There are no longer smoke-filled rooms where the nomination of a candidate is haggled over. This decision is wrapped up well before convention goers even set foot into the halls. The name of the game at conventions today is messaging. It’s about creating a message framework that gives voters a road map for how to process the information–ads, debates, speeches–that will be pumped out to them in the next two months. It boils down to putting out the most user-friendly message and in this go around, the Democrats got it.
At its core, messaging is an exercise in psychology, providing voters a context (in psychological lingo, a schema) to understand the campaign. The strengths and weaknesses of the content of the Democratic and Republican ideas can be debated elsewhere. But what I want to focus on here is the messaging approach. The Republicans failed to provide an easily accessible conceptual framework for the campaign. In contrast, the Democrats provided a more encompassing, relateable framework.
The Republican message was one of absolutes: 1.) government is inherently bad 2.) ideology trumps pragmatism 3.) citizens are better off on their own. In contrast, the Democratic message was grayer, one that did not present itself as either black or white. The Democratic message took a middle ground of: 1.) shared responsibility and shared opportunity 2.) government serves all in many ways 3.) equity equals power.
Let’s say I’m an Independent who owns a small cell phone repair business. I like the idea of making it on my own and I especially like the idea of tax breaks. But at the same time I realize that I benefited from an education that was made possible by low student loan rates and that stimulus programs were responsible for the tech training many of my employees received. I like parts of the Republican platform, but they put me in a position of having to think in absolutes. While I may not like the entirety of the Democratic message, they at least give me the space to disagree with them.
The problem with the Republican message is that it lacks any easy entry point for voters. From a processing standpoint, absolutes may be easy to identify, but they are more problematic in terms of applying them to our own situations. The Democratic message provided a more encompassing framework allowing voters to more easily apply the message to their own lives. Where messaging is valuable is among this low information middle that the candidates are fighting tooth and nail to attract. Those folks who do not live and breathe politics, but that tune into the election a couple of weeks out and who are deciding whether or not to vote and for whom. If the campaigns can sell these voters on their messaging framework, then the greater the likelihood that these voters will “buy” that party’s candidate.
Life is neither black nor white. More importantly, our brains process information in relation to our own realities, which usually takes place in that vast area between the black and white extremes. Everybody likes a good story, and, moreover, a story that they can relate to. At the end of the day, the Democratic convention simply did a better job of developing a realistic story message to which our hearts and minds could more easily relate.
Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an NBC Latino contributor, Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin.