(In 1995, the Democratic National Committee asked my political and media consulting firm MacWilliams Cosgrove Snider Smith Robinson to write a series of training manuals for campaign leaders and staff. Between us, we authored and edited a half-dozen manuals on subjects from Field and Fundraising to Message and Media. Below is an excerpt from one I wrote on the subject of Messaging with a link to the full manual above in blue.)
“Despite the criticism you hear of modern elections, they are very much a matter of substance. They are won by campaigns that accomplish the fundamental and very difficult task of persuasion; convincing voters that their candidate is better than the opponent.
“Winning campaigns develop and deliver a message that communicates to voters the sense that the candidate shares their values. As the late Paul Tully, former political director of the DNC, wrote; “…a message is a limited body of truthful information which is consistently conveyed by a candidate and an organization in order to provide the persuasive reasons for an audience to choose, and act on behalf of their choice of, our candidate.”
The right message, consistently delivered, creates in voters an attitude that the candidate has the right instincts. The message is an umbrella under which the candidate’s or campaign’s issue positions – called “themes” in this manual – are grouped and given coherence and context. Issue positions do not constitute a message. But taken together, the key issue positions of your campaign become the themes that illustrate a fundamental understanding you want voters to have about your candidate. No matter the challenge, the candidate will do the right thing.
Consistent delivery of a campaign message may seem like an incredibly difficult challenge; navigating through a minefield of competing constituencies and seemingly insoluble public policy dilemmas; and it can be. But it’s not impossible.
First, you are not inventing a candidate out of thin air. You have a living, breathing individual with life and job experiences and the background and motivation to offer himself or herself as a leader. Candidates have character. No poll or petition or lobbying blitz will convince your candidate to ease up on alcohol safety issues if he has had to comfort the mother of a drunk driving fatality. Much like actual human beings, political candidates have an organic set of beliefs that color most of their opinions on issues.
Second, the audience you are trying to reach during the campaign is not all voters, just those who can be persuaded or motivated to vote for your candidate. Research will determine who these voters are, where they live and the media that reaches them. All you need is a win, not a triumph. It is a waste of the campaign’s resources to attempt to contact and persuade voters with a history of opposing candidates like yours.
Third, message is not so much about a spurt of creativity as it is the application – with deliberately mind-numbing regularity – of a very rigorous discipline. You are not attempting to cobble together a set of policy positions into some sort of catchy jingle and call it a campaign message. Your job is not so much lyrical as empirical. Research guides message development, much as blueprints and a solid foundation guide construction of a new house…