To win or not to win: Campaigns can hang on a few words

05/23/2014 8:44 AM

05/23/2014 4:17 PM

Earlier this year, Republicans set up focus groups in two key swing states, Ohio and New Mexico.

People were asked about Republican positions on volatile issues such as energy policies, student debt and school choice. The party then organized groups of specific constituencies _ unmarried women and bilingual speakers _ that it has had trouble wooing. And it tested ads.

The final result: “Create Your American Dream.”

“It embodied what a lot of the focus group participants were telling us _ that they wanted the opportunity to succeed and there was no single path to get there or one agreed metric of success,” said Kirsten Kukowski, Republican National Committee spokeswoman.

Democrats also are pushing to motivate unmarried women, who tend to vote heavily for their candidates.

An April 8 memo from strategists for the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund, a group that advocates for higher voter turnout by unmarried women, stressed “ending paycheck discrimination” and “finally recognizing working mothers need help,” among other initiatives.

All over America, political parties, candidates and interest groups are employing the same strategies, trying to find messages that will push voters their way.

Effective messaging reduces complex issue positions or candidates’ images to easy-to-remember, easy-to-like slogans or catchphrases. The trick is to keep the message positive while suggesting the other guy’s brand is inferior.

Republican strategist Frank Luntz helped promote this new kind of political language nearly 20 years ago. In his 2005 commentary, “The Lexicon of Political Clout,” he explained, “Admittedly, in these times, most political language has taken a partisan tone. But my suggestions are meant to help reach that crucial, nonaligned swing voter.”

Luntz helped popularize phrases such as “death tax,” instead of the more arcane, tilted-to-the-rich “estate tax.” After all, he reasoned, people pay income tax on income and sales tax on sales. Or “energy exploration,” a smoother way of discussing drilling for gas or oil.

Democrats this year argue that the 2010 health care law helps promote “access” to contraception, even though such access is already widely available.

Republicans have fought the Affordable Care Act’s contraception policies and frame the issue as one of religious freedom.

These strategies aren’t foolproof.

“They work to the extent they tap into existing thoughts and feelings,” said Atlanta-based Republican political strategist Todd Rehm.

Key catchphrases this year have become “1 percent” for Democrats and “Obamacare” for the Republicans.

One percent is the Democrats’ way of reminding the voting world of their contention that a small, rich group of elite Republicans run the country, manipulate Washington and don’t care much about the other 99 percent. Obamacare capsulizes the Republican idea that an out-of-control government is intruding into the most personal of decisions, driven by the Democrat who occupies the Oval Office.

Republicans can’t say “Obamacare” enough.

“I understand how the bad consequences of Obamacare are wreaking havoc on folks’ everyday lives,” says Michigan Republican U.S. Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land. “What I’ve heard in N.H.: Obamacare is a mess,” blogged New Hampshire Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown after touring the state.

David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Massachusetts, explained the appeal: “When you say Obamacare you make a connection to the president,” whose approval ratings have been in the low to mid-40s.

Democrats counter that when they explain the law in less toxic terms, they tend to gain support. Last month, Resurgent Republic, a Republican polling group, and Democracy Corps, a Democratic organization, tested both parties’ arguments.

People were read statements typical of a Democratic and a Republican candidate. Nearly half said the Democratic statement came closest to their own opinion. Among its points: “The health care law is a start but it’s not perfect. . . . Repealing it with more political fighting will hurt a lot of people.”

The Republican statement got 44 percent support. It used the term “Obamacare” twice and contends “millions more are being forced to buy coverage they don’t want or need or can’t afford.”

Democrats are trying to win the message war by stressing how Republicans are pawns of the affluent and care little about women, racial minorities or the middle class.

“It’s an image that’s become a stereotype of a Republican,” said Kenn Venit, a Connecticut-based media consultant.

But Republicans have a slight edge in the economic debate. The Democratic message got 46 percent backing in the bipartisan survey, while 48 percent preferred the Republican statement.

Words matter in other ways during campaigns.

In New Hampshire, Brown, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts from 2010 to 2013, needs to overcome Democratic criticism that he moved into the state so he could run again for the Senate.

Brown deflects criticism by mentioning his birthplace, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, across the state line. His campaign derides Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., as a “third Massachusetts senator” because of her Democratic loyalty.

It’s too soon to say what will work, but this much is obvious, said Paleologos: “This messaging is all scientific.”

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