The U.S. Presidential Campaign: Battle of the Candidate Messages

Dr. Louis Perron
blog post louis

The most important thing a campaign should do is to formulate and communicate a coherent and appealing message. When I say message, politicians often think of an issue or a slogan. However, a good message is more than that. It’s more than a slogan, but less than a party program. It’s the narrative the campaign communicates to its target voters.  Strategic public opinion research can help make sure that the message matches the political demand. In that sense, the Trump message would probably go something like this:

Donald Trump is not one of the many career politicians and deficit spenders in Washington D.C. Instead, he has built a successful multi-billion dollar business. He doesn’t owe anything to the establishment or special interests. This makes him the right person to bring much needed change for the forgotten middle class. He will protect our boarders and negotiate new trade deals. Crooked Hillary has been in politics for 30 years. With her, it‘s all talk, controversies and no action. Donald Trump will make America rich, safe and great again.

On the other side, and looking back at the campaign, the Clinton message would sound like this:

No presidential candidate has ever been more qualified to serve as president than Hillary Clinton. She will make sure that the economic recovery will benefit not only those at the top, but everybody. Donald Trump doesn‘t have the temperament to hold our nuclear codes. The way he speaks about women is unacceptable. Instead of building walls, Hillary Clinton will knock down barriers. As the first woman President, she will fight for equal pay for equal work. She will take on global warming and provide affordable education. She knows that our diversity is not a weakness, but our biggest strength. Because in America, we are stronger together.

I’m aware of the fact that at the national level, it’s de facto a tie. Also, message development is not a one-way street. Each side is trying to define the other side as well. Finally, there are other factors than the message, such as for example the ground operation. This being said, the exit polls are the surveys that are taken among those who actually voted. They are being published on the website of CNN and help understand what may have tipped the balance in key battleground states. According to these exit polls, 39% of the respondents said that for them, the most important candidate quality was that he or she could bring change. Among that group, Trump got 83% of the vote while Clinton only got 14%. On the other hand, 21% of the respondents said that they were mostly looking for somebody with the right experience. 90% of those voters voted for Clinton, only 8% for Trump.

Here’s another key figure: 18% of the voters had an unfavorable opinion about both candidates. Among that group, Trump beat Clinton 49% to 29%. In a similar sense, 29% of the voters said that neither candidate is honest. They voted 45% for Trump and 40% for Clinton. 14% of the electorate thought that neither candidate is qualified to serve as president. They went 69% to 15% for Trump.

In other words: When asked to choose between the evil they knew and the evil that promised something new, enough voters in key battleground states went for change. That’s the whole race summed up in one sentence.

Next Monday, November 14, I am running a seminar on the lessons learned from the U.S. presidential campaign. It will take place in Zurich and be conducted in German. You can find more information and/or sign up on my website:

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