Thursday, January 31, 2013

3 tips for creating your campaign message

Tony Blair taught me a lesson I will never forget. One day toward the end of the 1997 general election campaign he put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. "The most important thing in politics," he said, "is sincerity." Blair flashed his notorious grin. "Once you can fake that, you've got it made."
Tony Blair on sincerity

Admittedly, only one part of the foregoing is truthful. I have never had a deep and meaningful conversation with Tony Blair (although we did meet once, for all of five minutes) and the ability to feign sincerity will not lead ineluctably to political success. Which leaves the assertion that the most important thing in politics is sincerity. That, I believe, is true.

It is not, however, the first in the promised list of three tips for creating your campaign message (see below). The tips come after my shameless pitch for the upcoming Green Campaign School in Worcester on  Saturday, February 23. If you think you might want to run for office, this event is for you.

If you plan on attending, please take a few minutes to watch these campaign commercials from Greens in other parts of the world. I'll be running two workshops at the conference, Campaign Basics and A Green Electoral Presence. We will draw lessons from the videos in Campaign Basics.

Sian Berry
The first, called Make History Melbourne, features Adam Bandt, a Green who is now a Member of Parliament in Australia. Sian Berry, stars in the second video. Sian was the Green candidate for mayor of London in 2008.

Video number three is from Europe Ecologie and it's in French. The Greens in the German state of North Rhine Westphalia (NRW) produced the fourth video, a 30-second spot in party's package of single-issue ads for the 2010 elections. As the junior partner in NRW's coalition government, the Greens seem to know a thing or two about winning elections and holding on to power. Closer to home, California's Ross D. Frankel's 2010 campaign video is four minutes long, a painfully long time in politics. Just watch the first 30 seconds and I guarantee that you will agree it's worth discussing in a workshop.

We will analyze the videos (or at least some of them), focusing mainly on audience, emotion, and imagery. By talking about what works well versus what falls flat we will learn to develop our own messages more carefully and deliberately.

Why would we cover this in a workshop called Campaign Basics? Because nothing is more basic to a campaign that its purpose, and nothing reveals the purpose -- or purposelessness -- of a campaign like its fundamental message. Constructing the message starts with asking yourself this simple question: "Why am I running?"

Tip #1: Know why you are running

Answering this question honestly and thoughtfully will uncover your authentic vision, which will shape your message. It may take a while. But unless and until you have the answer, you should devote your time, energy, and other valuable resources to something other than running for office. I do not mean that you should swear off politics. I merely suggest that you should wait until you can give a sincere answer. After all, if not even you know why you are running how can you expect others to entrust you with their vote?

For many of us, having to explain why we are running forces us to ponder issues that go to the very heart of who we are. Our passion for politics is like a pilot light, always burning away in the background. Why do you care about politics? "Why do you breathe?" might be easier for us to answer. If you have not wrestled with these matters since Existentialism 101, you should do so before you commit to running. Otherwise you risk not only being stymied in the manner of the late Senator Ted Kennedy in this 1979 interview, but also you rob yourself of the opportunity to develop a genuinely compelling message that connects with the people who matter most, i.e. the voters.

Tip #2: Know where you are running

Narrowing that broader question of why you are running, you need to ask yourself why you are seeking this particular office. Remember, you are not running in the abstract: Your goal is to win a specific election in a specific district. Your campaign can certainly educate people about the big subjects, the ones you care about so much that you decided to run (see Tip #1). But as any teacher will tell you: "It's not what you say, it's what they hear." So you need to meet people where they are, and introduce the global and national subjects through local issues.

How? Let's say climate change is the reason you devote yourself to electoral politics and that you are running for state representative in a district where the front-page stories are about job losses. You will be tempted to repeat the phrase "green jobs" over and over again until you ride an electoral tidal wave to Beacon Hill. After all, no progressive campaign seems complete nowadays without that mantra. Resist the temptation.

What you need to remember is that jobs gains are general, whereas job losses are specific. So start acting like a state representative, or rather like a state representative should act. Do your research and find out what kind of clean-energy businesses might come to your district -- and which local businesses would hire more workers-- if the conditions were right. Then reach out to the people in your district who are already trying to grow green jobs. Learn from them, and show them that you respect the voters enough to have done your homework.

At that point you can start connecting the dots in a very clear way between climate change and job growth in your district, and you will be better prepared to ask the human beings who live there to trust you with the task of representing them.

Tip #3: Know who to ask

So who do you want to vote for you (bearing in mind that "everybody" is not an acceptable response)? To answer the question realistically you should calculate how many votes you will need in order to win. Happily, you will discover that your universe of potential voters is relatively small.

For example, in 2012, a presidential election year, approximately 20,000 people voted in some House district but in many others the turnout was closer to 15,000 (click here for the official results). In 2010, the numbers were lower. Assuming a two-way race in a district where the likely turnout is 16,000, your target number of votes should be no less than 8,000.

It is very likely that there are 8,000 people in your district who would vote for you if (a) they knew you were running; and (b) they believed that you would represent them well. Who are they and how do you find them? Start with the most up-to-date list of registered voters, which your town/city clerk will provide. Next create smaller lists arranged by neighborhood so that you can go from door to door in an efficient way (the GRP's NationBuilder capability can help with this). When you have these walk-sheets, start canvassing your district in a systematic way for several hours every day, recording the voting intentions of the voters you meet.

After a day or two, you will have a reliable sense of how your target voters are responding to your message, which is the subject of next week's more detailed post. If the responses consist mainly of glazed eyes and bemused expressions, you will need to adapt your message, your delivery, or both. But you will be building on a solid foundation, the why, where, and who of your campaign.

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