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How Words Can Be Weapons

By Brad Bannon

The whole point of party conventions is to set the tone for the fall campaign.  An analysis of the speeches at both the Democratic and Republican conventions gives us a clear picture of each party’s message for the fall and perhaps their fate.

According to an analysis by the New York Times, in 2012, the most common words spoken at the Democratic convention were “change” and “McCain”.  At the GOP confab in St. Paul, the big winners were “taxes,” “businesses” and “change”.  This must be a change election after all. Everyone in Denver, but hardly anyone in St. Paul, used the name George W. Bush that strikes fear into the hearts of most Americans. The Democrats were much more likely to use John McCain’s name than the Republicans used the name of Barack Obama. This may indicate that Democrats plan to be very aggressive this fall.

Change – Word of the Week

It shouldn’t be a surprise that change was the word of the week at both conventions. The focus of change is very much a function of the nasty mood that voters will take to the polls with them in November. Depending on which poll you look at, anywhere from two thirds to three fourths of the voters believe our country is headed in the wrong direction. And people want change when things are going the wrong way.

There’s a tendency to believe that everything that happens in this campaign is happening for the first time in American history. However, this is far from the first time that we have had a “change” election.  Thomas Jefferson in 1800, Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and John Kennedy in 1960, all clothed themselves with the mantle of change. In 1980 change paved Ronald Reagan’s path to the White House. Even four years ago, the most common reason for voting for John Kerry according to the exit polls was that he would bring about needed change.

The reason that Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee is that he had the good political sense to corner the market on change at the beginning of his presidential campaign. Every time I saw the Senator from Illinois on TV, there was a sign in the background that either was “stand up for change” or “change we can believe in”. Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden certainly got the memo because he used the word “change” twenty times in his acceptance speech in Denver.

It is obvious from the speeches in St. Paul that John McCain wants a piece of the action. Not only did the Republicans throw around the “c” word but it was obvious that there was a thesaurus handy, as they threw in the word “reform” quite often. Sarah Palin used the” r” word eight times in her speech. Reform is clearly the first cousin of change and the GOP use of “reform” might have been an attempt to talk about the change issue, only phrased differently from the Democrats.  But indications are that the GOP’s attempts to co-opt change are not promising. After her defeat in the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton started using the word change much more frequently, but she found that it did not work well for her, as Obama had nailed it down for his own campaign’s use.

Taxes and The Economy
The Republicans needed a safe way of talking about the economy which is the issue that most Americans are thinking about. The problem for the GOP is that the voters most concerned about the economy were voting for Barack Obama by a wide margin. The 2004 exit polls indicate that one out of every five voters cast a vote because of the economy and John Kerry beat President Bush by a four to one margin among these voters. My guess is that the 2008 exit polls will peg concern about the economy at a much higher level than it was in 2004. This situation is a major problem for John McCain, unless he finds a way to address the economic fears of the voters wrought by the policies of his GOP forerunner, George W. Bush.

The tried and true way for Republicans to talk about the economy is to discuss taxes. Back in Minneapolis, Republicans were almost twice as likely to use the ” t” word than did Democrats.   Sarah Palin used the word “taxes” eleven times in her speech.  A majority of the voters who brought up taxes as their biggest concern in 2004 did support President Bush over John Kerry. The problem was that only one out of every twenty voters brought up taxes as their biggest issue. And is there any reason to believe that the tax issue will be any bigger in 2008? The other problem for John McCain is that tax cuts were George W. Bush’s signature remedy for the economy and there is very little voter market for the “out-going” President’s prescriptions for economic ills.

In 2012, it is worth noting that the Democrats were more than twice as likely as the Republicans to say “jobs” at the convention, which is odd given the importance of the issue.  The Democrats were also much more likely to use the word “economy.” But Republicans believe in trickledown economics so it is natural for them to talk about the businesses that produce jobs instead of the jobs themselves.  In addition, small businesspeople are a key Republican constituency. 

Since Republicans in 2012 did not talk much about the “economy” or “jobs”, what did they talk about? It wasn’t national security because Democrats were much more likely to mention Iraq and just as likely to say “terrorism” as the Republicans. But the GOP was half again more likely to say “God” than the Democrats. And at a time when the economy is a dicey issue for the GOP, Republicans will put a lot of emphasis on the standard “God, guns, and gays” attack line. In 2004 the only issue that trumped the economy according to the network exit polls was moral values. And President Bush did just as well among the moral value voters as John Kerry did among economy voters. But how well the morality issue worked in an environment where voters focused like a laser beam on the economy is no longer open to question.

Brad Bannon is a Democratic pollster and president of
Bannon Communications Research. You can reach Brad
through his website at www.BannonCR.COM or
email at Click here to contact this Author.