Turning the Tide in a Tough Battle
A winning word changed the political dynamics in the debate over the national debt.

Challenge

With polls in the spring of 2011 showing that most voters opposed “raising the debt limit,” Republicans in Congress threatened to default on the national debt in order to extract budget concessions from Democrats.

Solution

We analyzed the language defining the debate and presented a Winning Words brief to staff in the White House and Congressional leadership offices—recommending that Democrats talk about “default” rather than “raising the debt limit,” in order to reframe the debate and change the political dynamics.

Results

The gap began to close within weeks of the shift in the Democrats’ message. And in polls taken during the debate over the debt limit in October 2013, 51 percent of voters said it was “absolutely essential that the federal debt limit be raised to avoid an economic crisis.” With the tables turned, Republicans joined Democrats in raising the national debt limit to pay outstanding bills, without attempting to extract any concessions.

As political debate heated up over raising the nation’s debt limit in the spring of 2011, our team conducted a Winning Words analysis of media coverage and commentary to understand the language that was defining the national dialogue and shaping public opinion.

Our researchers analyzed quotes and sound bites from Democrats and Republicans in 150 articles and transcripts, to identify the most meaningful words that broke through in major national news outlets. We then offered our suggestions for Winning Words, memorable metaphors and sample sound bites to redirect the debate and advance Democratic goals.

At the time of our analysis, 48 percent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center opposed raising the debt limit. Only 35 percent feared forcing the government into default and hurting the economy.

Both sides defined the debate using similar language, with terms like “debt,” “debt limit” and “debt ceiling.” The word “default” did not appear in the dialogue. So most voters were unaware of the importance of avoiding default on the nation’s debt obligations.

When politicians say, “raise the debt limit,” people hear, “run up the credit card.” Repeating that idea in the national dialogue made it harder for Democrats to win public support for their position.

We shared this linguistic analysis with top Democrats and recommended a simple, but critical, change in their message: Stop framing the debate in terms of raising the “debt limit.” Focus the conversation on the consequences of “default.”

Top Democrats quickly adopted this straightforward switch in vocabulary—and started a whole new conversation. News articles and editorials began to echo the terms.

Between May and July, mentions of the term “default” increased markedly in quotes and sound bites by Congressional leaders. The visibility of the term also increased in news coverage and commentary.

Within weeks of the shift in the Democrats’ message, the polls began to close. A Pew survey in July 2011 showed the percentage of respondents concerned about default had increased by seven points—while opposition to raising the debt limit had decreased by one.

This was the beginning of the end for debt-limit brinksmanship. When Pew polled voters during the default debate in October 2013, 51 percent said it was “absolutely essential that the federal debt limit be raised to avoid an economic crisis.” Only 36 percent clung to the Republicans’ previous position against raising it.

In February 2014, Republicans joined Democrats in raising the national debt limit to pay outstanding bills, without attempting to extract any concessions. The short history of debt-limit brinksmanship offers a useful lesson in the power of a word to reframe a national debate and drive public opinion in a new direction.

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