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Learning at CPAC: How To Win Friends and Influence Policy

CPAC may get plenty of attention on the right for its speakers’ agenda–a who’s who of prominent conservative politicians–and for its famous straw poll. But it’s also one of the largest educational events for grassroots activists on the yearly calendar. While celebrities like Rand Paul and Marco Rubio grabbed the spotlight on the main stage, hundreds of watchdogs were getting down to the business of affecting change in breakout sessions.

Getting Your Voice Heard

One of Thursday’s marquee educational sessions came from the Leadership Institute, which hosts dozens of grassroots trainings every year. Focused on strategy and messaging, the training helped citizens answer the question, “How can we be taken seriously?”

LI fellow Joel Mowbray pleaded with the trainees to always know their political environment. “You wouldn’t push a spending increase during the sequester. So if you care about a wide variety of issues, pick the ones that are relevant now.

Mowbray also shocked the room with a pie chart on how communication is perceived. Less than 10% of what we “say” actually comes out of our mouths–factors like body language, tone, posture, and personal appearance go a long way toward whether your audience will be interested in listening to you.

“Be polite. Be prepared. Be respectful. That’s what will get you in the room, whether you’re trying to talk to citizens, politicians or whomever,” the training leader said. “Then, be brief, efficient, and specific. Get to your point, and they’ll remember you.”

Though the presentation was directed at approaching lawmakers at their offices or at town hall meetings, most of the advice was applicable to all political communication. After all, politicians are people too–no matter how important an issue is, it always takes a backseat to establishing a human connection first.

“Be genuinely interested in other people. Find out what they’re interested, look for a common point of connection, and make it,” Mowbray said. “It’s not about you! Everything in your mind has to be about the person you’re going to see.”

Working with the Millennial Generation

Upstairs, a special panel of twenty-something movement leaders spoke on reaching out to young people, and this message was clear cut: it’s the economy, stupid.

The outlook on social issues among the younger set is muddled, to say the least, and delving in to discussions of culture and ethics tend to set millennials against each other. (Even in this room of like-minded people, there were fairly heated exchanges over abortion, gay rights, and drug policy.)

Evan Feinberg, a former congressional candidate from Pennsylvania, said he made every attempt to stick to philosophies that all young people can agree upon. “We all believe in freedom. Our arguments should start from freedom and liberty, and branch out from there.”

Feinberg singled out Rand Paul as the Washington politician who’s been most successful at appealing to both young people and the broader grassroots. And he says the reason’s simple: Paul rarely deviates from the issue of government spending, which is building a debt that today’s college students will have to pay for.

Although the young panelists occasionally seemed over-eager to criticize the Republican Party–one repeatedly and incorrectly identified the Republicans as the party which blocked civil rights legislation in the 1950’s and 60’s–their panel should have been a must-attend for any watchdog activists over 40 looking to crack the youth code.

Other Pearls of Wisdom

Dozens of other strategic outreach and policy panels ran throughout the day. Workshops on public speaking and new media helped watchdogs hone their communication skills, and right-of-center wonks discussed solutions for immigration, the tax code, and small business regulation.

As we wrote last month about ISFLC, the younger, libertarian answer to CPAC, this conference is more about a fluid exchange of ideas than any particular ideology. The variety of viewpoints represented at CPAC means that the center-right grassroots remain as strong and vibrant as ever. If attendees are smart, they’ll take the advice offered during these session to heart: messaging is everything, and it’s an area where the free-market side can stand to improve.

Kevin Palmer

Staff writer at Franklin Center. Contact me at kevin@watchdogwire.com

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