Gallons of intellect, insight and idiocy are poured into election campaigns- all in search of a magic slogan that will catapult a candidate to victory. The amount of money sloshing around in the election market reflects the mythology that has been built around the campaign guru. The power of a phrase to win is often overblown. If you get your messaging right you can hope to tip the dial in your favour by a few notches- largely among those who are on the fence. Public cynicism of soundbite politics means anything that sounds inauthentic or woolly is given short shrift. As in business a successful message works because it boils down in brief something that is already felt. There is no winning formula for doing this –if there was, we wouldn’t need million dollar gurus.
You can try the repetition approach. Unsurprisingly this is what May’s Conservatives have adopted with their ‘strong and stable’ line. In 2015 driving home the stability message seemed to be the winning mantra. It was classic Lynton Crosby –the Australian strategist who has been brought back to secure the landslide majority May is angling for. The rationale is that even though the rote phrases suck the media dry with boredom the media aren’t real people. The strategy works when the message eventually filters down to normal folk. In both 2015 and 2017 the message is one of fear of its opposite- Tory strength and competence v Labour weakness and chaos. It doesn’t always work though- as Zac Goldsmith’s ill-fated mayoral campaign, also pioneered by Crosby, demonstrates. In this instance voters rejected the comic book caricatures precisely because in a city like London the message never rang true.
Interestingly in France we’re seeing the opposite approach play out. In French presidential elections –which typically comprise of two rounds- it is not unusual to see second stage candidates appropriate the rhetoric of their rival in the pursuit of those crucial swing votes. Emmanuelle Macron has been doing just that in his attempt to make headway against the nationalist upsurge unlocked by Marine Le Pen. Rather than pandering to her right wing bilge Macron is attempting something far more sophisticated –possibly too much so. He is attempting to reframe his commitment to an open France, one that is engaged in the EU and the wider world, as closer to French patriotism and national values than the racist bile chucked at immigrants by the FN.
It is a canny achievement to out-flank your opponent- politicians like Angela Merkel have lasted precisely because of their ability to assume the rhetoric of other parties, leaving all others speechless. Yet more often attempts to surprise your voters end up muddled. The Tory’s dog dinner of a manifesto in 2010 tried to be everything to everybody. Consequently an easy win against Brown’s atrophied Labour ended up in lacklustre stalemate.
And what of Trump? His astonishing victory at first seems to confound all the above mentioned examples. There was nothing focus-grouped about his rambling pronouncements. He stole from all yet combined his phrases in a way that only he could. Yet the real power of Trump’s message comes in fact from an unlikely source. Back in ’08 the rallying cry for a relatively unknown junior senator from Chicago was “yes we can”. It communicated nothing yet expressed everything. In a moment where social media was coming into play these umbrella expressions were given life as hashtags. 8 years later the same phenomenon was at play with phrases such as “make America great again”- only now the number of social media users had quadrupled. The campaigns of Trump and Obama show that slogans don’t need to be drilled into voters. Rather, the most potent messages are those owned and propagated by an army of advocates.