Turning Principles into Campaign Messages

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 www.RustyPaul@isquaredcommunications.com

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