When discussing strategic messaging, it is often useful to draw a distinction between explicit messaging (essentially, what’s said outright, in words) and implicit messaging (everything else). I outlined the explicit change messages of Senators Clinton, Obama, and Edwards in a previous post. Now I’d like to highlight some of their (presumably conscious) implicit messaging that supports – or contradicts – their explicit claims.
Again, Obama leads the way. He at least creates the appearance of using a variety of modern internet technologies to communicate with his supporters, and ties this into a pledge to use technology to make government more transparent and responsive to its citizens. The photo section of BarackObama.com focuses on showing him with a broad range of “ordinary” people. He’s probably the only candidate from either party whose most visible endorser is someone other than a white male. He has a young (under 50), Tiger Woodsian post-racial appeal. And he’s at least partially successful in differentiating himself from politics-as-usual via a “high road” of not very negative campaigning.
When it comes to positive implicit messaging in the area of change, John Edwards focuses mainly on “walking the walk” of his anti-corporate, poverty-fighting populism. He declines lobbyist and PAC money. He launched his campaign in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. He works visibly on poverty-related issues. Once again, his marketing is really about benefiting the poorer classes, and “change” is mainly a means of getting to those objectives.
Of the three leading Democratic candidates, Clinton does the least to market “change.” Her official online biography indeed emphasizes concrete accomplishment, and advocacy for change. But her website could – and should – go further. For example, some kind of chart or graph consolidating her accomplishments could convey the message much more convincingly.
Obviously, Clinton is trying hard to avoid the dread “liberal” label. Even so, the Clinton campaign could do a better job of combining messages of “change” and “prudent moderation.” Most of the Obama tactics mentioned above could and should have been copied; some would even work at this late date. And while there’s no time for this now, last year would have been a great time to sponsor some visible policy conferences, brimming with practical ideas about how to effect change. That would have been a great way to – well, to build a bridge to 21st Century politics, but to do so in a classic Clinton policy wonkish style.
Clinton also gives a consistent messaging contradicting the change story by identifying herself with the Bill Clinton Administration. That is, after all, in the past. And it has been demonized by right- and left-wing commentators alike. Unless Hillary Clinton succeeds in establishing the Bill Clinton legacy as one of change rather than one of non-change, little else she tries in marketing the “change” concept is likely to succeed.
Perhaps most important, Hillary Clinton has a “change” trump card she is not playing at all well: Clinton is a woman, which automatically makes her one of the most unusual and differentiated front-running candidates in the history of American politics. As I’ll discuss in an upcoming post, Clinton is squandering that advantage, and missing a major opportunity to position herself as a change agent in the area of women’s rights.