Positioning Women to Win (2006)

Lesson 4: Focus Message on Their Future It's About the Voters; Not About You

Successful incumbent governors had a common formula for communicating with voters: proven results plus a plan for the future that conveyed an understanding of their constituents’ daily lives. Their messages were about energetically getting results for people.

“People want to know what your issues are, people want to know what you’re going to do for the state, people want to know what actions you’re going to take,” said one consultant.

The majority of these governors asked voters to think about the future, using slogans that pointed them “forward,” from “Moving Hawaii Forward” to “Keep Kansas Moving Forward” and “Moving Arizona Forward.” They supported these themes with initiatives and plans that demonstrated an understanding of voter concerns.

And the governors were specific. Governor Lingle reviewed the 10 things she’d promised to achieve during her last gubernatorial campaign, how she’d accomplished them and then introduced her “to do” list for the next four years. Governors Napolitano and Sebelius were equally clear when they announced their second-term agendas.

Governor Granholm focused much of her campaign on what she had been doing to bring jobs to Michigan and a plan to expand that effort in the next four years.
In stark contrast to the non-incumbent campaigns, their messages were about helping their people, not about about themselves.

A media consultant shared his game plan for success, noting that the first job of the incumbent is to show results: “The second strategy was to really make sure that we were talking not just about the accomplishments. But we were talking very specifically about issues of concern to the people of the state and not letting this race become a Democrat versus Republican, not letting it become a partisan battle.”

Incumbents kept their focus on the people they served and their paid media campaigns supported those messages. Lingle was seen with veterans; Sebelius drove a school bus full of kids; Napolitano appeared with school children; Granholm was shown with assembly-line workers. And Rell had “people on the street” give testimonials about the way she turned Connecticut around.

Too often, non-incumbents failed to appreciate the benefits of making the campaign about the daily lives of regular folks. Instead, they got caught up in the contest with the opponent, focusing on why they, personally, were the better choice – not whose plan for the future was best to lift everyone. Without message discipline and a compelling plan for the future, candidates will default to a popularity contest.

An unsuccessful candidate admitted, “We never got the one solid message that we could keep hammering over and over.” Incumbent governors made messaging look easy: a plan to help people, results, improve the plan, even better results for people.

For Candidates

  1. Make A State To Do List. Even if you are prompted to run to clean up corruption or because you truly believe you’re best for the job, people need to know exactly what you will do. As important, voters need to hear the difference your plan will make in their daily lives.
  2. Make It A Statement Of Values. The elements of your plan should represent your priorities for the state. Use the language of values – accountability, responsibility, community – to describe the importance of achieving these results.
  3. Back It Up With Concrete Plans. People want to know that you have mastered the technical information that will actually make success possible. Consider a series of white papers, posted online that correspond to your to-do list. They don’t really need to know the details – just that you do!
  4. Stand Up For People. Stand Up With people. When you stand up to announce how a crisis will be managed, or to oppose a powerful interest, stand alone. When you present an initiative or agenda or speak out in support of an issue, stand with the people most affected. Stretch your reach. If the issue is public safety, in addition to police officers, include victims’ families. If the issue is coastal clean-up, include youth groups in addition to environmental activists.
  5. Let People Be Counted. Create ways for people to participate in spreading the word. Petition drives, naming contests, or an online repository for policy suggestions on how to achieve results will convey your openness and give voters a sense of belonging to a movement.