Politics & Society

What Is Campaign Messaging? Deciphering the Tools Political Campaigns Use toReach Their Voters

Written by MasterClass

Jun 18, 2019 • 5 min read

Political campaigns rely on a cohesive campaign strategy and core message in order to attract potential voters and appeal to their target audience. Whether a candidate is a Republican or Democrat, running for a nationwide presidential campaign or a local campaign for congress, crafting a campaign plan to convey a clear and consistent message is vital.


What Is Campaign Messaging?

A campaign message is the overall image, narrative, and ideology that a political campaign is trying to communicate on behalf of a candidate. Campaign messaging is the tactical deployment of the candidate’s message through all means of communication available to the campaign. Types of messaging can include explicit or implicit arguments and contrasts; insights into the candidate’s values, story, and achievements; messages intended to motivate volunteer recruitment or persuade and mobilize voters; or background on the candidate’s positions on important issues.

What Are the Elements of an Effective Campaign Message?

Political campaigns in the United States, spend a great deal of time and effort coordinating a multi-front communications strategy to drive their campaign message. There are many different elements that make up a campaign’s message. Understanding each of them, and how they relate to each other is very important to crafting a strong overall message.

  • Campaign narrative: The campaign’s narrative encompasses the candidate’s personal story, message, and argument; the arc is the strategic sequence by which the campaign directs attention to various elements. Particularly powerful messages might be slated to appear or be restated in new ways during moments of a race in which strategists feel they can gain maximum advantage toward winning. In practice, opposing campaigns vie over the course of a race to keep or take “control of the narrative.” A campaign seen as “controlling” the narrative is on the offense, talking about what it wants, when it wants. A campaign that might be described as having “lost control” of the narrative has been forced by their opponent to talk about what it doesn’t want to talk about. Campaigns have a plan for their desired narrative arc, but it’s ultimately the chess match of messaging that defines the actual shape of the narrative arc of a race as it unfolds.
  • Campaign argument: The argument of a campaign is the candidate’s meta message for a specific contest in a specific political landscape. Elections are about choices, and the argument is the core reasoning presented by a candidate for why voters should choose them. The campaign argument acts as a filter through which all messaging and communications need to pass in order to ensure alignment and consistency with the campaign’s central appeal to voters.
  • Campaign brand: The brand of a candidacy depends on the type of candidacy and campaign being run. Candidates for office generally fall into one of the following categories, based on their background, their positioning, and the nature of the race in which they compete.
  • Campaign slogan: A campaign slogan distills the candidate’s message and/ or argument into a succinct phrase used in speeches, on advertisements, and might even become a chant at campaign events, like the “Yes We Can” slogan of the 2008 Obama campaign. Slogans for incumbent candidates, for example, tend to discourage voters from voting for change, as exemplified by versions of the idiom “don’t change horses in midstream” used during Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 reelection campaign, or “four more years of the full dinner pail,” a slogan from the 1900 William McKinley reelection campaign. Cycling through too many slogans can indicate confusion within the campaign on its singular message and authentic argument. A good campaign slogan is a concise, catchy line that effectively communicates the central campaign message.

What Are the Different Types of Political Candidates?

  • Incumbent: A candidate holding the office for which he or she seeks reelection. For example: George W. Bush, 2004.
  • Status quo: A candidate of the incumbent party who appeals to the electorate to vote for continuity of leadership. For example: George H. W. Bush, 1988.
  • Change agent: In direct opposition to the status quo appeal, the change agent candidate crafts a platform that focuses on the governing party’s shortfalls and failures. The change agent’s message and argument demonstrates a need for true change in representation, leadership, and governance, as well as an overhaul in personnel, policy prescriptions, values, and vision. For example: Barack Obama, 2008.
  • Insurgent: A candidate seen as outside the mainstream of their party, whose ascendancy challenges existing orthodoxy. For example: Donald Trump, 2016.
  • Establishment: A candidate seen as deeply embedded in, or a product of, a party’s governing elite, whose policy prescriptions, behaviors, and postures should be shaped by adherence to and operation within the party’s dominant power element. For example: Hillary Clinton, 2016.

What Are the Messaging Tools Political Campaigns Use?

Political campaigns have a variety of tools at their disposal to communicate a campaign message in run up to election day. Political communications are expensive, so the amount of messaging and methods used depend largely on how much a candidate can raise from private donors and political parties.

  • Correspondence with supporters: Whether through direct mail, email, or text messages, effective communication with supporters is an integral part of communications. Political mail is useful for increasing a candidate’s name ID and highlighting accolades and public service to voters who might not know much about them. Email and text messaging are used more often for voters who already support the candidate or their respective party.
  • Media stories: The media plays a huge part in crafting the public’s view of political candidates. Engaging with the media through press releases, press conferences, interviews or off-the-record conversations is an important part of campaign communication.
  • Campaign ads: Campaign ads are another tentpole of campaign messaging and come in a few different formats. Print ads are the oldest form of political ads but have waned in popularity in the twenty first century. Television and radio ads are still very popular as these mediums are incredibly popular amongst older demographics who make up a disproportionate percentage of voters. Internet advertising gives campaigns the ability to micro target their messaging to more specific pockets of the voting population. Internet advertising is particularly useful when trying to reach younger voters.

Learn more about political campaign strategy in David Axelrod and Karl Rove’s MasterClass.