The Question of the Election

If you’ve been a Local Victory reader for any length of time, you’ve probably heard me talk about the importance of developing a great campaign message – a message supported by good issues, and related through a solid political slogan.  (For more information on developing a good message and political slogan, read Message: The King of Tactics and Creating a Compelling Slogan).

One of the most important, yet least understood concepts for developing a great campaign message is understanding “the question of the election.”  If I were to write a book detailing the top 10 campaign “secrets” that political professionals understood but the average candidate did not, the question of the election would definitely be one of them.  This is powerful stuff…

What is The Question of the Election?

Every voter who enters a voting booth goes into that polling place asking themselves a question.  They may be asking that question subconsciously, or they may have it in the front of their mind… but every voter who votes is asking themselves a question.  They will answer that question with the name of one of the candidates who is running.  Thus, the answer to their question will be the name of a candidate… the candidate whose name the voter answers with is the candidate they will vote for.  That question… the question the voter asks him or herself in the polling place… that is the question of the election.

Top-level campaigns spend lots of money and resources trying to make sure that a majority of voters go into the polling place asking themselves the question that the campaign wants them to ask… the question that they will answer with the right candidate’s name.  Both campaigns compete to get the voters to ask their question on Election Day.  They do that through their message, which is spread through earned and paid media, their grassroots organization, and other tactics.  The campaign that succeeds in getting the voters to ask “their” question is the campaign that wins.

Understanding through Examples

I find that the best way to understand this concept is through examples.  Let’s take a look at the last two U.S. presidential elections.

In 2004, George W. Bush wanted people going to the polls asking themselves, “Who is going to keep me safe from terrorism?”  His campaign spent a lot of money pushing that issue because they knew that if people went into the polling place asking that question, they would answer, “George Bush,” and he would win.

Likewise, in 2004 John Kerry wanted people going to the polls asking, “Who is going to bring change to Washington?”  His campaign spent a lot of money pushing that issue because they knew that if people went into the polling place asking that question, they would answer, “John Kerry,” and he would win.

Ultimately, more voters went to the polls asking, “Who will keep me safe from terrorism?” and George W. Bush won re-election.

Interestingly, in 2008, the campaigns wanted the voters asking themselves almost the exact same questions.  John McCain wanted people to ask, “Who is going to keep us safe (from terrorism, and in war)?” and Barack Obama wanted people to ask, “Who is going to bring change to Washington?”  This was a different year than 2004, however, and more people cared about and responded to the change issue.  More people went into the polls asking themselves, “Who is going to bring change?”  Thus, Barack Obama won.

What is the question of YOUR election?

The question of the election is a concept that matters in every campaign, no matter how small.  Very few campaigns use it, however.  Top political operatives and large campaigns around the world understand and use this concept, but every campaign, whether for the US Senate or the local shade tree commission, turns on a question, even if that question is only party loyalty or personal friendships.

Before you develop your campaign’s message, spend some time figuring out what question YOU want the voters to ask before they go into the polls.  What question will they answer with YOUR candidate’s name?  That’s your own question of the election.  Then spend time figuring out what your opponent’s question is… what question does he or she want voters to ask (even if his or her campaign doesn’t understand the concept).  Then, develop your message with those questions in mind.  For even more information about developing your message, read Keeping Your Campaign on Message.

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