No campaign is strong without a good plan, and no plan is strong without a good message. Message is what drives the campaign plan, it sets the parameters in which the strategy is devised.
It is important to know the difference between message and strategy, because they are often confused. Message answers the question “Why am I running for office?” while strategy answers the questions “How am I going to win?” In order to devise the strategy, the campaign must first plan its message. It must decide what it wants to say, before it decides how it is going to say it.
1. Demographically Speaking
The first step in devising the campaign message is to find out the demographics of the district the candidate is running in. This can usually be done by reviewing census data, voting records, and other public documents. The demographic survey attempts to find out who the voters are. During this step, the campaign should learn everything it can about the makeup of the district, including age, gender, race, occupation, home ownership, union membership, party registration, voter turnout, and any other statistic which will be useful for the campaign.
The campaign must also create an issues outline for the district. This profile answers the questions, “What do the voters care about? What issues are they interested in, and where do they stand on those issues?” This profile is usually created through the use of a benchmark poll, a large poll conducted before the campaign starts telling the candidate where the voters already stand. This poll should be done by a professional pollster, if possible, but can adequately be performed by the campaign staff and well-trained volunteers.
2. Divide and Conquer
The next step for the campaign is to break the voters in the district down into useful categories. This categorization should start with large groupings (the district is 45% Republican, 30% Democratic, and 25% Independent) and drill down through increasingly more defined categories (the district contains 12% Republican women over 55.)
The campaign should use the benchmark poll to attach issues to these groups. For instance, the poll may have shown that the large majority of Republican women over 55 are most concerned with the quality of education in the district. Armed with the demographic data showing who the voters are, and the issues data showing what the voters care about, the campaign can begin to draw a clear picture of the district.
3. Build your Coalition
After categorizing the voters, the campaign should look at its own strengths and weaknesses to decide what coalition of voters it needs to utilize to win the campaign. The campaign should be able to figure out approximately how many votes it needs to win, and thus should decide what percent of the voters in each of the categories it created above it needs to win in order to be victorious.
The campaign should be realistic in looking at what percentages it can reasonably capture. If the candidate is a Republican male who is strongly pro-life, he cannot reasonably assume that he will win 80% of the Democratic women who are strongly pro-choice.
4. Craft Your Message
The campaign must then use the demographic and issues data it has gathered to determine what its message should be. The candidate need not change what he or she believes in order to come into line with the general electorate, but should use the polling data to determine which of their issues to accentuate, and which to play down. The candidate needs to watch out for their weaknesses while strongly emphasize those issues likely to garner the necessary percentage of votes.
The campaign message must succinctly but compellingly answer the question “Why should the voters vote for me?” This message should be narrow enough that it is clear, yet broad enough that several issues can be drawn from it and used throughout the course of the campaign.
Thus, the campaign’s message may center on the candidate’s strong record on education, and be verbalized as: “Marianne Williams should be elected to the city council because of her strong record on education. She has served on the local school board and has had three children go through the local school system. The district is facing a teacher shortage and declining test scores, and the voters are ready for a change. By putting together a coalition of strong Republican voters, Republicans worried about education, and Democratic women, Marianne Williams will win election to the city council.” (Note that the campaign message is not the same as the campaign slogan, and is not intended for the press or the voters to see, but for the campaign to use internally. The slogan in this hypothetical race might be “Better Schools for a Brighter Future”)
After crafting the message, the campaign can then draw several issues off of the message to use throughout the campaign (e.g. School choice, teacher pay, standardized testing, etc.) These individual issues can be communicated to the voters through direct mail, television and radio advertising, speeches and campaign literature.
In order to succeed, the campaign must have a strong message that targets the voters of the district. Through polling, categorization of the voters, and coalition building, the campaign can craft the message it needs to communicate in order to win on election day.
Have you read: How to Create a Winning Political Image?