Archive for August, 2009

Turning Principles into Campaign Messages

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

In the last blog entry, we discussed why it isn’t enough simply to be “the most conservative candidate” in the race…or to run as the “principled candidate” since value-laden terms like conservative, liberal and libertarian have slightly – or sometimes widely – varying meetings to different people based on which issue perspectives they bring to the term.


As we noted, effective campaign messaging first unifies the various sub-groups that share a philosophical bent – the so-called “base vote.”   Typically that is done by being “right” on the valence issues.  Valence issues are those which are almost universally shared by the larger philosophical movement.


For example, most Republican campaigns can’t go wrong promoting limited government, low taxes, reduced regulation and government intervention, and supporting policies encouraging family, individual responsibility and work.


Opposition to abortion approaches a valence issue within conservative circles, though libertarian and some economic conservatives either bite their tongue when the issue arises or they’ve already left the Republican Party over it.


Progressives and liberals believe government has a role in most aspects of life; that a primary government function is to help the less fortunate, the left behind and those outside the mainstream. 


Further, they believe the fortunate have a disproportionate responsibility to the unfortunate to pay taxes so government can meet their ever-growing human needs.  While they understand the importance of wealth creation, they have less faith in private sector institutions which they often see as driven by individual and collective greed and selfishness. 


Pro-abortion or “pro-choice” positions are a valence issue for liberals/progressives.  Meanwhile, for the liberal/progressive, traditional values fail to account for the cultural diversity in the U.S. and they often believe the root of America’s problems in a globalized world is our quest to impose western values on other cultures.


Understanding these varying viewpoints, then, is crucial in developing effective campaign themes and messages.    The key when dealing with valence issues is developing creative or fresh ways to discuss traditional themes.  It’s not enough to be “right” on a valence issue; you must credibly, clearly outline how you are the most qualified candidate in your race to achieve something significant to move the agenda forward.


So, once your campaign has developed the unifying themes needed to bring together your philosophic or partisan base, the next challenge is developing differentiating themes.   Campaign messages are designed to do two things: 1) define you in the minds of voters and 2) define your opponent.


Elections are about choices.   Those choices should be clear, comprehensible and credible.  Most campaign messages are built around three factors:

  • The personal strengths and weaknesses of the candidates
  • Philosophical or partisan differences
  • Ideas


Campaign messages built around the personal strengths and weaknesses of the candidates involve drawing contrasts between your strengths and your opponent(s) weaknesses.


Your strengths could be experience, abilities, integrity, good judgment, compassion, stability or training for the job at hand, while your opponent(s) lack those.   Again, your contrasting messages must be clear, credible and connected to reality.


Many campaigns succeed not by touting their candidate’s strengths, but by focusing on the opponent(s)’ weaknesses, failures or ideas. (We’ll do a later blog on contrast messaging – the so-called “attack ads” that proliferate late in campaigns as candidates go after undecided voters or try to discourage and disappoint supporters of their opponents.)

Messages built on philosophical or partisan differences usually involve situations where one candidate is right on a major valence issue and the opponent(s) are wrong.   That difference can be demonstrated by an opponent’s bad votes, dumb or impolitic statements, organizational affiliations and a host of other factors.


For instance, an opponent running in a Republican primary who voted in several Democratic primaries can be attacked as a “RINO” - Republican In Name Only.   An incumbent who voted for a tax hike, a budget increase or other big government solution can have his/her conservative credentials questioned.


In reality, philosophical differences are the mother lode for most campaigns developing their differentiating messages, particularly in primaries.


The final basis for campaign messaging is ideas.   Novel or original ideas are rare in politics.  In fact, decades can pass before some interesting, game changing “big idea” surfaces.


By convincing Ronald Reagan of supply side economics’ value as a policy and political idea, Jack Kemp transformed the GOP from what he called “the tax collector party for the welfare state” to the party of lower taxes.


In Georgia, the last real inventive idea may have been the worse policy innovation in generations – Zell Miller’s lottery.   Who would belive a candidate could get elected by turning Robin Hood’s “take from the rich and give to the poor” concept totally on its head?


Miller devised a scheme where lower income individuals would contribute to an educational fund to pay the college costs for more affluent families and turned it into a successful campaign message.


Sometimes ideas are what you make them.   In 2008, Obama really didn’t talk about specific ideas, but hammered on the need for change.  He didn’t define change, but let each voter project his/her vision of change on to his campaign.


He capitalized on “Bush fatigue,” without defining exactly how he would be different.  This can be helpful in races against or in succeeding a long-time, high-profile incumbent.   Clinton used incumbent fatigue against Bush I, while Bush II used incumbent fatigue on Gore before Obama used Bush fatigue again on McCain.   


Since big ideas are rare and difficult to develop, most “idea-based” campaigns rely on a lot of little ideas bundled in fresh or novel ways.   Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” contained very few new thoughts.   Most “Contract” elements were proposals the GOP had pushed for years, but were stymied by an entrenched Democratic majority.


Newt gathered these smaller initiatives into a compelling campaign package, slapped the “Contract” label on them and, in 1992, Republicans a rode that set of small, but game changing ideas to control of the U. S. House for the first time in a generation.


Attempts to replicate the “Contract” concept since then have failed, because even creatively packaged ideas need a near perfect set of circumstances to work.  However, nothing is more powerful in politics than an idea – and a resulting message – whose time has come.

So, in the end, developing messages that meet the 3C test – clear, credible and comprehensive – is the most important thing a campaign does.   Campaign messages become the basis for voter decisions about who they hire to fill important public jobs each November.


Thus, the most important thing a candidate can do – even more important than voter contact and fund-raising – is to do something extremely hard:   THINK!


Rusty Paul is long-time campaign consultant for state and local campaigns.  He did his masters work in Campaigns & Elections at Georgia State University.  iSquared Communications is a political consulting firm specializing in state and local races. Email him at

Principles vs. Message – Giving Voters the Right Information for Decision Making

Friday, August 21st, 2009

In campaigns, candidates sometime confuse their principles with their message.   They believe that being “the most conservative candidate in the race” is all the voters want – or need – to know about them. 

If I had a dollar for every candidate that has said, “You should vote for me because I am the conservative in this race,” I’d never have to work again.   Give me another dollar for every candidate that has said “I’m taking a principled stand on the issues,” and no member of my family would ever feel the need to work again. 


This mistake most often happens in primaries where candidates are trying to appeal to a party’s base vote, but it happens in general elections, too.

Often, candidates feel that simply taking “principled” stands on issues will get them elected. In reality, those candidates typically arrive at or near the bottom in contested races.   It’s not that the voters are “liberal,” it’s just that conservatism, liberalism, libertarianism and all the other “isms” we use to label politicians actually mean different things to different people.

If you ask a Republican, “are you conservative?” the answer is almost always “yes.”   You have to scratch much deeper determine what “kind“of conservative that Republican is.   Social conservatives have a different definition of conservatism than many economic conservatives.  

While social conservatives usually are also fiscal and economic conservatives, they typically focus more on a candidate’s moral, ethical and religious values.  Abortion is truly a litmus test for most social conservatives, but a broader range of value-laden issues rank high, too.

Social conservatives are not as static in their views as many candidates believe.  For instance, in recent elections, a significant percentage of values voters have moved more to the left on environmental issues.   They see the Biblical admonition to “subdue the earth” in different terms, interpreting it as a command to be better stewards of God’s creation.

These conservatives want limited government, but they also want government policies that support the values they feel are essential to a virtuous society.  They believe America cannot be great unless it is virtuous and traditional values – usually traditional Judeo-Christian values – define virtue.

Economic conservatives are more focused on fiscal and economic issues and, in fact, may consider themselves “progressive” or “libertarian” on social issues. They want government “to stay out of their wallets and their bedrooms.”They want lower taxes, less government regulation and less interventionist government in most economic and social matters.  They aren’t total libertarians, because they see a role for government outside the libertarian just “tote the mail and defend the shores” mindset, such as providing transportation and infrastructure, schools and delivering other “essential” services.

But once the essentials are done, leave me alone and tax me just enough to pay for those services.

These often are your entrepreneurs – first and second generation business owners or individuals involved in small or medium-sized businesses - who value their independence and who carry forward America’s pioneering spirit.

They get fired up about the flat tax, the fair tax or any system other than the existing complex, counterproductive, intrusive income tax system that falls disproportionately on them and punishes productive, creative work.  

While social conservatives get fired up about the current health care debate, this group of economic conservatives is the driving force behind the Tea Parties and the anger evident at the recent health care forums.

A subset within economic conservatives is what I call business conservatives.   They tend to be executives or “professional managers.”  They see government as a mixed bag.  

Less ideologically driven, they want government to ensure a fair, level playing field for their business and to promote economic development through tax breaks and publicly financed projects, but they also want government to minimize regulations and taxes. 

More important, they want government to be consistent.  They feel they can adapt to any set of rules government makes, but just don’t be changing them constantly.

Many cultural and some economic conservatives are leery when this group calls itself “conservative,” but they do have generally (though often soft) conservative values.   Often called “Main Street” conservatives, other conservatives see this group as “the mushy middle,” thus constituting the greatest obstacle to a true conservative revolution.

However, this group is crucial to the Republican coalition.  They represent a disproportionate share of political contributors and write the business PAC checks that fuel campaigns.

At the other extreme, reside the libertarian conservatives who see government in stark black and white, good vs. evil terms.  A true libertarian conservative has never seen a government he/she likes.   Government isn’t a necessary evil – it’s just plain evil.

Democrats have the same striations and variations within the liberal/progressive political sphere.

In truth, most voters – conservative or liberal - are a blend of various philosophic sub-branches.  So in elections, conservative voters want to know what kind of conservative are you?   

Thus, successful Republican candidates develop campaign messages that reach across the substrata of conservatism (ditto for Dems on the left side of the political dial).

Even divergent wings of a philosophical movement have unifying factors and an effective campaign employs unifying themes to bring its voters together.  An effective campaign doesn’t get bogged down in the differences among the various factions – but finds ideas and issues with broader appeal.

Does that mean you forsake principle and make blatant political appeals designed just to get votes?   You better not.   Philosophical warriors are experts at spotting the phonies among us.

It does mean, however, that in developing effective campaign messages, candidates simply can’t declare themselves conservatives.  They must define their conservatism and outline ways they plan to put principles into action.

After all, a campaign’s message explains why a candidate is running, outlining his aspirations once in office.  It helps voters decide why they should vote for you and not your opponent(s).   And, your messaging must define and explain the choices voters must make voting in your race.

In fact, the most effective campaign messages force voters to decide between opposing viewpoints, unifying various philosophical factions while creating stark choices for them by focusing on what makes you different from (better than) your opponent(s).    

In a later blog, we’ll talk more about messaging, message development and why campaign consultants are always telling candidates to “stay on message.”  We’ll talk about how candidates can draw contrasts with their opponents, while appealing to and unifying the various factions within their philosophical coalition.

Hiring a Poltical Consultant – What Candidates Should Know That Consultants Won’t Tell Them

Friday, August 14th, 2009

Seems like every campaign has a consultant, nowadays. In the old days, volunteers ran campaigns, filling envelopes, licking stamps, making phone calls and stuffing mail boxes.


Yes…stuffing mail boxes. It was supposed to be illegal, but campaign volunteers in low-budget campaigns (and in the 60s, 70s and 80s all local races were low-budget) would drive just out of the postman’s view and insert campaign literature in the box before the homeowner collected the mail. It looked like mail, but the campaign saved the postage and back then gas was cheaper than stamps.   There was a lot of “unstuffing” by opponents, but that’s a story for another day.


Let’s refocus on consultants. The growth of modern campaigns gave rise to campaign consultants. Now, like that line in Ray Stevens 1970s hit, The Streak, “they’re everywhere, they’re everywhere.” These days, it seems that anyone who has volunteered in a campaign is qualified as a consultant.


So, being in the consulting business, let me share a secret. Not every campaign needs a consultant. Consultants add a layer of overhead to a campaign that some low-budget races simply can’t absorb. They spend more on consultants than they do on voter contact. That is a misplaced priority. At least 75 percent of your budget must go to voter contact.


Yet, some candidates don’t think they are really a candidate until they have a consultant. So, let’s start with the basics. Every campaign should ask two questions about consultants. Why do I need a consultant? Often, you can find a good local free-lance graphic designer to design your yard signs, brochure and a few mail pieces that talk about the important issues. They can probably do a simple website.


That’s mostly what consultants do for you in most small district, small budget campaigns. If you’re willing to go door-to-door, that’s all you need. Result: major savings. How do you know when you need a consultant?


One, if the district is so large that managing the details of your campaign consumes more time than voter contact and fund raising. Any candidate who spends less than 75 percent of the time talking to voters and raising money is out of balance. Even then, if you have a well organized friend or neighbor who can handle the details, you still may not need a consultant.


Consultants really earn their money in local, district and statewide races when it is a highly competitive race, when a candidate can’t get his/her message to resonate with the voters, professional ads and mail become important and the details overwhelm even the most organized volunteer.


Competitive races mean the candidate must devote his/her full attention to voter contact and fundraising. Some county commission races, mayor/council races in larger towns/cities, legislative races and higher, due to their competitive nature, obviously need someone to help the candidate strategize and articulate their message.


So, if you need a consultant, how do you choose one? Incumbents tend to “dance with the one that brung them.” After all, that consultant got me elected the first time; he/she can get me elected again.


Maybe. Every consultant has a basic formula they follow in races, primarily based on what seemed to work in the past. Like generals who always fight the last war, consultants rely on tactics that worked in the last campaign cycle. Unfortunately, that makes them predictable. If you’ve relied on the same consultant for a couple of races, you may become predictable, too. So, you may need to rethink your consultant.


Consultants compete against each other like football coaches. After a while, you learn your competitors’ playbook and tendencies, so you prepare for them. When they make the move you expect, if you’re a smart consultant – WHAM - you’re waiting on them behind the line of scrimmage. SACK. But the person sacked isn’t the consultant, it’s the candidate. Worse yet is an inexperienced or wanna-be consultant.


A good consultant understands how to fend off an opponent’s attack and get the campaign back on message. Consultants earn their fees when they help a candidate snatch victory from the masticating jaws of defeat by developing counter tactics for an opponent’s attack pieces.


Inexperienced consultants may be unpredictable, but are they skilled enough to handle the crises and attacks that are part of any campaign? If they give you the wrong advice in handling an attack, you may make the attack more deadly. Consulting appears to be a glamorous job, so many who can’t be a candidate wanna-be consultants.


Everyone has to start somewhere, of course. But, do you want your campaign to serve as a technical training school for political consultants?


Maybe. If you don’t have the resources to hire a more experienced consultant, you might try an evolving consultant – but negotiate the fees and rates very carefully. You shouldn’t pay full price – you should extract a “training fee” in the bargain.


When choosing on a consultant, why not shop around? Personal chemistry between you and your consultant is important. So are shared values. Good consultants force candidates out of their comfort zone, but never push them to do things that violate their values, conscience or the law.


And, why not bargain. Campaign consulting is a competitive business and consulting fees vary widely among consultants. Campaign funds are hard to come by, so get the most out of them – including your consulting fees. Also, compare the materials produced by several consultants.


Check out the graphic designs. Do they look professional? Do you prefer one consultant’s work over another? Does the work of one consultant really stand out over the others? Your graphics must stand out in a crowded field – literally – to be noticed. Does the consultant’s work accomplish that objective?


Be sure you understand the consultant’s fee structure and the services you get in return. To help make consultant shopping easier, here is a checklist of questions you should pose to any consultant you consider hiring.

• How long have you been managing campaigns?

• What education or training do you have in campaign management?

• How often do you take refresher courses?

• How do you stay up-to-date on the latest campaign techniques?

• How many races have you managed/consulted?

• How many races have you consulted like this one?

• What’s your win/loss ratio? (Give me the candidates who you managed in the last two cycles and the outcomes in each race)

• Do you work with Republicans and Democrats – or just one party?

• How many races will you be managing this cycle? Do you cap the number of races you take?

• How do you deal with conflicts of interest?

• What is your fee structure and what specific services do your fees cover?

• How often will you and I sit down face-to-face to review my campaign? (Key question)

• Have you ever been fired from a campaign? Why? (Every decent consultant has been fired, usually because of compatibility issues – but you want to find out)

• Have you ever quit a campaign in the middle of a race? Who? Why?

• Are you willing to submit to a criminal background check? (Don’t want consultant’s background to become a campaign issue).

• How do you pay your vendors? (Don’t want unpaid bills to pop up in a race).

• Have you ever been sued by a client?

• How much advertising liability insurance do you carry? (If their ads get you sued, this is a vital question – a million dollars is the minimum).

• Can I see your consulting contract?

• Can I have your cell phone, home phone, business phone, pager and email addresses?

• Are you available 24/7 in case of emergency?


Truthfully, consultants are a necessity in most mid-ballot and higher races today. If your opponent has one, you probably need one to offset the competitive advantage of the professionally designed ads and mail.


While grassroots party activists still can play a big role in races, the days of a dozen party volunteers stuffing every mailbox in the district are long gone. In compact geographic districts, volunteers can still knock on doors – the most effective campaign technique ever invented.


Yet, it’s expertly designed ads and mail, insights into the evolving world of digital media, professional experience in helping candidates articulate their message, while fighting and responding to the inevitable negative ads and campaign attacks from your opponent that can make the difference between winning and losing. But in choosing consultants – choose wisely.


Rusty Paul is former Georgia GOP Chairman, state senator and long-time campaign consultant for state and local campaigns. He did his masters work in Campaigns & Elections at Georgia State University. iSquared Communications is a political consultant helping Republican candidates in state and local races. Email him at

Effectively Using Digital Messaging In Your Political Campaign

Friday, August 7th, 2009


Political campaigns are relying more each election cycle on email, texting, blogs, Facebook™, Twitter™, MySpace™, Linkedin™, of course websites, and a host of other emerging technologies in their voter contact, fundraising, volunteer, get-out-the-vote and other campaign activities.  Digital messaging is the next great frontier in campaigns, particularly given Barack Obama’s and Ron Paul’s fundraising and grassroots mobilization success in 2008.

Before wading into the complexities of subject lines, message content, image-to-text ratios, email metrics and the like, let’s first consider how email and text messages should and shouldn’t be used. 


In the digital messaging world, spamming is today’s bubonic plague. Most of us spend too much time tossing out the digital junk mail cluttering our electronic in-boxes.  Somehow spam seems even more frustrating than robocalls, advocacy calls, TV spots and the campaign snail mail that also clutters the lives of voters.  


So, just because political messages are protected by the First Amendment and political emails and text messages are not subject to the Federal CAN-SPAM Act, doesn’t mean you can – or should – litter Cyberspace with your campaign messages.   Given their high irritation factor, cam-spam (my contraction for campaign spam) can offend potential voters by inundating them with messages they prefer not to receive.


That’s why campaigns rely more and more on opt-in lists, whether it’s their own or a purchased list of individuals who expressed interest in receiving political communications.


Every campaign should have a plan to gather email and text message data at every opportunity - by capturing email addresses on the campaign website, at rallies, in door-to-door canvassing, during fund raising and in advocacy mail and phone calls.

Smart campaigns now dedicate a portion of their resources to digital voter file development because the ultimate payoff is so high.


Before purchasing third-party lists, make very sure you can test it to prove its accuracy.   If you get a lot of returns, the list may be too old to be effective.   The third party provider should be credible, dependable and willing to fix any list problems at no cost to the campaign.


But relying solely on opt-in and third-party lists also handicaps campaigns in developing and growing their email and text message data bases. So, is there an alterative?


More and more campaigns are adapting direct mail or telemarketing fundraising techniques to build a file.   Campaigns and political parties are constantly doing prospect mailing and telemarketing.   They contact individuals based on demographic data or microtargeting (see previous blog) techniques seeking permission to contact them digitally.   


Just as smart campaigns constantly prospect for dollars, they now prospect for email and text messaging information to generate low-cost voter contact opportunities.

Also, campaigns that share geographical boundaries can also do list swaps.   How do list swaps work?  Two groups share their digital lists and each group can prospect a specific number of times – usually once or twice – on the other’s list. The campaign must contact the names on the swapped list to get permission to communicate with them, but it offers a rich lode of names to mine since they have already opted to receive political information from another source.


Digital messaging is an effective, low-cost means of communicating during a campaign. It allows supporters to expand your reach by effortlessly forwarding your information to their email networks, too.    It allows campaigns to effectively tap into the growing viral marketing phenomenon.


We’ll look at social networking with Facebook and the other options in a later blog.

But for now, whether yours is a low-budget campaign or one with plenty of resources, digital messaging allows you to tap a wider audience more frequently at less cost than any other communications medium.

Rusty Paul is long-time campaign consultant for state and local campaigns.  He did his masters work in Campaigns & Elections at Georgia State University.  iSquared Communications is a political consulting firm specializing in state and local races. Email him at