Capitalize on the Populist Wave in State Legislatures

Donald J. Trump’s election to President of the United States was not the beginning of a populist wave in America. He instead rode a tsunami previously started by an earthquake in state legislatures around the country.

Although more noticeable in Republican-dominated states, populism affects all fifty state legislatures and is growing each election cycle. Interest groups, trade associations, lobbyists, and corporate government affairs departments need to get on board the populist train or get run over. If you think it’s a nuisance or a threat to your issue, keep reading and find out how to instead capitalize on the growing populist wave in state legislatures.

Learn What Motivates Populists

The political subplot in O Brother Where Art Thou? is a good parallel for what’s happening in state legislatures right now. On one end you have the established politicians like Governor Pappy O’Daniel. Remember his line before going on the radio? “I’ll press your flesh, you dimwitted sum*****! You don’t tell your pappy how to court the electorate. We ain’t one-at-a-timin’ here. We’re MASS communicatin’!”

On the other end, you have the populist Homer Stokes, “servant of the little man,” complete with broom and short sidekick to clean up state government. The fair-going crowd of Depression-era Mississippi voters eats it up like a hot funnel cake.

When O’Daniel feels like he’s losing to Stokes, his “sharp” team decides that “people like that reform…maybe we should get us some.” That glimmer of brilliance is only the start of what’s necessary to understand populism and what drives it.

Keep in mind that populism stems from people feeling left out and left behind. There is always a clear chasm between the “haves” and “have nots.” A change in government, giving power back to the people and away from the powerful and wealthy, is the solution in their mind.

Your job is to find out what feelings of left-outedness are driving the election of populists to your state legislature. Two of the best ways to accomplish this are through survey research or focus group testing. Also take time to digest and understand the messages candidates are pushing during election time.

Reframe Your Message

Once you know what is motivating voters, it’s time to reassess your message, how you deliver it, and who receives the key points. Start by writing down three pain points of your target audience: populist-leaning legislators in this case. A pain point is an issue a person has with how things are currently done, and it doesn’t have to relate directly to your issue.

Next, draft six key benefit points you want to get across. By “benefit points” I mean what the positive end result of your bill is, not what your bill does. Don’t limit yourself during this exercise, and don’t think yet about how your audience wants to hear your message. This is a simple braindump.

After completing steps one and two, reframe your six points taking into account the three audience pain points. It will require you to think differently about how you speak to this new generation of legislators.

For example, if your organization wants to pass a bill giving tax credits to developers, take into account populists see that as picking winners and losers (a pain point). What you could say instead is that the bill will bring private investment dollars to the area, and government won’t have to spend money on upkeep of dilapidated buildings. You could also mention that property values go down because of distressed buildings, which results in taxes needing to be raised to meet budget; private reinvention of the property will increase revenues without increasing their taxes (another pain point).

Create an Emotional Connection

Your message must speak to emotion, not logic. People like to believe they make decisions based off logic, but studies show that is not the case. Dr. Antonio Damasio found that individuals with injuries to the part of the brain that generates emotion were incapable of making decisions. That’s because when it comes time to decide, your emotions are at the “very point of choice.”

Don’t fact-and-figure a legislator. Don’t tell him/her all the ways your bill will “create jobs.” Instead, go deeper into the benefit of job creation or the benefit of the facts and figures.

Think about it this way: People don’t buy a car because they want a car. In and of itself, a car is pretty useless…and really expensive. It just sits there. The benefit of owning a car is that you can now go places. The benefit of the benefit of owning a car is that you can go to the grocery story and keep your family fed. That’s why people buy cars.

This same thought process should be applied to messaging your issue to populist legislators – or heck, any audience for that matter. Use facts, but always focus more and close with emotion. Tell your target how this specifically affects him/her or the constituents in a way they can feel.

Hammer Home a Simple Point

Remember Homer Stokes’ broom and “little man?” That was his simple point – I’ll clean up government for the little man. Easy to recall and internalize. We call it a “hook” – the one thing people remember and say: “Oh yeah, you’re the guy/gal who _______________.”

We had a great candidate for state senate years ago who on paper had it all. When you talked to him, you just liked him. But the field was crowded and there were several other strong candidates competing for the same spot. We needed a hook. Our guy grew up on a chicken farm, so we filmed a TV spot with him standing in his dining room all dressed up holding a chicken. He became known as “the chicken guy.” Although he didn’t win, folks still stop him and mention the TV spot.

While we had our simple point, we lacked the emotional connection. That’s the key. Tie together your points and their passions.


The process of adjusting your approach and messaging to win with a populist-leaning state legislature is simple but not easy. The way you’ve always done it will not work any more. Just look at states like Tennessee that have been populist for several election cycles now. Or West Virginia that went from solid Democrat control to Tea Party power in just two elections.

If it doesn’t come natural for you, that’s no big deal. Hire a professional to be your “populist filter.” Rely on him or her to take your issue and reframe it for the new legislative audience. There’s no shame in admitting you need help. You’ll be the better for it.

But whatever you do, adjust to survive and thrive.


*NOTE: Yes, Homer Stokes turned out to be a horrid person in the movie. This article isn’t about what Homer or Pappy stands for, but instead how they communicate their message to the audience at the time.