Whether you’re trying to win an election or pass legislation, your campaign needs a central message that is repeated over and over. It’s your theme. But what makes a great theme and how do you integrate it into the campaign?
Let’s start with the understanding that politics – both electoral and legislative – is the art of persuasion. In nearly all campaigns, some people are pretty strongly on your side and some are pretty strongly against you. While keeping up the spirits of your base, you have to focus persuasion on those who might take either side. We call them the “persuadables.”
The most common mistake in an electoral or legislative campaign is to misunderstand the persuadables. When we consider what to say to them, we usually think of arguments that would appeal to us, members of the progressive base.
But persuadables, whether voters or lawmakers, are by definition not like us on the matter in question. In an election, “we” know the issues, keep current on the news, and care deeply about the result. Persuadable voters, in contrast, don’t pay much attention to public policy. They don’t often read or watch the political news. As a result, they are the citizens who know the least about issues, legislation and the political process. And as polls have consistently shown, they care the least too. Similarly, when we (the activists) are involved in a policy cause, we know a great deal about the details and the importance of taking action. Persuadable lawmakers are worried about other issues – ours is not at the top of their minds.
Therefore, the primary message of your campaign must address something that matters a lot to your persuadables. That is almost certainly somewhat different than what motivates you and our base.
The most important rule for constructing an argument for persuadables is: show them how they benefit. For voters, that means their own families, friends and communities; for lawmakers, that means the lawmaker’s own demonstrated values and his/her own political career. Put another way, you’re not asking for a favor – show that your candidate or cause is on their side.
As an exercise, since we’re all focused on the presidential race right now, let’s consider those candidates’ themes.
Well, Trump has been very plain about this for more than four years – he’s on the side of racism and white identity politics. That’s what “Make America Great Again” means. Clearly this theme works very well with more than 40 percent of American voters. Trump is “doubling down” on the idea that this same message (and the Russians) will get him to a majority.
So, what’s Biden’s overall theme? It’s hard to see how “Build Back Better” captures any swing voters and that doesn’t seem to be his strategy anyway. And for those of us in his base, “any functioning adult” would do the trick. But what about a theme for that small slice of likely voters – maybe five percent (the Wall Street Journal says ten percent) – who might possibly vote for either Biden or Trump?
Again, these persuadable voters are completely focused on what’s best for themselves and their families, and to a lesser extent what’s best for their friends. Appeals will fall flat if they’re based on the “common good” or sympathy for a group that they do not belong to. They want to know how the election affects them personally.
Biden has a message which was kind of buried in his acceptance speech. He said:
Our current president has failed in his most basic duty to this nation. He failed to protect us. He failed to protect America. And, my fellow Americans, that is unforgivable. As president, I will make you this promise: I will protect America. I will defend us from every attack. Seen. And unseen. Always. Without exception. Every time.
In a nutshell: Trump endangers you and your loved ones. Biden will protect you. Now that’s a campaign theme.
The narrow version of this message works because it fits what persuadable Americans already believe. By a margin of 56-to-41 percent (RCP average), voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. In other words, only Trump’s base approves of what he’s done – virtually every swing voter disapproves. Further, the larger message beyond the pandemic is believable because persuadable voters think that Biden, not Trump “cares about people like you.”
Obviously, the first example must be COVID-19. Show that thousands of deaths would have been prevented by a competent president. For example, say:
Just over the past week, 21 people died of COVID-19 in Canada, 25 died in Germany, 72 died in Italy, and 4,990 died of COVID in the United States. (See data here.) That’s more people than died in the terrorist attack on September 11.
So understand this: your life and your health remains at risk as long as Trump is president. Your family and your friends are in danger. Whatever else you may think, Joe Biden cares about people and will do everything a rich nation can do to protect you, while Trump frankly and obviously does not care if you live or die.
But after clobbering Trump over COVID-19, you can shift to other areas. Biden will protect your ability to get quality, affordable health insurance; he will fight to protect your environment from climate change; he will safeguard your Social Security; he will put our nation’s security interests over the interests of Russia; and he will protect your right to participate in a free and fair democracy.
Whatever your campaign, tailor it to fit your persuadables who, again, are not like you.