What is a campaign theme, and have got one?

Posted on July 13, 2022

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 strongly on your side and some are strongly against you. While energizing 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, fairly well-informed 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 voters or lawmakers are worried about other issues – ours is not at the top of their minds.

Therefore, the most important rule for constructing a theme 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.

Generally speaking, themes fall into four categories:

[1] I am physically one of you. This is an appeal to a common race, religion, ethnicity or geography. “Vote for the white guy/Baptist/Italian/person from your local community…” It is not unreasonable for voters to assume that someone who shares demographic characteristics with them might understand their problems better or might be more likely to battle for their own. This kind of politics has gotten very ugly in recent years, but it won’t go away by pretending it doesn’t exist.

[2] I am ideologically one of you. Progressives are most used to this. Our candidate supports average people and their candidate favors the rich. Here is where we usually unleash our “issues.” But first, most undecided voters are not very ideological, and second, it’s less relevant to a local campaign and especially a local primary campaign. If you’re going to try to distinguish your candidate from another based on ideology, you need to make it clear that your opponent is on the wrong side and use policy positions and votes to prove it. The voter is not going to particularly care if the opponent voted “to lower the upper tax bracket” or some description of the specific policy, the average voter will only be persuaded by the overall theme—“our candidate is on your side, the opponent is against you” and this issue position is evidence of it. This theme wins few city/county elections; the best chance for it is a state legislative general election where the opponent is a pretty extreme MAGA type.

[3] I will get things done for you. This theme that wins most city/county elections. “Our candidate is effective/experienced/gets results/is a leader.” “Our candidate gets things done for you, your family, and your community.” Anyone can vote right, both we and voters know, but not everyone has the energy and skill to work the process and get results. When this is the theme, issues are used to demonstrate skill—the candidate increased wages, cracked down on criminals, built a new park, upgraded the local school. Or competence can be demonstrated by experience outside of government—she ran this business so she can balance the town’s budget. Endorsements from individuals and groups can be used to illustrate either a “gets things done” or an “ideologically one of you” theme.

[4] I am your candidate for change. Americans are hard-wired to dislike government. They are always ready to believe the worst about incumbents. So there are many opportunities to run a campaign that is focused on “change.” If voters believe the state or local government is “on the wrong track,” then this theme might work for you.

Whatever the theme, notice that all of them are about “you” and “your.” We ardent progressives like to talk about the “common good,” but that is not what average voters care about. Voters are focused on themselves, their families, and their own communities. Your theme has to be about how you are going to help them, personally. When you highlight issues, it should be to show how your candidate, if elected, will directly and indirectly improve the voters’ quality of life. Parks will be cleaner; traffic problems will improve; government offices will serve citizens better; unwanted real estate development will be thwarted.

Once you have a campaign theme, it should inform all communications. You can shorten it into a slogan that’s used on signs and logos. You should make it the basis of your stump speech. And your mail should prove the theme with a variety of evidence—biography, work on issues, endorsements, etc. Each time you communicate with voters, it should put across that theme.

Finally, a reminder. Use empathy and express shared values. You can’t be “on their side” unless you can empathize with their concerns—even if you disagree with them. And always show voters that your values (e.g. freedom, opportunity, security, justice, fairness, safety) are the same as theirs. If you haven’t read this discussion before, please read about it here.