2008 General Election Message Box

heelsA campaign message box is a tool communicators use to help script the public outreach efforts of a political or advocacy campaign where your job is to persuade others to your point of view.

What’s a message? A brief value-based statement aimed at a targeted audience that captures a positive concept.

A campaign message box boils down the elements of your message to their bare essence, and lets you communicate your ideas and values in a clear and certain way which contrasts your position with the competition. The goal is to showcase the choice and persuade your listener to pick you, not the other guy (or gal). Every message in the box has four corners: a positive on you, a negative on you, a positive on your competitor and a negative on your competitor. The four corners of each message all inter-relate and let you script the right response to any attack.

Your mission is to play the campaign on your own turf. By using a campaign message box to steer the conversation, you bridge back to the positive part of the message box when attacked and spend as much time as possible without straying out of your positive box.

With the days dwindling between now and the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, I’m publishing a campaign message box featuring the Obama-McCain face-off. I had the assist of several smart people in fine-tuning this, which was half the fun of putting it together. This treatment shows the evolution of Obama’s campaign message box which I published during the Democratic primary race.

Most commentators think the 2008 Presidential race will become highly negative in the last weeks and days as McCain fights to make up ground. Supporters who want to defend their candidate and get back on message can use the message box as their script. When responding to an attack simply follow your map around the box: pivot to the positive message on the same topic, and if you are feeling feisty counter-attack to put the other side on the defensive.


The fun of putting this together is that once you have the main ideas laid out on the table you can ping your friends and allies to pull and tug at it to make sure you have picked the best words and phrases to communicate your most compelling ideas. Then you get to check out the order and hierarchy of the messages to make sure the most important ones are right up top. Then you throw it against the wall and test whether it reflects the current environment and issues people are talking about. And be sure to be ruthlessly selective and stick to as few messages as possible so you don’t overwhelm the listener.

To illustrate the evolution of a campaign message box in its final development, I’ve posted versions one through four on Slideshare, in reverse order with the best one on top,so you can see the shift as it has been tuned. In version one, each position has three core messages. My reviewers spotted weaknesses and had excellent suggestions for tightening it up. By the end of the tweaking there are four core messages.


The Final “Change” Conversation:

When Obama says he offers America the change we need, McCain answers that Obama’s ideas are actually ‘liberal’ and trapped in the hyper-partisanship of his allies. McCain offers his positive message that he is the ‘original maverick’ and Obama’s allies say in reality McCain’s behavior during the economic meltdown has shown he is erratic in a crisis.

Notes on Fine-Tuning:

McCain’s counter-messaging against Obama’s positive message about change was seen as weak by my reviewers. Originally I said McCain was saying Obama wouldn’t cross party elders and was wedded to old ideas. These words weren’t quite reflecting the state of the debate, I was advised. This terminology shifted to “liberal ideas” and “hyper-partisanship”.

My message box predicts the blow Obama would take to hit-back McCain, pointing to “more of the same” and a campaign of lies and flip-flops. While that may have applied in September, the economic turmoil that America has gone through in the last two weeks has shifted the ground. Instead of using the term “flip-flop” the word “erratic” seems to best capture the current environment, while still allowing you to remind the listener of past flip-flops with his policy positions.

McCain “suspended” his campaign to fly back to DC and force a White House meeting with Obama. He said he wouldn’t debate until the crisis was solved. However, McCain’s input to the debate in Congress was seen as negligible and even negative and then decided to debate after all. By contrast, the “no drama Obama” cool demeanor during the economic crisis appeared more stable and comforting to many in the public.


The Final “Experience” Conversation:

When McCain tells voters he has experience, Obama’s allies answer that in reality McCain is cranky and out-of-touch. Obama counters that this election is all about you, not me, to which McCain talks about the celebrity sizzle of candidate Obama, telling voters his opponent is self-absorbed.

Notes on Fine-Tuning:

The counter-message to McCain’s experience message was to drop hints about McCain’s age. While this may be the chatter in the beauty salons and barber shops, I was reminded that it could be offensive to call him out on age with our senior voters. So the word ‘aged’ was turned into ‘cranky’ – communicating the same idea without being across-the-board anti-Senior citizen. The phrase ‘out-of-touch’ remains.

Against McCain’s attack on Obama’s ‘celebrity’, the original counter-message I had for Obama about unity was seen as not direct enough. The unity message was moved to another category entirely, and the final counter-message on celebrity was: it’s about you, not me. The phrase “it’s about you” also serves the strategy of providing Obama a foundation to talk to people where they live and connect to them on kitchen table issues that they care about. Obama’s perceived weakness during the primary was that he was not connecting or “closing the deal” with real people because his speeches were too lofty.


The Final “Unity” Conversation:

Obama tells the nation that it is time for unity, that together we can transcend old divisions. McCain responds to chide Obama about his leadership, saying he doesn’t lead and is too focused on collaboration. Obama hits McCain on his ties to the Bush Administration, saying that America doesn’t want “more of the same.” McCain answers by referring to his reputation as a reformer who challenges the things as they are.

Notes on Fine-Tuning:

This part of the message box is very closely tied to the change conversation. Yet there are enough differences to merit its own section in the campaign message box. Unity has been a central theme of Obama’s since the primary campaign and has remained a consistent part of how he talks about his candidacy and what sets him apart. His life story embodies the message. The version 4 of the message box, putting “more of the same” as the primary negative Obama message to McCain’s “reformer” message, gives Democrats ground to say McCain supported Bush over 90 percent of the time and eight years of George Bush policies is enough. And by the say, they’ll add, McCain has been in DC over 20 years and has over 134 lobbyists on his campaign staff.

Personally, I find the talk about lobbyists is among the weakest for the public, which is why moving this to a supporting message position instead of the primary message position makes sense. Polling has consistently shown that Americans care far more about kitchen table issues than the behind the scenes jostling of lobbyists. Unlike 2006 when scandal and corruption was a clear winning message, in 2008 the economic crisis has left this rather flat. On the contrary, reminding voters that they are unhappy with the Bush Administration is a clear winning message.


The Final Conversation on Restoring America’s Standing:

Obama tells the nation he will restore America’s standing in the world. McCain answers by saying Obama may be a gifted orator but he is not tested and not ready to lead. McCain’ brings it back to his positive message that he is a patriot and a hero, to which Obama (or at least his supporters) will counter that McCain may have been a hero during his service in uniform but as a political candidate for President he has sold his soul for this election.

Notes on Fine-Tuning:

The answer to McCain’s positive conversation about his patriotism was a conversation about Obama’s position on Iraq. The American public is now consumed with fear over the economic meltdown, however, and Obama’s position on Iraq was growing nuanced along-side his positions on Afghanistan. This positioning was also breaking a “rule” that a campaign message box be about values, not issues.

In the final iteration, the response to the patriot message from Obama is now to hint that while McCain was once a hero, his behavior in the campaign has diminished that status.

In the final order of message by importance and power, this one is now at the bottom, not the top, reflecting the reality of the current political landscape.

Although I agree with my reviewers that it is unlikely and perhaps unwise for Obama to say McCain “used to be” a hero and “sold his soul” for this election, it is perfectly appropriate for surrogates and supporters to adopt this line. From McCain’s courtship of the religious right to his surrendering his principled position against renewing Bush’s tax package, there is plenty of ammunition to support a “sold his soul” point of view.


Once your message box is baked, it is ready to put into action. Use it like a dance card so you can see around corners and anticipate what the other side will say and how you will respond. Every positive point about yourself or your competitor has a counter-veiling negative point.

You can predict which way the conversation will go when you decide what part of the box you are in. I encourage you to download my Slideshare of the 2008 Campaign Message Box – use final version 4.0 – and pass it around to friends and neighbors who need help staying on message in the final days of the campaign.

And oh yeah, if you are wondering, I’m with Obama.