Former Obama and Clinton spokespeople assess Sanders' messaging

Former Hillary Clinton aide, FleishmanHillard's Kris Balderston, and former White House spokesperson for Barack Obama, Vox Global's Corey Ealons, weigh in on Monday's night's keynote speech to the Democratic Convention by Bernie Sanders.

Bernie Sanders speaks to the Democratic National Convention on Monday night. (Image, cropped, via DNC Facebook page).
Bernie Sanders speaks to the Democratic National Convention on Monday night. (Image, cropped, via DNC Facebook page).

Kris Balderston
President, global public affairs and strategic engagement,
Led Global Partnership Initiative within Office of the Secretary of State during Hillary Clinton’s tenure; also served as Clinton’s legislative director and deputy chief of staff.

As someone who worked on a day-to-day basis with Senator and Secretary Hillary Clinton for 13 years and worked on her unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2008, I can totally relate to the emotions of Bernie supporters in the convention hall on Monday evening.

As was the case in 2008, Senator Sanders’ supporters poured their hearts into his candidacy. As in 2008, the convention serves as a cathartic moment to be with fellow supporters from across the country to visibly and verbally express your support for the candidate you slogged through the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire and marched through the streets for in hot and humid Philadelphia. It takes awhile, believe me.

It is also a test for the candidate too. Hillary had to get there in 2008 in Denver and I think Bernie did it last night in Philadelphia. He stood up before emotional Bernie and Hillary supporters and, to the relief of Democrats everywhere, gave a full-throated endorsement of Hillary.

All in all, I do think his speech was more suited to the famous rallies he held across the country.  Sometimes it seemed more like a laundry list than a reflection of his experiences over the last 18 months. However, there were memorable phrases. His comment that "election days come and go but the struggle continues" reminded me of the Ted Kennedy exhortation "that the dream will never die."

This is a Bernie movement. You see it in the hall and on the streets. The big question is how he organizes it for November.

A final note: I believe any speech given this week in Philadelphia will be compared to the gold standard that Michelle Obama gave last night. It was not a laundry list - it did not bash heavily. It was a personal reflection on her time and the lessons learned as a mother and wife in the White House. The First Lady’s speech is the talk of Philly today.

Corey Ealons
Partner, Vox Global
Served as a communications director for the White House providing counsel to President Barack Obama, executive staff, and senior administration officials; held same position during 2008 Obama-Biden campaign.

The theme for the opening night of the 2016 Democratic Convention was "United Together," and the headliner for the evening was Vermont senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

His speech was the anchor of the night, and his message was central to the Democrats’ ability to have a successful event, which includes striking a stark contrast against the Republicans and Donald Trump, and emerging united for a tough general election campaign.

After a tumultuous day kicked off with the ouster of party chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz following the leaked email scandal, the night ended as a roaring success, culminating with the full-throated Sanders endorsement of his one-time rival, Secretary Hillary Clinton.

However, Sanders did face a major rhetorical challenge. Once emails stolen from the Democratic Committee revealed Wasserman-Schultz actually opposed Sanders’ attempt to capture the nomination, this gave his supporters more reason to rail against the political establishment.

With those headwinds in play, the senator’s remarks actually began earlier in the day, when he urged his supporters to stand down and not openly demonstrate. He delivered an admonition through text telling them that outbursts were not helpful and the party needed to begin uniting. Unfortunately, once a forest is set ablaze, it’s difficult to put out the fire.

This is why, with the mood inside and outside the convention hall on edge, Sanders’ deftness in delivering his address was necessary to ensure his credibility withstood the endorsement and secured his legacy on the impact of the presidential selection process and the Democrats’ public policy agenda moving ahead.

First, Sanders took his time rolling out the endorsement. He allowed the drama to build and used the event of Senator Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement of Donald Trump at the Republican Convention a week prior to build suspense and make his audience lean in a bit.

During that time, he was sure to thank his supporters and validate their efforts by acknowledging the political revolution they ignited, and reinforcing that his was a purely grassroots effort funded by young voters and millions of individual donors at an average amount of $27 – a signature line from his campaign stump speech.

Sanders also talked about the public policy victories he secured on behalf of the movement and the collaboration with the Clinton team in developing "the most progressive party platform in history." He called out specifics such as support for the ongoing fight for universal healthcare through the public option, a compromise on college-free tuition offered to families earning less than $125,000 annually, and a $15 minimum wage. Sanders needed to demonstrate that, despite the disappointment of his not capturing the nomination, there were still some not-so-small victories of which his supporters could be proud.

About 20 minutes into his remarks, Sanders finally told the crowd we needed to get behind Hillary Clinton to ensure she would become the next president of the United States, to which there were certainly more cheers than boos from the crowd. Some may have actually exhaled, since before that point he had not mentioned Clinton once.

Sanders then offered a point-by-point comparison and contrast between Clinton and Trump on key issues including the aforementioned minimum wage, climate change, and the selection of members of the U.S. Supreme Court. While he wasn’t an outright character witness for Clinton, he continued to reinforce that she would be a strong leader who is knowledgeable of the issues, again a strong contrast to Team Trump.

Finally, Sanders noted that the tone and disposition of the candidates was important as well. He contrasted Trump’s words and tone in pitting different groups of Americans against one another with Clinton’s record of working on behalf of Americans and bringing people together.

If the Clinton team could change anything about Sanders’ comments, they probably would have posted the endorsement earlier in the speech, especially considering the slow and deliberate clip at which Sanders addresses a crowd. However, in the end they had to be thrilled with how Sanders’ speech turned out and helped manage the message for the night, the week, and the campaign moving forward.

Despite a hard-fought primary campaign, and battling a party establishment that was seemingly against him from day one, Bernie Sanders did his part to bring Democrats together – the number one goal of any political convention. The rest is now up to Hillary Clinton.

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