It’s All About the Message: Lessons from the Midterm Elections


Linda Popky

In 1964, communications strategist Marshall McLuhan told us the medium is the message. But during Tuesday’s midterm elections, it wasn’t the medium that mattered—it was the message that reigned supreme.

Whether you love him or hate him, there’s no question that Donald Trump is masterful at delivering a powerful message. His recent non-stop barrage of rallies and speeches was extremely effective in mobilizing Republican voters to come out and cast their ballots.

Trump knows that it’s emotion not logic that motivates people, and that casting big shadows of fear, uncertainty, and doubt will bring people to take action against a perceived common enemy. Over the last month, Trump demonized the caravan of refugees winding its way through Central America. His messages played to the fear of outsiders, concerns about gangs and illegal activity, and even raised the specter that ISIS might somehow be involved with this refugee group.

Trump very clearly tells the world what he’s thinking. He signaled for months how unhappy he was with the performance of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Rather than chastise Session in private as previous presidents would have done, Trump publicly shared through Twitter how disappointed he was.  Therefore, it was no surprise that he fired Sessions on Wednesday, replacing him with someone Trump believes will better meet his definition of loyalty.

The Democrats unwittingly provided ammunition to fire up the Conservative base with the way they mishandled the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings. What was intended to be supportive of sexual assault victims turned into a media circus that hurt more than helped their cause. This in turn fueled Trump’s message that Democrats would cause a mob scene if not stopped  at the polls on Tuesday. Whether these messages are true or not is, unfortunately, not relevant. What’s important is that the messages are delivered in a credible way to a target audience that is looking to hear them.

What do you do if you’re the Democrats? Enjoy the fact that you’ve recaptured the majority in the House, but don’t sit on your laurels. There’s been no official starting gun, but the 2020 Presidential campaign has already begun. To avoid winding up with the same unhappy result as 2016, you have to change the way you play the game.  It’s time to learn from the master. Identify the key issues of importance to your base and communicate how you will help them. Hint: Less is more. Trump focuses on only one or two key messages at any given time.

Where Democrats have done well since November 2016 have been where the candidates delivered a clear message of how they would improve the lives of their constituents. Where candidates of both parties have NOT succeeded, it was where they focused on “anything but Trump.”

Being AGAINST the other side is not enough. Being FOR something is the message that resonates. While Trump is AGAINST the caravan, he’s clearly FOR making America great again. The Democrats need to develop a strong cohesive, consistent message that can be easily understood and internalized.

Many people switched from Obama in 2012  to Trump in 2016; others chose to sit out the 2016 contest. Honey attracts more flies than vinegar. The way to attract these “switchback” voters is NOT to insult them. Work instead to make them believe you offer a better solution.

This may be tough for campaign operatives to hear, but what came through loud and clear this week is that it’s the message that counts. Period.

Linda Popky - It’s All About the Message-Lessons from This Week’s Midterm ElectionsAbout the Author: Linda J. Popky, founder of Leverage2Market Associates, is an award-winning Silicon Valley-based strategic marketing expert who is the author of the book Marketing Above the Noise: Achieve Strategic Advantage with Marketing that Matters. Follow her on Twitter at @popky #mktgabove.



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