December 17, 2020

Seven categories of political messaging

Electoral politics are confusing. Many candidates, issues, events and voter subgroups interact with each other. Reliable data isn’t nearly sufficient for us to confidently tease causal factors apart. So any discussion of political campaign strategy relies, at best, on educated guesses. Here are some of mine.

I believe that voters’ decision factors can largely be divided into seven categories. The six more obvious ones are:

In a companion post, I argue for adding a less obvious seventh category:

As generalities, I think this all holds true across different countries and eras, and even describes citizens’ views of non-democratic authoritarian regimes. But the specifics obviously vary by time and place.

Of course, one can message across some or even all of these categories at once. A candidate may propose ideas that reflect their concern for and understanding of the needs of specific groups of voters, with a confident demeanor that helps one believe in their competence to lead the impending fight to defeat the corruption that is holding us all back. Indeed, that pretty much was the strategy for Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump alike.

Even so, let’s briefly examine each area in turn.

Caring, Empathy and Concern

We want our government to care about us, people like us, and the things that are most important to us. Some politicians, like Joe Biden, try to show us they care about everybody, and that the caring is heartfelt. Others, like Donald Trump, do less of that. Either way, they wind up communicating that certain communities and issues are top-of-mind for them.

It’s hard for a third party to do this messaging for you. So a large fraction of the time and money candidates spend on political messaging goes into these areas. If done right, with lots of listening to and/or reflecting back of voters specific concerns, these efforts can double as messaging in the cluefulness dimension.

Proposals, Policies, Programs, Priorities, Plans, Promises

Governments, including in the United States, are almost always representative republics rather than direct democracies, a few examples to the contrary (e.g. ballot initiatives or town meetings) excepted. Even so, the traditional way to communicate your political priorities is through specific proposals. Further, voters commonly support or oppose candidates based on policy positions, specific or directional as the case may be.

Candidates and voters alike commonly treat policy proposals as proxies for other things, such as caring, cluefulness or group affinity. While that makes sense, candidates sometimes forget to argue for the policies themselves. For example, Democrats did a poor job of economic messaging in this year’s national election.

Effectiveness and Competence

Judging politicians’ competence is hard. Governments consist of many people, who often disagree with each other. So nobody can really swoop into office and do exactly what they promise to. Voters rightly give legislators much more of a “pass” for this than they give executives, but the latter often get a lot of forgiveness too. That said, competence in a crisis can be make-or-break for a president, governor or mayor. And presidents are often judged by how well the economy performs during their time in office.

Overall, the problem of messaging about competence is unsolved.* Candidates typically cite their resumes, use them for caring or cluefulness pitches as best they can, and that’s about it. Voters are commonly unimpressed, and indeed may so disregard evidence of competence that they favor inexperienced outsiders over proven, capable leaders.

*Mike Bloomberg recently spent ~$1/2 billion learning just how difficult it is.

(Dis)honesty and Corruption

All successful politicians are at least somewhat untruthful. Still, some are much more dishonest or corrupt than others. Voters’ reactions are highly inconsistent from one case to the next.

Generally, there seems to be much more tolerance for individuals’ integrity lapses than there used to be. 30 years ago, Joe Biden’s plagiarism was disqualifying, and Speaker Wright’s perfectly legal book deal drove him from office. Now … well, you know.

But systemic corruption – real or imagined – is a rising issue. Right-wingers rant against the “Deep State”, “corporate media”, and “swamp”. On the left, “corporatist” has become a nasty buzzword, applied to any politician to the right of Elizabeth Warren, and often to her as well. And even Joe Biden messages hard against the related problem of “systemic racism”.

Group Identity or Affinity

Voters’ group identity is hugely important, never more so in the US than in the present “Us vs. Them” era of polarization. In many cases, voters are satisfied if candidates seem in sync with their group (and don’t get caught denigrating them); hence my use of the alternate term group affinity. For example, George W. Bush famously signaled that he was an actual evangelical Christian. But Donald Trump, obviously not a sincere evangelical himself, became at least as popular with that group as Bush was.

Sometimes, of course, actual group membership matters, especially in discrimination-related categories such as skin color or sex. But group affinity is commonly a great substitute.

Behavior, Demeanor and Comportment

There have long been norms for the dignified way leaders are supposed to behave. Indeed, academic research suggests that the dignified appearance of competence is more important electorally than any evidence of the real thing. But populists have long realized than appearing undignified can appeal to voters too. And whatever group of people you’re photographed among, you should look comfortable and happy to be with them.

Generalities aside, there are a lot of ways to screw up. Sex scandals are commonly bad. You shouldn’t look dumb on a tank. You shouldn’t be too blatant about your bigotry. And if you’re female, you must thread the needle between sounding too strident and too passive.

Cluefulness vs. cluelessness

This is the least obvious of my seven categories, and the one I want to take the most care in describing. I have done so in a companion post.


One Response to “Seven categories of political messaging”

  1. Poltiical messaging's secret sauce: "Cluefulness" | Strategic Messaging on December 17th, 2020 9:12 am

    […] “Cluefulness” is the most novel of the seven categories in my taxonomy of political messaging. […]

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