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Ryan Green and Austin Berg work at Iron Light Communications and consult with advocates across the country to help them persuade people about political issues. In 2020, they opposed a constitutional amendment to install a graduated income tax in Illinois, which voters rejected 53 to 47. Green also published an article, Using Persuasion to Win the Culture War, which outlines its approach. Green and Berg join me to discuss communications strategy on this week’s Overton Window podcast.

Illinois has a flat income tax, in which income is not taxed at higher rates when people earn more. The flat tax is part of the state constitution. Governor Pritzker attempted to change that in 2020 by submitting a constitutional amendment to voters, calling his recommended policy the Fair Tax. Berg and Green worked to convince people to vote against it. “In the spring of 2020, he was ahead by 30 points. It was 65% approved in the state and 35% disapproved. It was an uphill battle to defeat him [in the fall]says Berg.

“On election day, he was down 5-6 points,” Berg says, “and 700,000 Biden voters voted no to the fair tax.

“We started by really understanding where voters were on the issue and dissecting specific segments of the voting population, not just to figure out where they were on the issue, but how they might be moved,” says Green. This meant both modeling the sizes of different voter populations and also testing messages that would work with different voters.

“We use a content strategy called SCARF. It’s an acronym for what triggers a fight or flight response. It represents status, certainty, autonomy, relationship, and fairness,” says Berg. They use it to think about what they can say to make voters care about an issue.

Testing also means that they can verify whether a strategy is effective or not. “Early in the campaign, we talked to people on the pro-taxpayer side and said, ‘We have this great marketing idea. We’ll call it the unfair tax. And the crowd becomes soft. Nobody cared,” says Berg.

On the contrary, the certainty part of SCARF resonated with voters. “What we found was that presenting progressive taxation as an attack on retirement income – which it would allow – really moved voters of all ages and from all political backgrounds,” said Green.

“The politicians we don’t trust are going to get this new power. And what are they going to do with it? They could come after your retirement income. It unlocked a very powerful aspect of certainty that fought the message of fairness,” says Berg.

“So we decided, given the resources we had versus JB Pritzker, that we were going to tackle that and not really talk about anything else,” Green said.

“We were able to identify a retired Chicago police officer who was a retiree and get him to agree to sue Governor Pritzker on the progressive tax issue. So we kind of held that back and dropped it as our October surprise headed into November. We therefore dominated the news cycle during the month of October. I believe we had about 250 media hits related to this trial alone,” Green said.

As for the voter modeling, Green simplifies it as follows: “The goal is to place voters into quadrants based on their propensity to vote and then the likelihood that they can be moved on an issue. And just score them based on those two factors. Then, reverse engineer your budget based on who you think are most in debt in that quadrant. »

Once Berg and Green knew who they were looking for, they took to social media to find those people and contact them. “We try to have a confluence of both educational content, entertaining content and aesthetic content. You know there are components to creating engaging content and engaging experience. So you will come across that, most likely on Facebook,” says Green.

They encouraged people who pledged to join a mailing list to receive more information, sign a pledge, sign a petition, and otherwise engage. The most important outreach is to educate the public about the issue. “We tried to create a really empowering user experience so they really felt equipped ahead of the election,” says Green.

As already mentioned, voters rejected the proposal. They had taken something that seemed to be taken for granted in the spring and helped the majority of voters reject it by finding out who could be persuaded and delivering a persuasive message to them.

The win meant a lot to them and to some of the people they hired. Berg mentions that their retired complainant from the Chicago Police Department died last year. “His son called me and he said, ‘I wanted to say hello and introduce myself. What you did with my dad meant so much to him.’ Berg says, ‘It was really meaningful. The fact that someone one cares and respects us enough to partner with us, giving his name, his image and his face to our campaign, and his blood, his sweat, his tears and his heart; it really meant a lot.

Check out the conversation on the Overton Window podcast, available at Apple podcast and Spotify.


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