what is campaign messaging, how to frame issues, and the narratives of the 2016 Election.
Successful Messaging is the centerpiece of any campaign. It represents the hopes and fears that a campaign communicates to voters and it must be interpreted with near-perfect clarity in order to be effective. Campaign messaging involves the YouTube videos, Facebook graphics, dank Instagram memes, and unbearable fundraising emails campaigns send out. It is yard signs, mailers, handouts, and anything a door knocker says to you. It is the "spin" that accepts certain facts and ignores others and is what drives support, donations, volunteerism and ultimately votes.
Messaging is about story telling
Campaign messaging involves the creation of narratives that positively or negatively reflect a candidate, organization, or bill. These narratives, or stories, serve as all-important tools for defining what a campaign or candidate stands for or against. Here's an analogy: In politics, the daily news stories, debates, and interviews are like scenes that collectively define an epic film. Your favorite candidate is the leading role and each scene helps to define the story of the candidate. Is he or she fighting a revolution, breaking down barriers, leading us back to the light, or something else? Each is a story that must be told in a different way and with different words.
In short ,campaign messaging is meant to control the day to day conversations (scenes) in order to effect the long term narrative (film).
While working in Kentucky against Mitch McConnell, our messaging centered around his lengthy 30-year Senate run and how Kentucky fared over those years (hint: not well). We ended attack ads with "30 years is long enough". From coal jobs to graduation rates, the use of correlating data in the narrative implied to the other side - this isn't working, so why do you want more of the same?
"Our Schools suck" -- "Mitch Has had 30 years to improve them and hasn't!"
"We have a drug problem" -- "in Mitch's 30 years, he's let the drug problems get worse!"
"Coal jobs..." -- "He wasn't able to save your jobs then, he's not bringing them back now -- 30 years is long enough!"
The story we were telling was that Kentucky was doing poorly, and that more of the same would surely lead the state to more of the same poor results. But to tell that story successfully, every issue had to be re-framed to fit the "30 years is long enough" narrative. For each answered question on tv, on the radio, and in the newspaper, the campaign had to hit the point that everything had gotten worse while Mitch McConnell was in office. Intersectionality out the door, Kentucky's problems couldn't even be addressed until Mitch was out of office.
Framing the Message
The Community Tool Box defines framing in the most useful way for the context of political campaigns:
In other words, framing is determined by the context you supply when presenting an issue based on the audience the message is intended for.
In Kentucky, we knew our audience was primarily working class and blue collar folks, so our messaging worked accordingly: If I had a job for 30 years and didn't get anything done, I'd be fired! So let's fire Mitch!
With all of that in mind, we can create our own definition for what proper campaign messaging is: Campaign messaging is the long-form story a campaign tells to a specific group by constantly re-framing issues on the short-term to satisfy that pre-determined long-form narrative.
How to tell when you are being framed
Spotting political framing isn't as difficult as one might expect.
There are three easily spotted giveaways when deciding if a message is being framed to fit a specific campaign narrative. They are (1)Strong Verbs, (2)Analogies and metaphors, and (3)Visions or Dreams of the Future.
Strong Verbs signal serious framing at play. Baby Killer instead of abortion doctor. Special interests flooding elections not just legally funding. Bills that are job-killers. Death panels and Death taxes. Anytime you see a strong verb or word with intense action or feeling (see Donald Trump's use of tremendous and 'uge), the writer or speaker is trying to frame the debate on their terms.
On the converse, Frank Luntz (who invented the term death-tax) helped George Bush change the scary conversation about global warming to a more dismissable one about climate change. Warming means the temperature is only going up and we needed to slow that as much as possible. Change implies it sways and has always changed and will continue to change and that's how God intended it to be. The softening of the language slowed global warming's momentum as a priority issue and continues to shape public opinion.
Analogies and metaphors are Obama's specialties. Here he is in top form framing the issues at hand by literally telling a make-believe story:
At this point, I have no idea if this made sense at the time, but it doesn't really matter. Analogies allow campaigns to re-frame debates based on anything they'd like, and literally tell any story they want. In this particular piece, the dings and dents and mud are probably awful concessions Obama had to make in order to get a bill through. He wants supporters to remember that getting the car to it's destination was the primary goal, and that it was achieved despite challenges. That is the message and so that is the story he tells.
A Vision of the Future is the final common framing technique. Whenever someone asks you to imagine or to dream, or to close your eyes -- they are about to sell you something.
Tom's Shoes famously donates a pair of shoes for every pair they sell, a refrain often heard about from the brand's patrons. Even right now their website is capitalizing off this narrative, inviting you to explore how it's even possible:
They are framing the decision to purchase their shoes as a decision on if you will help a child in need or not. You don't want to buy Tom's Shoes -- does that mean you don't want to help a child in need? By not buying their shoes, you are implicitly allowing a child to go shoe-less. How selfish! It is brilliant messaging, and the program actually does do a lot of good.
What stories are the candidates telling in 2016?
The stories 2016's remaining candidates are telling are easy to decipher. Here's a glimpse into the campaign messaging still at play in 2016:
Bernie wants a political revolution that empowers the average person, upends the status-quo, and creates real systemic change based on equality. His primary framing tool is envisioning the future. He backs up his claims not with successful legislation, but with a history of being on the right side of tough decisions in history, and a campaign supported by $27 donations.
Hillary will be the first female president, a feat that by itself makes her anti status-quo. Her primary framing tools are analogies (Like when she claims Bernie is good at diagnosing the problem but not prescribing the medicine, or Like the "crack the glass ceiling" metaphor in This Video I shot for Alison Grimes). Her experience and foreign policy prowess bring her legitimacy, as well as the support of basically every Democrat in office everywhere.
Donald Trump is tough and wants America to be tough too. Political correctness is the problem and is what prevents problems from being solved. His primary framing tool is Strong verbs (strong, terrible, huge, tremendous, "murderers and rapists", "until we know what in the hell is going on", "punish their families"). His legitimacy is derived from his net-worth, his self-proclaimed self-funded campaign, and decades of commercial success.
If you look at any answer they give, it will be rooted in something from these stories. And most interestingly, each candidate derives their framing in a different way. 3 candidates. 3 different strategies for framing their messages. No wonder this primary season was so good.