Democratic hopefuls could learn from Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg

Longtime scholar Dan Nimmo, whose research has contributed to the disciplines of political science, journalism, and communication, was one of the first to define and analyze the various audiences to whom political candidates might address themselves. These audiences ranged from true believers (the base who must be motivated to work for the campaign), to those open to persuasion (voters who may not have made up their minds and/or don’t follow the campaign closely), to those who are weakly supportive and must be motivated to vote, to those firmly committed to the opposition candidate and who are beyond persuasive reach. 

For Nimmo, the key question faced by all candidates is: Strategically, to which audiences do you want to allocate a finite amount of money and devote limited rhetorical resources?

What has become clear since Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democratic senator introduces bill to ban gun silencers Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question MORE became President is that politicians seem more inclined than ever to communicate primarily to their own tribe; there is a reticence to target the opposition’s audience.

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Two notable exceptions to this trend are Vermont Senator Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Biden to debate for first time as front-runner Rules for first Democratic primary debates announced MORE and South Bend Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Biden to debate for first time as front-runner Rules for first Democratic primary debates announced MORE. To be clear, I am not endorsing or recommending either as the choice of the Democrats for President of the United States. I have not made up my mind about who to support — and won’t until more is known about each candidate.

Nevertheless, as someone who has spent more than 40 years studying and teaching communication, I applaud both Sanders and Buttigieg for the way they are responding to their audiences, and hence teaching other presidential hopefuls important rhetorical lessons.

First, consider Sanders: We must applaud his decision to do a town hall inside the Fox News bubble — a place one would guess is unfriendly to his policy proposals — on the evening of Monday, April 15. It should be noted that Sanders is one of only a small number of Democrats thus far to enter this den. Actually, Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellRules for first Democratic primary debates announced What do millennials want? 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the first Democratic showdown MORE and Buttigieg may be the only others to appear on Fox. Sanders was the first to do a town hall. This is significant rhetorically.

A key principle in political communication is that candidates for public office may not be successful by exclusively preaching to the choir. Sanders’ decision to talk with Fox News shows that he and his handlers understand this principle. Moreover, moving outside his comfort zone — to speak to an audience comprised of many who do not share his political beliefs — appears to have been successful.

To the surprise — if not chagrin — of the Fox hosts, Sanders received enthusiastic applause from the town hall audience on several important issues; most notably, the audience expressed a clear willingness to give up their current healthcare insurance plan for a single payer provider.

The rhetorical lesson Sanders may be teaching his fellow Democratic presidential aspirants is obvious: To defeat Donald Trump will require going well beyond their political base; it will necessitate getting outside the echo chamber that already embraces their candidacy.

With Buttigieg, a second rhetorical principle is emerging — one quite distinct from Sanders. Recent polling and campaign donation data reveals that with each day, every new speech and additional interview, Americans are becoming increasingly impressed by Buttigieg. Why? Perhaps it is because his rhetorical message is unique.

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First, Buttigieg’s discourse underscores his sharp intellect, compassion, clear vision and hope for America, impeccable understanding of history, ability to talk directly to voters, and thorough grounding in the issues facing our nation — all of which are nothing less than striking.

Second, and more significant, Buttigieg has chosen — deliberately, I suspect — rarely to invoke Trump’s name or attack him explicitly and directly. From a rhetorical perspective this is important. Buttigieg appears to have decided not to alienate Trump voters which might give them additional reasons and motivation to vote for the incumbent President.

This rhetorical choice could prove that Buttigieg is that once-in-a-lifetime presidential candidate who comes on the scene at precisely the right time with a potentially persuasive, positive and bipartisan message — a message avoiding attack and calling for genuine change (where “change” is more than a cliché and tired rhetorical trope) to extricate the country from a dangerous time in history.

In short, whoever the Democrats nominate, it would behoove them to take note of the rhetorical lessons being taught by Sanders and Buttigieg.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to note that Buttigieg had also appeared on Fox.

Richard Cherwitz is Ernest S. Sharpe Centennial Professor in the Moody College of Communication’s Department of Rhetoric and Writing at University of Texas, Austin, and a founding director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium, a nationally-acclaimed cross-disciplinary initiative designed to leverage knowledge for social good by educating “citizen-scholars.”