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

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.

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