Why Does Issue Advocacy Work?
Sen. Everett Dirksen said it best decades ago: “When I feel the heat, I see the light.”
Policymakers, whether on the federal, state, or local level, act when they are forced to recognize that an issue is important to their constituents. They need to “feel the heat.”
I asked my friend and colleague, former Rep. Larry LaRocco from Idaho, to weigh in with a congressional perspective on what it means to “see the light.”
GG: What did Sen. Dirksen mean when he said he needed to “feel the heat” to “see the light”?
LL: The average number of constituents [for any given representative] is approximately 700,000. In the absence of a poll, it can be difficult to get a true sense of where constituents stand on many issues. Often an issue affects a very distinct group —but not the majority of your constituents. So congressional support often comes down to which of your constituents makes the most noise.
When I had “friends” or supporters on both sides of a fight, it was especially tough for me to take a position. In that case, my “easy out” with the friend I had to vote against was: “You snooze, you lose. I heard more from the other side.”
Issue advocacy serves in “turning up the heat” by providing a rationale for policymakers to take action.
GG: Over the years, do any particular issues stick out in your mind — issues that successfully “brought the heat” with an effective advocacy effort? Why did these campaigns succeed in getting your attention?
LL: Campaigns that utilized coalitions stand out in my mind. If a campaign could prove to me that a large number of my natural constituency was part of a coalition, I had no choice but to listen.
I remember one campaign that was advocating for less FDA oversight and regulation on vitamin supplements. The campaign used powerful messaging that made it a freedom issue. Then a petition list showed up at my office. It was the largest address list I had ever received and it proved that supporters were spread throughout my district. It was a no-brainer for me to support an issue that so many of my constituents supported. Plus, the address list also gave me the opportunity to write to each person individually to say I was supporting him or her. (Bonus: I was then able to add those individuals to my database!)
GG: Any advice for issue groups on how to effectively get Congress’ attention?
LL: Find spokespeople that are really, truly affected by the issue. So many campaigns make the mistake of using high-profile people who don’t really know or understand the issue and it becomes a wasted effort. Messages from the real people affected by the issue are what resonate.
In other words, while the quantity of coalition members matter, the quality of the message — and the person delivering it — matters just as much, if not more. When one of my constituents delivered a compelling, factually accurate and civil message by letter or in an ad directed at me; that was when I “saw the light” the most clearly.