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Rolling Out Your Campaign Message

By Ron Faucheux

A campaign message positions your candidacy relative to the political environment and your opposition. It is about strengths and weaknesses, yours and those of your rival. As such, your central message should include a strong positive element based on your candidacy’s strengths – explaining why you’re right for the job -- and should also include a strong comparative element, based on how you’re different (and better) than your opposition.
The question most campaigns struggle with is how you roll out the positive and comparative aspects of a message. Do you start positive and end on the attack? Do you open up on the attack then go positive or comparative? Do you roll out two tracks, one positive and one comparative, at the same time? Or do you stay positive throughout and ignore the opposition?
Years ago, campaigns often took pride in ignoring the opposition. They refused to “dignify” their rivals by even mentioning them. But 21st century message-based campaigns rarely ignore an opponent who poses a possible threat. 
The reason for this is that when voters cast their ballots, they’re making a choice – and a choice is about selecting among available alternatives. And selecting among available alternatives is about making comparisons and drawing distinctions.
Solving the strategic puzzle of message sequence requires planning and hard thinking. It is paramount that campaigns make sure message roll-outs are on their own terms and not purely reactive to their opponent’s moves.
If you are an incumbent with a wide lead against an unknown challenger who has few resources, you may do better not calling attention to such an opponent. But in most competitive races, where two or more candidates have the ability to mount serious campaigns, it is unlikely that you will be able to completely ignore your rival in the contemporary political environment. That doesn’t mean you have to focus only on the negative, but it probably means that you have to draw sharp distinctions for the voters, and that often involves at least mentioning the existence of your rival.

So, the question you have to answer for purposes of writing a strategy memo is: When do you unveil the positive aspects of your message and when do you unveil the comparative, or attack, aspects?

Defense may win football games but staying on the offense wins wars and political campaigns. That’s why campaigns attack the other side; when you’re on the attack, you’re on the offense and your opponent is on the defense.

Many campaigns like to start positive and wait until the opposition throws the first punch. But other campaigns prefer to frame the choice right out of the box, explaining from day one the differences between your side and the other side. Depending upon the situation, there are good reasons to consider both options.

Democratic strategist James Carville once said, “It’s hard for your opponent to hit you if you have your fist in his face.” That sentiment often argues for an aggressive message sequence strategy, which is why more campaigns in recent years have been willing to make a frontal assault against the opposition so they can keep the pressure on throughout the entire campaign.

Before you launch an unprovoked attack, however, one thing you need to keep in mind is that two can play the game; so expect your opponent to react quickly with a potentially fierce counterattack.
Of course, you have to decide not only how you start a campaign, but how you close it. Will you use all of your ammunition too early? Or will you use it at the most critical time periods, when the windows of opportunity are open widest? Will you have a knock-out punch for the last week or two?

All of these factors go into your message sequence strategy. It’s crucial to know how you will roll out your entire message, both the positive and negative aspects, before you start the campaign and before you begin to spend your budget.

Timing may be the most important aspect of campaign strategy. As Napoleon said about warfare, “I may lose battles but I never lose minutes.” Timing calls are the toughest decisions your campaign will have to make.

While your opposition is rapidly depleting their resources and taking risks, will you move slowly but surely with activities timed to crescendo on Election Day? Or will you open your campaign big and loud, then coast for a while with a low level of activity and, finally, close big and loud? Will you try to catch your opponent asleep and then drop all your bombs at the end when it’s too late for the opposition to mobilize and respond in a timely fashion? Or will you hold your fire so that you deploy your resources at the moment of maximum efficiency and effectiveness?

How long can you afford to sustain intense and expensive activity? One week? One month? Six months? Much of this has to do with available money, budget constraints, and the anticipated level of competition.

How long can you coast between big bursts of activity? In small district races, for example, volunteer canvassing, knocking on doors by the candidate, putting up yard and highway signs, and doing inexpensive literature drops can sustain a campaign during these lean times. In larger races, earned media, press events, online initiatives, targeted mailings, and grassroots organizing can provide a campaign presence during periods of low levels of paid advertising.

Intense campaigning may take on the characteristics of a “blitz” – a lightning strike of activity that brings to bear all of your resources and utilizes all your weapons in a quick, efficient, all-encompassing movement. But those strikes, especially when they rely upon massive amounts of paid advertising, are expensive and cannot be sustained over long periods.

Timing decisions bear directly upon your campaign’s timeline and budget. Availability of money to fund sustained campaigning, especially expensive advertising and direct mail - whether it’s positive, comparative or attack - is a crucial factor. That’s a consideration that keeps candidates and campaign managers up late at night.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers when it comes to the sequence and timing of message roll-outs. It’s different for each campaign. There is no sure formula, no magic wand. Ultimately, it’s a matter of thinking strategically based on an analysis of the plusses and minuses of every option, a realistic assessment of your own resources and a hard-nosed understanding of your opposition and the political environment.

Nobody ever said running a campaign was easy.

Ron Faucheux is author of Running for Office and editor of Winning
Elections, popular books on political campaigning. 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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