Candidate FAQ: Political Campaign Messaging

You have some questions about political campaign messaging. We have some answers.

Your core message tells voters what you will do if elected and why you’re the best person for the job. This is what voters should expect of you if you get into public office and this is what voters should remember about you. Crafting a concise and powerful message will take your campaign far.

Without further ado, let’s get some of our most frequently asked questions about political campaign messaging.

Defining Your Political Campaign Message

“I’m in a primary election where there isn’t a ton of policy difference between my opponent and myself. How do I break through and show why I’m the best person for the role?”

Have you ever heard of the beer test? When candidates are running for president, pundits will often talk about the beer test: which of the two candidates would someone rather have a beer with?

People don’t just vote because of policies — honestly, that’s often not the driving force behind their vote. They vote for the person they find genuine, the person they feel they can trust.

In our “Crafting Your Message” course, our formula for your campaign message is: Your Story + Why You’re Running + Policy.

Policy comes last because the first thing you need to do is convince people they can trust you. The most effective way to earn that trust is with a story.

A few tips for developing and telling a good story:

  • Show, Don’t Tell: Anyone can say they’re a great advocate. But if you tell a story about how your advocacy got results for the community, that’s a lot more persuasive.
  • Use Details: Use key details to paint a picture for your audience so they can imagine the scene. This is how you make your story memorable and unique.
  • Leave People with a Feeling: Your story should have a point. The quality your story demonstrates should be one that will help you serve them once you’re elected. By the end, you want your audience to trust you to do a great job in office.

People will remember the ideas and principles you put forth in your story much more than they’ll remember facts and figures.

Because your stories are just as real. And your stories why you’re running — and why you’re the best person for the job.

For a deeper lesson on storytelling, read our blog:

How to Deal With an Opponent’s Bad Record

“What are good (and bad) ways to highlight my opponent’s bad record?”

Here it depends on what stage your campaign is in — are you still vying for the primary or are you in the general election?

Depending on where you’re at, you’ll need to think about how far you go. In the primary, you are trying to get on the general election ballot and beat out another member of your own party. It may be a friendlier fight because you probably share many of the same values — or it might not.

In the general, you are usually facing off against a Republican whose values and ideas contrast starkly with your own.

In either case, your opponent’s votes while in another elected office and public statements that contradict their current policy positions are always fair game. But how you frame them and how hard you hit are a judgment call.

If you win the primary, you will ask for your opponent’s — and their supporters’ — help in the general election. So it’s a tough line to walk — you want to win, but you don’t want to alienate folks you’re going to need to win the general either. In most cases, you can be more aggressive in the general election than you would in a primary.

But do your research! Don’t call them out on something and then realize you’re the one who made the mistake. Be able to back up any claims you make.

When you bring up their record, talk about the results.

  • Who was hurt by their choice?
  • Who were they helping?
  • But stick to the facts and avoid making assumptions about their true intentions.

Think about these contrasts in terms of your target audience’s perspective and interests. And your message. Your goal isn’t to call out every contradiction they’ve ever made. It’s to use their record to make the point that you would better serve the community and its interests.

If you go this route, many campaigns use direct mail to draw these comparisons. This allows you to keep the messaging on your terms — and clearly draw a contrast between your opponent’s record and your own.

You might also use a question in a town hall or debate to raise your opponent’s record. “Tom, If you claim to support affordable housing in our community, why did you vote against the ordinance to require affordable units in the new development project?” Just be ready for all their possible answers.

Media Interviews and Political Campaign Messaging

“How do I prepare for TV interviews? Other media interviews?”

Preparation and practice are your two new best friends.

You have your core message, right? (If not, take our “Crafting Your Message” online course to help you define it.)

This is the true north you use to prepare your talking points for any potential questions that arise.

Once you have your talking points, you need to PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!!

To make your practice even more effective, ask the interviewer for the questions beforehand. That won’t always work, but why not try?

Even if you don’t have the questions you’re going to be asked, you can come up with some likely ones. And some unlikely ones to get you ready for anything.

Practice answering questions — and bringing the conversation back to your message — with a friend or your partner or your child.

Practice in front of the mirror, while you’re walking the dog, and while you’re making your third cup of coffee for the day. Just practice.

The most important thing to remember during preparation and practice is that you need to stay on message.

Whatever the question, whatever the topic of conversation, find a way to bring it back to your message.

Also — remember to smile!

Addressing Shortcomings

“Should I proactively address or deal with shortcomings in my message? For example, if I haven’t lived in the district long.”

First things first: You’re not the perfect candidate.

But neither is your opponent. There’s no such thing.

The best way to address a shortcoming is to try and turn it into something positive, or shed a brighter perspective on the issue.

For example, using the flaw of short residency, you could turn it into:

“As soon as I moved to the district, I felt welcomed and a part of the community. I’m running because I want to give back to this great community and ensure every resident is as supported as I was.”

It is when you are addressing these shortcomings that you must stress the why of your message. People will be more inclined to look past a short residency if they see your dedication to bettering the community. And what you’ve done in that limited time.

As we’ve discussed, your message is the core component of your campaign and is what voters will remember. Here are a few tips on how to keep your message local.

How to Approach Political Campaign Messaging When Running in a Red District

“I’m running in a very red district that hasn’t elected a Democrat in many years. How out-front in my messaging should I be about being a Democrat?”

We get this question a lot. And it honestly depends on your audience. We’ve seen success on both sides.

Is your affiliation going to be on the ballot? Will the folks who are turned off by you being a Democrat be turned off at that point anyway?

For campaign messaging tools like bumper stickers and yard signs, think about what those do and who they reach — they are about name identification. How does your party affiliation relate to that goal?

For things like literature pieces, you might consider producing more than one piece:

  1. A persuasion canvass focused on Democrats who vote infrequently where you feature your party affiliation prominently and often, as well as the issues that resonate with that group.
  2. One focused on moderate and swing vote Republicans, you might focus on your issues and only mention your party affiliation once, or not at all, depending on your targeting and audience.

Think about why a Democrat hasn’t been elected in your district for awhile and use that knowledge to guide your decision making on this issue. Have they run and lost? Or has no one tried? Have other Democrats tried to pretend they were someone they weren’t? Has that been successful?

The answers to your questions here are only part of the equation. To learn more about your message, head over to our Crafting Your Message course.

This post originally ran on TrainDemocrats.org. You can also check out our companion piece on Political Campaign Fundraising.