkable thing here is, if we analyze the rhetoric of Donald Trump, narcissist though he is, he did better. When Trump took the podium at any of his rallies, he talked a lot about the voters and his promises to them. I lack the resources to count the number of times each candidate used the word “You,” but I bet Trump far outpaced Clinton.
The candidate as cipher for voters’ hopes and dreams
There’s a particular similarity some commentators have pointed out between Barack Obama and Donald Trump. I’m paraphrasing here, but the similarity is that supporters of both candidates tended to attribute views neither candidate ever actually expressed. Each was, to some extent, a policy cipher onto whom voters could map their own wants and desires. In 2016, I had a Facebook friend explain to me how Donald Trump was going to eliminate the federal deficit and pay off the debt–during the same period when Trump himself promised to build a wall across the southern border and deliver massive investments in infrastructure.
I suspect part of the reason Trump and Obama presented this opportunity is because they talked more about the voters than about themselves. In contrast, by presenting so many concrete policy positions, Hillary won the allegiance of voters like me, but she also clearly defined herself. That stripped voters of the ability to attribute their own values.
At least I think that might be the case.
It’s possible that political strategists already embrace the same rule as fundraisers. Certainly, in 2016 fundraising is a priority role for political candidates–if not their primary responsibility. But it’s not something I’ve heard pundits comment on. I suspect it’s something to which candidates and strategists may want to pay closer attention.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons