The Art of Campaign Messaging

The Art of Campaign Messaging

Campaign Messaging is the centerpiece of any campaign. It is the hopes and fears that a campaign communicates to voters. Messaging is the YouTube videos, Facebook graphics, dank Instagram memes, and unbearable fundraising emails. It is yard signs, mailers, handouts, and anything a door knocker says to you. It is the “spin” that accepts certain facts and ignores others and is what drives support, donations, volunteerism and ultimately votes. Through words and images, campaigns convince citizens to engage in democracy with hopes of improving their lives and their country.

So what exactly is campaign messaging?

Campaign messaging involves the creation of narratives that positively or negatively reflect a candidate, organization, or bill. These narratives, or stories, serve as all-important tools for defining what a campaign or candidate stands for or against. In politics, the stories are ongoing scenes that collectively define the epic films we see our favorite candidates as stars of in our heads. The stories a campaign tells are long form narratives that every issue can easily be bent to.

While working in Kentucky against Mitch McConnell, our campaign messaging centered around his lengthy 30-year Senate run and how Kentucky fared over those years (hint: not good). We ended attack ads with “30 years is long enough”. From coal jobs to graduation rates, the use of correlating data in the narrative implied to the other side – this isn’t working, so why do you want more of the same?

“Our Schools suck” — “Mitch Has had 30 years to improve them and hasn’t!”

“We have a drug problem” — “in Mitch’s 30 years, he’s let the drug problems get worse!”

“Coal jobs” — “If it happened in the last 30 years it’s Mitch’s fault”

The story we were telling was that Kentucky was doing poorly, and that more of the same would surely lead the state to more of the same poor results. But to tell that story successfully, every issue had to be re-framed to fit the “30 years is long enough” narrative. For each answered question on tv, on the radio, and in the newspaper, the campaign had to hit the point that everything had gotten worse while Mitch McConnell was in office. Intersectionality out the door, Kentucky’s problems couldn’t even be addressed until Mitch was out of the way.

A definition for campaign messaging.

The Community Tool Box defines framing in the most useful way for this context:

Framing is a way of structuring or presenting a problem or an issue. Framing involves explaining and describing the context of the problem to gain the most support from your audience. Your audience is key to framing. The way a problem is posed, or framed, should reflect the attitudes and beliefs of your audience.

So, framing is determined by the context you supply when presenting an issue based on the audience the message is intended for.

In Kentucky, we knew our audience was primarily working class and blue collar folks, so our messaging worked accordingly. If I had a job for 30 years and didn’t get anything done, I’d be fired! Like every campaign, we used the words “good paying jobs” to describe the type of jobs we wanted to bring to the State. Of course, a job doesn’t pay good unless you think the wage it pays is moral or just, which sort of makes sense if we are discussing the minimum wage, but not in everyday conversation. We should be looking for well-paying jobs — but i’ll digress.

With all of that in mind, we can create our own definition for campaign messaging: Campaign messaging is the long-form story a campaign tells by constantly re-framing issues on the short term to satisfy a predetermined narrative or to purposefully create a new one.

How to tell when you are being framed (messaged to)

Spotting political framing isn’t as difficult as one might expect.

Actually, there are three easily spotted giveaways when deciding if a message is being framed to fit a specific campaign messaging narrative. They are Strong Verbs, Analogies,  and Visions or Dreams of the Future.

Strong Verbs

Strong Verbs signal serious framing at play. Baby Killer instead of abortion doctor. Special interests flooding elections not just legally funding. Bills that are job-killers. Death panels and Death taxes. Anytime you see a strong verb or word with intense action or feeling (see Donald Trump’s use of tremendous and ‘uge), the writer or speaker is trying to frame a debate or sell you something

A Frank Luntz Example

On the converse, Frank Luntz (who invented the term death-taxhelped George Bush change the scary conversation about global warming to a more dismissable one about climate change. The softening of the language slowed its momentum as a priority issue.Warming means the temperature is only going up and we needed to slow that as much as possible. Change implies it changes and has always changed and will continue to change and that’s how God intended it to be. Besides, we’ve had a bunch of ice ages before right?


Analogies are one of Obama’s specialties. Here he is in top form framing the issues at hand:

They drove our economy into a ditch. And we got in there and put on our boots and we pushed and we shoved, and we were sweatin’… these guys were standing, watching us, and sipping on a Slurpee …. And then when we finally got the car up — and it’s got a few dings and a few dents, it’s got some mud on it, we’re going to have to do some work on it … they got the nerve to ask for the keys back!

At this point, I have no idea if this made sense at the time, but it doesn’t really matter. Analogies allow campaigns to re-frame debates based on anything they’d like. In this particular piece, the dings and dents and mud are probably awful concessions he had to make in order to get a bill through. He wants supporters to remember that getting the car to the destination was the goal, and that it was achieved.

Vision of the Future

Whenever someone asks you to imagine or to dream, they are about to sell you something.

Tom’s Shoes famously donates a pair of shoes for every pair you buy, a refrain often repeated by the brand’s patrons. Even right now their website is capitalizing off this narrative, inviting you to explore how it’s even possible:


They are framing the decision to purchase their shoes as a decision on if you will help a child in need or not. You don’t want to buy Tom’s Shoes — does that mean you don’t want to help a child in need? It is brilliant messaging, and actually does do a lot of good.

What stories are the candidates telling in 2016?

The stories 2016’s remaining candidates are telling are easy to decipher. Here’s a glimpse into the campaign messaging still at play in 2016:


He wants a political revolution that empowers people, upends the establishment, and creates systemic change based on equality. His primary framing tool is envisioning the future. He backs up his claims not with successful legislation, but with a history of being on the right side of tough decisions in history, and a campaign supported by $27 donations.


She will be the first female president, a feat that by itself makes her anti status-quo. Her primary framing tools are analogies (Bernie can diagnose the problem but not prescribing the medicine, or Like this Video I shot). Her experience and foreign policy prowess bring her legitimacy, as well as the support of basically every Democrat in office everywhere.


He is tough and wants America to be tough too. Trump believes political correctness is a problem and is what prevents people from solving issues. His primary framing tool is Strong verbs (strong, terrible, tremendous, “murderers and rapists”, “until we know what in the hell is going on”, “punish their families”). His legitimacy is derived from his net-worth, his self-proclaimed self-funded campaign, and decades of commercial success.

Look at any answer they give. You will find these stories at the root. And most interestingly, each candidate derives their framing in a different way. 3 candidates. 3 different strategies for framing their messages. No wonder this primary season was so good.

Ryan Black is a documentary filmmaker, political consultant, and digital media professional who writes about Progressive Politics.

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