The Bailout and Persuasion Tactics. . . .or, “If I’ve Learned One Thing, It’s Never One Thing” Part 1

I read with interest some blog postings and news accounts of the votes by the U.S. House of Representatives on the $700 billion Wall Street rescue plan. Some were straight news accounts, other heralded that the vote results were directly correlated to citizen grassroots input and nothing else. As one who promotes the grassroots persuasion “lifestyle,” you’d think I’d be doing a victory dance at these “insights.” Au contraire, it reminded me how attributing influence success to one tactic is a faulty way to evaluate success (or failure). It leads to flawed influence strategy. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s never one thing that leads to influence success. You have to have lots of tools in the toolbox, and leverage the environmental context in your favor.

Let’s take a look at the rescue (or bailout, depending on your “frame”) vote. It is a compelling influence analysis for anyone who wants to better understand how to change a lawmaker’s mind.

A closer look at some of the 58 members of Congress who changed their votes from no to yes illustrates what I have described as “key predictors” of effective persuasion tactics.

The predictors of success are based on original research my firm conducted with more than 20 government relations professionals at top lobbying organizations in 2006 and 2007. Most of the participants were from organizations on Fortune’s Power 25, which includes well-known grass-roots organizations like the National Rifle Association, the AARP and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Participants were asked to account for more than 70 variables that predict an organization’s ability to influence the hardest political target of all – undecided legislators.

The Margin of Victory Matters

The most powerful example from the bailout vote involved the legislator’s margin of victory. Our experience and research show that there are several predictors that can cause legislators to change their minds. The most prominent is that they are more likely to change their minds if they won their last election by a wide margin.

Of the 58 legislators who changed their minds, 50 were unopposed or won their seats by comfortable or wide margins in 2006. So it follows that of the 41 legislators in races judged to be “highly competitive” by Congressional Quarterly, 34 refused to vote for the controversial bailout package both times.

Our survey showed that freshman legislators were more strident in their views and less likely to change their minds than seasoned legislators. So I wasn’t surprised that all of the 15 freshmen Republican lawmakers voted against the rescue package twice, despite a full court press by President Bush, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Sen. John McCain.

Stay tuned for part two…