The Issues might actually be important to many Swing Voters early on in a political campaign, but when both sides start to pick apart each other 's facts & interpretations, the typical Swing Voter quickly becomes confused. As the debate over The Issues drags on, Swing Voters realize that they don 't understand the details well enough to make an informed decision, so they end up relying on their impressions of the candidates. Republican strategists see this clearly. That is why they continuously try to create doubts in the minds of the Swing Voters about the character of the Democratic candidate. They know that it doesn 't really matter if they can 't find any real flaws in their Democratic opponents. Accusations, insinuations, & innuendo will work just fine. They hope to encourage voters to question the motivation and dependability of The Democrats. They try to create the perception that Democrats are "defective " in a disturbing way. By accusing, the Republicans suggest to Swing Voters that they are not [defective like the Democrats]. What was the non-existent "defect " in John Kerry 's character that Republicans alerted Swing Voters to this year? They claimed that he was an indecisive and shallow "flip-flopper. "
Republican strategists know they would rarely win if election results were always determined by a logical discussion of The Issues and nothing more (they know that most voters would benefit more from Democratic economic policies than from Republican policies). They know they must win the Image Campaign to have any chance of winning. That is why they are committed, now and forever, to negative campaigning. Republicans have never forgotten a key stratagem they perfected during the Reagan Era: DEMONIZING YOUR OPPONENTS WORKS. It works because Swing Voters are essentially "headline readers " & "sound byte nibblers. " When they see in the headlines that Candidate A accused Candidate B of having a certain personality defect, they tend to believe it. (Unless it is effectively answered.)
The most important reason why negative campaigning has worked so well for the Republicans is because their negative attacks on the Democrats create a positive impression of Republican candidates, who appear --in contrast --to be individuals who do not possess the defects that they have accused others of having. They define themselves [positively] by defining their Democratic opponents [negatively]. On a visceral level, what the Republicans actually "stand for " in the minds of Swing Voters on election day is that they are not Democrats --those defective people who seem to have been born to ruin everything. It 's simple, really. By bashing Democrats, Republicans present themselves as the desirable alternative. The negative character attacks also provide the Republicans with one more benefit. They know that the media will give priority coverage to their personal attacks and that it will distract attention away from any of the "substance" blather that Democrats always like to talk about.
In order for Democrats to win back the Swing Voters they've lost to the Republicans through these tactics, they are going to have to "define back." That doesn't mean that we need to simply bash the Republicans at every opportunity; that's something we already do. But for all of our arguing and complaining about the Republicans, we still tend to subordinate it to the ideals of "civil discourse." Unfortunately, that instinct is not enough to guide us; not when the other side has become a master of The Image Campaign. What Democrats need to do now is create an image of The Republican Politician that is threatening to Swing Voters, one that they will not ultimately want to identify with. That kind of campaign strategy takes some sophistication of thought.
The Emotional Element
What is it that the Republicans do that enables them to manipulate the images of Republican vs. Democrats in the minds of Swing Voters? George Lakoff says that the Republicans are especially talented at choosing words & associations that work for them. True as that may be, it becomes apparent with a little more reflection that it 's not really the words or value-associations that matter so much; it 's the emotions that are expressed when words are used. How is it, after all, that the word liberal acquired the negative connotation that it has today? The Republicans created that negative connotation by repeatedly expressing scorn and derision whenever they used the word to describe their Democratic opponents. They expressed disgust for anyone who would be foolish enough to be such a person. (Whenever politicians express strongly felt emotions, Swing Voters tend to grant them a greater measure of authenticity. After all, why else would they be so upset?) Think also of the times when Republicans laugh at Democrats. They don 't just laugh in a way that shows they have a good sense of humor; they laugh in a way that communicates their contempt for Democrats.
So it 's not the words we use, Democrats; it 's the emotions we show when we use particular words. Consider the phony outrage that Lynne & Dick Cheney expressed after the third debate. At a time when it was crucial for Kerry to continue to build momentum after a solid debate performance, his advisors ended up losing the post-debate spin. They lost it because they didn 't understand how crucial Kerry 's response would be and they didn 't understand how a candidate absolutely must respond to an Angry Outrage Performance if she wants to win. The big story that Swing Voters saw on TV the next day (those who didn 't watch the debate) was that the Cheneys were really angry that Kerry had called their daughter a lesbian on national TV. What turned this into a home run for the Republicans was Kerry 's unfortunate response; a written statement that sounded a lot like an apology. The overall impression this gave to Swing Voters was that Kerry had apparently done some "dirty politicking. " Then, after the Cheneys apparently called him on it, he offered [what sounded like] a weak apology and then tried to change the subject.
Whenever Democratic candidates are the target of a Republican politician 's expressed anger, it is crucial that they respond properly if they want to win The Image Campaign. Impressions formed during such confrontations are usually remembered on voting day. John Kerry should have responded emotionally by calling for a televised press conference, and then using the spotlight to laugh at the Cheneys ' phony display of anger. Laughter is the appropriate emotion for a candidate to feel and express when he is guilty of no wrongdoing whatsoever. After laughing at the Cheneys, Kerry would then have been able to focus the media 's attention on the real story, which was/is the clever manipulations and deceptions that the Republicans always use to mislead voters. Anyone remember what Karen Hughes did to Al Gore in 2000 with the same kind of expressions of emotion (outrage, indignation)?
With this kind of response, Kerry would have told Swing Voters how they should respond to the reports they 're hearing. (Human Nature 101: people depend on you to tell them how to perceive you.) Generating a 'rapid response ' doesn 't mean much if your response doesn 't communicate a message that will help your campaign. Additionally, holding a press conference would have given Kerry an opportunity to enjoy the humor of the situation with the members of the media who were present (it encourages the media to have a favorable impression of you as a candidate). In his initial remarks to the press, he would have wanted to smile broadly, shake his head, and express mild but sincere amusement at the Cheneys ' performance. Then, he would have wanted to review with good-humored stabs of ridicule the many times that the Cheneys had, themselves, mentioned their daughter 's lesbianism to the public.
After dismissing the phony outrage in this way, he should then have seized the opportunity to get on a soapbox and explain how this incident illustrates the great threat that The Cunning Republicans represent to the average American. In a more serious tone, he could have taken the time to explain what the Cheneys were doing and why they were doing it (& how it was a classic example of the conniving sort-of-thing that the Republicans always do to win elections). He could have turned the whole episode into a complete disaster for the Republicans by focusing attention --with first hand evidence --on the characteristic duplicity of Republican politicians. Swing Voters would have perceived that John Kerry appeared to be innocent of wrongdoing because he showed no fear in the face of the Cheneys ' anger. They are then finally left with the image of Kerry earnestly warning them of a grave danger that they face. Kerry & The Democrats would have once again been presented to Swing Voters as their protectors & defenders from something that seriously threatens them. Kerry 's advisors should have recognized that the overreaching Cheneys had actually given them a tremendous opportunity to further define the Republicans in the eyes of the Swing Voters as manipulative shysters whom they should fear.
There are other Image Campaign lessons to be learned from the 2004 election. Consider the "image bytes " that swing voters saw when they watched nightly news reports on the President 's campaign. There was George Bush doing his standup comic routine, making jokes and laughing at Kerry & The Democrats, regaling his adoring fans. This staging was intentional, meant to reinforce particular group images of The Democrats (pathetic) vs. The Republicans (good). On a subtle but important level, the Republicans are asking Swing Voters which group they 'd rather be associated with. When people instinctively recognize that they have a choice of group affiliation, certain kinds of visuals begin to have an impact on them. If they notice that one group is laughing at another group, their initial instinct is to disassociate themselves from the group that is being ridiculed. The same kind of thing happens in politics.
Whenever Bush 's hand-picked crowd applauded his ridicule of Kerry, it created an image of The Democrats in the minds of swing voters that was never effectively answered by the Kerry Campaign (or by the Gore Campaign or by the Dukakis Campaign ...). In his own image-bytes, Kerry came across as something of a stern teacher. This was actually not that bad of an idea, but it lacked some important emotional elements that would have established Kerry & The Democrats as the group that is superior to the Republican gang, the one that Swing Voters should want to be associated with. Kerry could have presented himself as the wise teacher who has been forced to make fun of the smart-mouthed kid in front of the whole class because he proposed a truly foolish idea that, while superficially appealing, would have ended up hurting everyone in the long run.
Respect and Fear
Like it or not, the only way Democrats can win against the modern Republican Party is by defining them as a group that is [morally] defective and threatening. (When the Bad Guys do this, we can accurately describe it as "demonizing" your opponent.) Swing Voters will vote for the Democrat if they end up with an image of The Republican Politician that they find threatening. Unlike the Republicans, we Democrats do not need to fabricate any Republican character flaws out of thin air in order to "define" them effectively. We simply need to point out the truth. Our goal should be to define The Republican Politician as a shrewd, cunning, deceiving, manipulative, mean-spirited, Con-Artist who willfully and gleefully assassinates the character of any innocent victim who stands in his way. We need to describe them in this way with palpable emotion. In terms of basic, overall strategy, Democrats need to constantly remind themselves that it's not the economy, stupid! It's the IMAGE CAMPAIGN!
Any time a Democratic candidate speaks out on an issue like the economy, or the environment, or foreign policy, final comments should be made that refer to the Republican politician as a scheming manipulator, a threatening deceiver. We must make our logical points on the issues, but then we must always bring it back to the image of The Republicans that we are trying to establish, the scary image that reflects the truth of who they are. From this perspective, we can see that Democrats have been showing far too much respect for Republican politicians. If Democratic nominees always show respect for their Republican opponents, on some intuitive level voters will wonder why. "Well, if they really believe that Republican ideas & actions are worthy of respect, then why are the Democrats even running against them? Could it be that Democrats are actually not very authentic people? "
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