ON LEADING PODCAST • Episode #6 • September 20, 2023

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Episode #6

Sarah Longwell

On Being a Superpower of Political Persuasion

By Lori Brewer Collins

“All I’ve ever wanted to do is continue to make America better. I still think that America is the best country in the world and our best hope for the future. My mindset was always ‘America is the greatest—and can be greater.’”

Sarah Longwell, prominent political strategist and a leading voice in the “Never Trump” movement, shared these thoughts with me earlier this year. I was excited to speak with her for two reasons: she has devoted her career to fighting against the influence of Donald Trump within the Republican Party, and she has founded multiple platforms to advocate for a more principled conservative movement.

Longwell grew up Republican in central Pennsylvania and graduated with a degree in political science (Kenyon College, OH). Early in her career, she worked for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), a Delaware non-profit that promotes conservative thought on college campuses. As Director of Communications there, she was responsible for the promotion of Rick Santorum’s 2005 book It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common. Santorum was openly anti-gay and, at the time, considered to be an up-and-coming presidential contender. Longwell, who had not yet “outed” herself as a gay person, couldn’t agree with his stand that gay people shouldn’t get married. When she left ISI, she promised herself she would be “out” in any context.

She subsequently went to work for Richard Berman, a lawyer and Republican lobbyist, at his PR firm Berman and Company in Washington DC. Berman taught Sarah to: discredit opposition, be memorable and funny, and always play offense. During her 15 years with his firm, she became a senior vice president, then partner, eventually building up a client portfolio of her own inside the business.

“While there, my job was to represent somebody else and their voice. It wasn’t my voice. I was trying to find a place where my voicing something that was important to me didn’t interfere with or actively repel my professional obligations.”

Longwell, whose ambition included running for political office, didn’t “find” just one place in which she could express what was important to her. She conducted extensive public opinion research, particularly through focus groups, that gave her unique insights into the state of the American conservative movement. She wrote extensively on democracy and conservatism in American politics, publishing articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post. And she rolled up her sleeves and got busy building what appeared to be missing and very much needed in the movement.

In 2011, Longwell joined the board of directors for Log Cabin Republicans (LCR), an organization advocating for LGBTQ+ rights within the Republican Party. Several years later, as LCR’s first female national board chair, she played a key role in convincing their members not to endorse Trump in the 2016 election.

In 2017/2018, Sarah, along with a group of like-minded Republicans including Bill Kristol, initiated the “by invitation-only” project known as the Meeting of the Concerned. After Trump attacked Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Kristol and Longwell founded Defending Democracy Together (DDT), an advocacy organization dedicated to conservative principles and to pushing back against perceived threats to democratic norms. This 501(c)(4) nonprofit soon became an umbrella organization for groups such as Republicans for the Rule of Law (for which Longwell is still a spokeswoman) and Republican Voters Against Trump (RVAT, of which she is still Strategic Director).

In 2018, Longwell also co-founded The Bulwark as an anti-Trump conservative website under the umbrella of the DDT. This became the now influential center-right publication recognized for bringing together a moderate coalition of traditional conservatives and libertarians to provide political analysis and reporting without partisan loyalties or tribal prejudice. The Bulwark brand continues to produce a wide range of content, including “The Secret Podcast” (which Longwell co-hosts with Jonathan V Last) and “The Next Level Podcast” (also co-hosted with Last and Tim Miller).

In 2019, when the Log Cabin Republicans chose to back Trump, Sarah resigned as chair. That same year, she left Berman’s firm to launch Longwell Partners, her own full-service communications firm, in Washington DC. Many of her team at Berman came with her to help “rebuild Americans’ trust in our institutions and each other” and to “engage in issues beyond partisan politics and focus on solving some of the country’s most intractable problems through cross-partisan coalitions.”

During the 2020 election, Longwell played a pivotal role in mobilizing conservative voters who were disillusioned with the 45th president. She reached across party lines and engaged a broad spectrum of voters. At Republican Voters Against Trump, she led the production of hundreds of testimonials from ordinary Republicans expressing their reasons for not supporting Trump, which garnered significant media attention. By highlighting the importance of conservative principles and values, Sarah Longwell advocated for and helped shape the national conversation for a more inclusive Republican Party in America.

Key Takeaways

With 2024 approaching, I was interested to talk with Sarah about the art of persuasion and politics and to reflect on the topic of leadership with her. I’ve extracted the following nuggets from our conversation on building a coalition from the center.

  1. Be relentless in your desire to change things. Finding ways to move the needle and to impact things often means gathering people, bringing a ton of energy with you, reassuring them that you’ll handle the big lift, and reinforcing that you need them to be there with you.
  2. Think about the message, the messenger and the timing. Then don’t just make ads that will go viral on Twitter. Make ads that will persuade your target audience.
  3. When you’re trying to shift something, remember the power of margins. You do not have to convince everybody of everything. To turn the tide, you just need the margin of victory. For instance, if 70% of Republicans still think the election was stolen, focus on persuading the 30% who are open and available to thinking otherwise. Just remember you can’t beat something with nothing. To beat Trump, it has to be less about Trump and more about somebody else who is really good.
  4. Build a micro-tribe. If it makes sense to do so, use selfies of real people as messengers to scale your campaign. Create a tribe within a tribe (for example, a group of Republicans who cannot vote for Trump but for whom their Republican identity is very important). Assemble their messages to build a bigger, broader narrative than paid advertising can. Get media coverage of that narrative.
  5. Name things exactly what they are. When developing the building blocks of a campaign/movement (website, domain name, organizational name), communicate the essence of what you are—and then stay on brand.
  6. Cultivate your authentic voice. Aim to balance your personal values and beliefs with your professional obligations without compromising your authenticity. Understand that finding your unique voice, especially in professional settings like communications or politics, can take time. You may find yourself representing someone else’s voice before you fully discover your own.
  7. Discern and use emotions. Sarah noted five dominant human emotions: Fear, Love, Anger, Greed and Sympathy (FLAGS). Acknowledge the stickiness and strength of fear and anger as major drivers of action, particularly in the realm of persuasion. Be conscious of how these emotions are harnessed to exploit “wedge issues” in politics to sway voting behavior. Develop the ability to critically analyze the emotional tactics employed in political campaigns, especially those favoring populist and demagogic strategies. By understanding the persuasive power of these emotions, you’ll be better equipped to anticipate and respond to various strategies.
  8. Do audience research all the time. Test your ads/campaigns in focus groups: listen to what people say they want. If circumstances won’t allow you to do focus groups in person, use Zoom. Get out there and listen to people to uncover those breakout insights that can drive your communications. In all this, hang onto the idea that people can have opinions you don’t like and still be great people.
  9. Don’t try to be an influencer. Every world has its own natural ecosystem. Find a mission you love, and try to learn as much as you can by getting involved in that ecosystem. If you’re young, find older people who are good at what they do in that area, and ask them to mentor you. Don’t go looking for people who just seem like a big deal on social media. Seek out individuals who are doing cool things whom you really want to watch work.
  10. Set up your company for both mission and money. Both are big motivators for people. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Find ways to have a great business and make an honorable profit. For example, you can create a sense of partnership/ownership by sharing profits with your people based on their performance.
  11. Build a “one team” culture. Surround yourself with smart people, self-starters who want to work hard together—as one team—and enjoy what they do. Then other smart people will want to be part of that team because it looks like everyone likes each other, they’re into what they’re doing, they’re good at what they do, they work hard at it, and they have fun.
  12. If you want A+ work, hire A+ people. Look for “can do” individuals who figure out ways to be additive quickly. Onboard them by saying ‘hi’ on their first day, then ignore them. Watch to see whether they just sit there, waiting to be given something, or if they get up, start asking how they can be helpful, move into action and, when they get feedback, use it to make the next thing they do better.
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