Stepping into the Mind of Joe Manchin

How to Message so that Joe Manchin Listens

Sam Chavez
Sam Chavez

Table of Contents

Messaging is only as good as the audience youโ€™re messaging to. And right now, progressives are not talking to the right people.

I can scream into the Twitter void about income inequality, but how many people am I really impacting? My liberal friends will nod their head, maybe hit the like button, and move on. On the flip side, you have Joe Manchin, the top laggard of the Senate (laggard in chief?).

If youโ€™ve been following politics since Biden took office, youโ€™ve heard Joe Manchinโ€™s name more than youโ€™d like. He is the most moderate Democrat in a 50-50 Senate that needs every single Democratic vote for literally anything. That includes the filibuster. (For a refresher on the filibuster, check out my past post). This means the unlikely midwestern hero, Joe Manchin, is the most powerful man in Washington (I cringe just writing that).

Joe Manchin has made his stance heard in op-eds โ€œI will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibusterโ€ and interviews. That op-ed title says it all, he is not willing to reform Senate rules to pass popular legislation, so why even try to understand him?

Well, this might be a plot twist, but I did make an attempt. I wanted to understand:

  • Who is Joe Manchin?
  • What does he want?
  • How the heck do we talk to him to get him on the right side of the filibuster fight?

So come with me, letโ€™s step in Manchinโ€™s brain a la John Malkovich.

Who remembers picking up this movie at these things called Blockbuster?

The Mind of Joe Manchin

I wonโ€™t subject you to a full reading of his op-ed, instead, Iโ€™ll give you the top bullets:

  1. Bipartisanship is his core principle, his guiding light, his north star
  2. The Senate is for minority voices: thatโ€™s why West Virginia has the same votes as California
  3. The root cause of gridlock in Washington is the weakening of the filibuster; not the unprecedented decades-long assault on our democratic institutions by the GOP
  4. The real divide is urban vs. rural; not White Supremacy vs. a Multiracial Democracy.
  5. Getting rid of the filibuster would cause massive swings in policy based on the party that controls the Senate
  6. The only option is to work with Republicans. Revising the filibuster and using budget reconciliation are not options.

I had a very hard time writing those sentences, yes partly because I want to rebut everything he says, but more importantly because they are not rooted in reality.

I want to live in this magical world of Joe Manchinโ€™s Senate. ๐ŸŒˆ Two parties earnestly come to the table to figure out how to solve Americaโ€™s problems by bringing our factual opinions together to make policy. ๐ŸŒˆ

Wow, that sounds great! Take me to that country!....hold onโ€ฆ producers are saying that a country like that does not currently exist.

Messaging Out of the Filibuster

So how do we help Senator Manchin see the light and get on board passing popular policy for the American people? Targeting our messaging to a party of 1 would sure help.

Now I donโ€™t claim to be a fortune teller, but if Democratic politicians and activists turn their messaging to focus on Joe Manchinโ€™s dogma, we *might* be able to change his mind to at least look at reforming the filibuster (talking filibuster anyone?).

  1. Message to the laggard that he is
  2. Turn to His Audience...His Constituents
  3. Make Bipartisanship His Responsibility

Laggard in Chief

After too much studying of one man from West Virginia, I have come to the conclusion that he is the ultimate laggard. For non-marketers, that is the last stage of the product adoption life cycle.

Laggards are the last people to be convinced to buy a product. They are the grandpas who will never buy an iPhone. They are entrenched in their views and they will not be convinced by flowery, aspirational language. They need to be convinced through practicality.

For example, he sits on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. His response to climate change and coal is to say โ€œElimination is not the way to go, innovation is the only way we can help mother earth.โ€ As a Millennial who will be more impacted by the climate crisis than a 73-year-old man, this is infuriating. As we have seen, the planet needs drastic change, not an incremental change to make the coal industry feel better about itself.

So what is the practical message against this stance? One rooted in reality. Rather than profess the benefits & future of a clean energy economy, speak to the costs for the economy and wellbeing of West Virginians. As clean energy technologies improve and there is higher adoption, the costs of maintaining and generating clean will be so much less than coal. This has practical effects in West Virginia. It will create new jobs and improve the livelihoods of those in communities that have been decimated by the loss of coal jobs.

Itโ€™s also healthier! Yes, itโ€™s important for West Virginians to have well-paying jobs, but their health is important too. Rather than breathing toxic air just to feed your family, you could get a clean energy job that is healthier and pays the same or better.

And there has been movement on this front. The United Mine Workers union spoke directly to Senator Manchin at an event last week. They acknowledge that the future is green and that Joe Bidenโ€™s plans are the right step for those in the coal industry. Their one request is to ensure that they have access to training and new jobs that pay at or above their coal jobs. This is huge news for one West Virginian. These are the constituents that he professes to serve.

The reality is if the US sticks with coal, we will be left in the dust of other countries moving to the green economy future (the exact opposite of Joe Manchinโ€™s view that coal is in high global demand). It is inevitable. It might not happen in Joe Manchinโ€™s lifetime, but it will happen and he needs to protect his constituents from this.

Turn to His Audience

And that leads to the next messaging point for a campaign of 1: his constituents.

According to Manchin, rural voters are the minority that needs protection. Iโ€™ll put aside my indignation that he calls rural voters minorities when black people are getting shot in the streets every day. Contrary to popular belief, rural voters do want the same things as urban voters.

As an elected official, your number one job is to help make your constituents' lives better. He said it himself, โ€œIf I canโ€™t go home and explain it, I canโ€™t vote for it.โ€ The problem with his current stance is that he places Senate norms over his constituents.

Do you know whatโ€™s popular among rural voters? Jobs! Infrastructure! Broadband access! All things that are included in Joe Bidenโ€™s American Jobs Plan.

Many non-profits and PACs are running ads in West Virginia and Arizona now to explain Bidenโ€™s Jobs Plan to thus influence Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. This is definitely a start. The next step is to tie these popular reforms to the elimination of the filibuster.

Practical & Humanized

Now letโ€™s be clear, this is a big hurdle for Democrats to climb. It is not easy to convince a laggard to change his mind. And there are many more hurdles to overcome than what I mentioned above (I couldโ€™ve written for hours about this). But we can make headway through practical and humanized messages. What works on Elizabeth Warren will not work on Joe Manchin.

We must mount pressure through his constituents to the point that he must listen to the people, not the procedure. Right now Mr. Manchin is placing the Senate norms above the people in this country. If he can see that his people (the laggards and the West Virginians) are coming around, then he will have no choice, but to come around.

๐Ÿ—ผ๐Ÿ—ž: Newsletter

Sam Chavez

Sam is a writer, strategist, and curious human. She founded the roots of change agency in 2020. Sam is a queer, white, LatinX activist whoโ€™s passionate about a livable planet & equitable societies.


Navigating heart-first activism & storytelling. We explore the ๐ŸŒฑ roots of our world to support communicators, organizations, and activists ๐Ÿฅต to avoid burnout and ๐Ÿ“š tell empathetic stories that cultivate connections that ๐ŸŒ empower โœŠ๐Ÿฝ social change.

Learn more about the Roots of Change Agency.