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Weekly Alibi Compassionate Conservatism Examined

How Candidates Create Their "Message"

By Jack Moczinski

JULY 19, 1999:  George W. Bush's presidential campaign theme of "compassionate conservatism" has created quite a splash. Lots of Republicans are gushing over it. Some Democrats turn pale when they hear it. And when some people see the super-confident-looking George W., they'd like to think that he thought of it himself in a rush of inspiration one day, perhaps while brushing his teeth, putting on underwear or clipping his nose hairs.

Don't count on it. The same method of "branding" that creates consumer product themes like "Coke is it" is used in political campaigns. It's called the campaign "message," and George W. Bush's message of compassionate conservatism is an interesting case study on how a message is developed and used by campaigns.

Whenever a candidate reveals such a snappy, intriguing message so early in the race, there is no doubt that the campaign is putting good money on the fact that it will work. Again, it would be naive to think that George W. was sitting at home one night and the idea of compassionate conservatism popped into his head. Actually these themes are carefully crafted, and it is likely that Bush went through a long process of generating the theme of compassionate conservatism with the help of aides and pollsters.

Message is everything to a campaign, and it drives every move of the campaign. There is not an element of the campaign that won't be guided by the campaign message. Everything that Bush says about himself will relate back to compassionate conservatism, and everything he says about his opponents will strengthen his message. And with this message, he hopes to eventually have voters eating out of his hand.

So let's walk through what a candidate like Bush was likely to go through to create this message of compassionate conservatism. First, the general idea comes from his advisors and from himself. They want a universal theme that will not only help him win the Republican presidential nomination, but also a message that will carry him through November 2000.

For starters, you can't put out a message that doesn't fit the candidate. It has to make sense in voters' minds. If a candidate has no evident experience, it's risky to say he's experienced. So it's important to know who the candidate is.

Message development takes some time. Advisors assemble the positive and negative aspects of their candidate and test which attributes are popular with voters. For instance, if you're running for president in 2000, voters would probably be turned off if you were characterized as a playboy. You want to create a message that takes advantage of your candidate's strengths -- a message that is so powerful it overshadows your candidate's weaknesses.

Now that you know about what aspects of your candidate voters are likely to appreciate, it's time to think about your campaign strategy. Where is Bush going to get the votes he needs to win? If his votes lie on the right, make a message that appeals to the right. If the votes are on the left, go left. Finding where your votes lie involves determining how the other candidates compare, understanding voting trends and knowing exactly what your voters want you to talk about.

So the Bush advisors and the pollsters create a bunch of potential messages for the presidential campaign (based on polling that reveals what Bush's potential voters want to hear), and they test the messages on the voters to see how they feel about these messages. Once they find the message with the maximum effectiveness and the one that appeals to the voters they want to appeal to, they infuse the campaign with the message, and it becomes a part of everything the campaign does.

So, taking this logic in hand, we can probably draw some conclusions about how Bush created his campaign message of compassionate conservatism.

Bush is a fresh new face in politics. He hasn't been tagged with a particular philosophy. He has the ability to define who he is and separate himself from everyone else in the presidential field. Plus his youthful image allows him to introduce new, innovative policies. Thus a risky, atypical message like compassionate conservatism makes sense coming from Bush where it wouldn't coming from Pat Buchanan.

The combination of the words compassionate and conservatism probably reflect two efforts. First, it is an effort to assure Republican primary voters that Bush considers himself a conservative and that his ideology is based in conservatism.

Second, and most important, Bush uses the word compassionate to appeal to Republican moderates who are upset that they have been lumped together with members of the radical right. Also, the word compassionate will appeal to middle of the road voters, the ones he'll need after he wins the Republican nomination. They, too, don't want to vote for the ideology of the radical right. Thus the word is multifaceted; it can appeal to Republicans, Democrats and Independents at the same time.

Finally, Bush has sold the message with tremendous facility. This is what's most important. You may have a great message, but if you can't communicate that message, it's worthless. Example: quick, think of another presidential campaign's message. See what I mean?

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