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Presidential Politics Teach us to Get The Message Right

By Ron Faucheux

As the 2008 presidential campaigns roared on, we were treated every day to a laboratory of political campaign message making.

As always, as we watch campaigns win and lose, we learn many of the same lessons over and over: Messages must be clear, understandable, relevant and credible, framing the choice in a way that fits the political environment. They must connect with voters on an emotional and values level. They must be delivered with consistency and discipline.

We saw Rudy Giuliani’s campaign base its core message on his personal leadership as Mayor of New York, making his handling of 9/11 and crime the centerpiece of his campaign. It was a strong message in many ways, but an incomplete one, and the campaign’s bad timing of primary engagement, among other things, ultimately washed away its advantages.

We saw Fred Thompson base his late-starting campaign on the argument that he was the clear conservative choice in the Reagan mold. It was a good message, but it lacked connectivity and its delivery lacked energy.

We saw John Edwards base his campaign on a populist “us against them” approach that was highly appealing to many anti-corporate liberals and union members but somewhat out of sync with the broader public mood and the available Democratic candidate choices.

We saw Mitt Romney try an ideological-based message emphasizing his conservatism but then saw him adjust it to include new anti-Washington, pro-change components in the final weeks of his campaign.

The dramatic success of Barack Obama’s “change we can believe in” message in Iowa forced other candidates, from Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton to Republican contenders who represented very different philosophies and styles, to tightly embrace change as part of their pitch to the voters.

Despite the focus on message development in modern campaigns, and the massive amounts of polling being done to shape that process, campaigns often miss the mark when it comes to message making. In many instances, the message development process itself lacks form and discipline. In some cases, the messages that are produced are wrong for the candidates using them. In other cases, they’re wrong for the political environment. Sometimes, messages that seem appropriate a year before the election start to lose punch as the field of competition changes, new issues emerge and the public mood swings in unexpected directions.

Strengths and Weaknesses
Over the years, political campaigns have become increasingly professional, specialized and complex operations. You should no more attempt to launch a campaign without a clear, written strategy than you would launch construction of an office building without architectural and engineering plans.

A crucial part of your strategy is your message.
The essence of political strategy is to concentrate your greatest strength against the point of your opponent’s greatest weakness. This is done through positioning – which is, in effect, the development and delivery of messages that present voters with a choice based on candidate differences that are clear, believable, and connected to reality.
Campaign messages may be based on

(a) the candidate’s personal virtues and flaws (i.e., experience, competence, independence, integrity, compassion, stability, preparation, etc.); or
(b) ideological and partisan differences (liberal vs. conservative, moderate vs. extreme, inconsistent vs. consistent, pragmatic vs. purist, etc.); or
(c) the situational context (change vs. status quo, right track vs. wrong track, reform vs. the old way, etc.); or
(d) a combination of any of the above.

Your campaign’s message is what you say to voters to position your candidacy; it’s the reasons you give voters as to why they should select you over the opposition.

Messages may be used to de-emphasize candidate characteristics and to highlight issues or, inversely, to de-emphasize issues and to highlight candidate qualities. The bottom line is that you want to frame the voters’ choice around those factors that are most favorable to your candidacy and most unfavorable to your opposition – and do it honestly and truthfully, based on reality and facts.

If your strength is ideological and your opponent’s strength is personal, you may want to position your candidacy as a vehicle for policy objectives that overpower in importance to candidate virtues and flaws. The choice presented to the voters would then pivot on policy differences rather than on personality, character, or credentials.

Another way to de-emphasize personality is to turn the election into a referendum “for” or “against” either (a) an overriding issue or (b) something bigger than the candidates themselves.

Your campaign message draws the lines of distinction that separate you from the opposition. It positions you and your campaign relative to the opposition and, in so doing, it frames the choice for voters.

A campaign message isn’t an empty slogan or catchy sound bite – although you can use slogans and sound bites to explain them to voters. A campaign message isn’t meaningless rhetoric or generic, mushy phraseology.

A campaign message is about substance, it is about real things that matter to voters. It sits on the fault lines of candidate differences and it directly relates to the political environment in which the election is being conducted.

Kinds of Messages
There are two kinds of campaign messages:

First, strategic, or core, messages. This is the central positioning statement of your campaign. It frames the choice for voters and underpins everything you communicate to the public. Core messages must be developed before the campaign begins.

Second, tactical messages. These are the messages you deliver through daily press statements, speeches, interviews and targeted campaign communications. Even though tactical messages often get into great detail about a specific issue or controversy, and may deal with topics outside of your core message, they must always be consistent with your core message.

For example, John McCain’s core message has been based, in large part, on national security experience and personal courage (as exhibited by his military background, political independence and straight talk). So when he was asked why he didn’t vote on the Senate’s economic stimulus package right after Super Tuesday, his campaign was forced into a tactical messaging exercise that needed to address the specific legislation at hand as well as the circumstances surrounding the Senate vote. Even though McCain’s position on an economic stimulus package was never part of his core campaign message, he was nonetheless called upon to address the issue, responding tactically.

Displaying Your Message
A campaign message can be illustrated by a “message box,” a simple diagram that is divided into quadrants, explaining,
(a) what your campaign will say about your candidate,
(b) what your campaign will say about the opposition,
(c) what you expect the opposition to say about themselves, and
(d) what you expect the opposition to say about you.

The “message box” is a vital piece of your campaign plan.

Another way to present a campaign message is to draw a message grid. Such a grid is divided into three parts:

First, positive message points.
How will you present your candidate’s strengths to the voters? Answering this question in two to four simple sentences will provide you with a core positive message that will build your candidacy’s credibility and give voters clear, understandable, relevant reasons to vote your way.

Second, inoculation message points.
What weaknesses or negative public stereotypes do you have to guard against? Answering this question in two to four simple sentences will provide you with a way to deflect and diminish attacks before, and when, they come.

Third, comparative and attack message points.
What are your opponent’s weaknesses? Why should voters prefer your candidacy to that of your rival? Answering these questions in two to four simple sentences will provide you with a way to frame the choice and to contrast your strengths against your opponent’s weaknesses.

However you illustrate it, your message is your campaign’s guidepost. It guides how you communicate with voters from day one and provides a frame of reference for voters when they walk into the voting machine.

It’s not to be taken lightly.

Ron Faucheux is author of Running for Office and editor of Winning
Elections. A political strategist and analyst, Dr. Faucheux
teaches at George Washington University’s Graduate School
of Political Management. Ron can be reached at
Click here to contact this Author

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