It’s hard to feel sorry for a guy like Kyle McKenzie. Knowing he’s the research director for Stand Together, an advocacy group owned by the Koch family, I’m not inclined to sympathy.
But as a former advertising guy, who once sat through too many focus groups to count, I know well how consumer research can undo the best-laid plans.
In McKenzie’s case, the plans were to figure out how the Kochs should handle HR1 — the massive voting rights bill now reaching the Senate — where they are once again on the wrong side of history. McKenzie was charged with finding ways to undermine any positive perceptions the public might harbor about making it easy for people to vote.
What they were looking for was a message — any message — that might convince the public that the right to vote is overrated.
We know this thanks to the amazing Jane Mayer of The New Yorker. Somehow, she obtained this eye-opening audio of a ten-minute conference call, in which McKenzie presents his research findings to his bosses.
In it, you can hear McKenzie — in his most genial, research-presenter-with-slideshow voice — working hard to make the best of what he’s reluctant to tell his boss is an utter disaster. As tap dances go, it’s not bad.
The presentation was January 8, a mere two days after the Capitol insurrection, and a full two months before it became blatantly obvious that red state GOP legislatures were hellbent on stripping voting rights from as many people as possible.
Back then, the good folks on McKenzie’s focus group panels — presumably “average Americans” all — had, for the most part, never heard of HR1. But when presented with a “neutral description” of the bill, virtually everyone was wildly in favor. Including conservative voters. This is not what a research director wants to tell his bosses.
Even worse, while he couldn’t come up with any message that was an actual winner, he did manage to identify one huge loser. When presented with the notion that “HR1 stops billionaires from buying elections,” people on both the left and right loved it — overwhelmingly. Democrats, are you paying attention?
But there were actually a few messages that gained a little traction, and you can feel McKenzie working up to them.
There was the idea that even liberal groups, like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, were against the bill. Huh? This was, of course, not even remotely true. It was a hypothetical, but the panels weren’t told that. Predictably, it got them thinking that, gee, if both liberal and conservative groups are against it, maybe we should think twice.
But the idea that actually did get a better-than-tepid reception from the panel was the notion that Congress has too many other things on its plate. That Congress is way too busy right now to be worried about something as trivial as the right to vote. And at the front of the line of these “other things” was — wait for it — “healthcare” and “the economy.”
And with that we go right down the rabbit hole. Just imagine poor McKenzie, having to tell the Kochs that the best way to get rid of voting rights is to focus your efforts on healthcare. Or on economic relief. Neither of which come within light years of the Koch agenda. Yet that was their one winner, and you can be sure they’ll be fashioning bogus healthcare and economic messages around it, if they haven’t already.
But the conclusion McKenzie comes to — weighing his words very carefully — is that turning voters against HR1 won’t work. He even off-handedly suggests that they might do better with, get this, “under-the-dome-type” strategies. The dome being Congress. He doesn’t elaborate on what those strategies might be, but after all these years of Mitch McConnell, we can safely guess that parliamentary obstruction will play a key role. Especially the filibuster.
So what are we to make of this presentation, this peek under the hood where the real horsepower of the GOP resides?
For one thing, it could explain why Republicans are hyperventilating so much about the filibuster. HR1 puts a floor under voting rights and gerrymandering, and if they can’t use the filibuster to block its passage, they might never win another election. That’s not acceptable.
But mostly this recording makes two things absolutely clear:
The first is that the Kochs and their ilk are, in fact, determined to keep buying elections.
The second is something that has been obvious since Reagan, but has rarely been so clearly underlined: For them, everything is about the messaging, nothing is about reality.
Nowhere in McKenzie’s presentation does he even vaguely hint that maybe working on real solutions to the country’s real crises — as opposed to just messaging about them — might resonate a little more with their focus group panels.
But the right is totally invested in these messages, to the point where their entire track record is made up of nothing but. No accomplishments, just messages. All those messages — going back decades — have been lies. And most of those lies have been repeated so often, they’ve become myths.
Underneath the mythology, the real agenda is tax cuts and deregulation. Period. Both of which are deeply unpopular. So they hire guys like McKenzie to distract. They buy and pay for false messages, and they invest billions in spreading them around. It’s a well-oiled machine, and it’s been really effective for a long time.
But listening to McKenzie’s presentation, you can’t help feeling that they’re rattled, even if only a bit. The last thing they ever want to see is an election they can’t buy, which makes HR1 a real threat. And that “under-the-dome” strategy is looking shakier all the time — it’s not a coincidence that so many GOP senators have announced their retirement.
So McKenzie’s presentation is a fascinating and, yes, chilling look at how the messaging sausage gets made. And how it will keep getting made going forward.
Never mind that the market for the sausage is shrinking. Never mind that the ingredients are getting smellier, more contaminated, and much harder for all those “average Americans” to digest.