How to Create a Campaign Theme and Deliver It

Candidates and activists tend to think of local election campaigns as if they were small versions of presidential or statewide efforts. But that’s not the case. A local campaign is fundamentally about two things: name recognition and a perception of which candidate is “on my side.”

Name recognition is a matter of campaign mechanics and hard work, so this section will focus on how to persuade voters that you are on their side. First, understand that it’s not a matter of issues. Activists judge candidates by their laundry list of issues; average voters don’t. Issues are mostly useful as illustrations of a campaign theme. So what’s a theme?

It is a narrative that explains why voters should favor you over your opponent(s). The idea is to frame the question you want voters to answer as they vote. “Which candidate will protect me from crime?” or “Which will stop the developers from ruining our neighborhood?” or “Which will side with the middle class against the rich?” Generally speaking, themes fall into four categories:

1.  I am physically one of you. This is an appeal to a common race, religion, ethnicity or geography. “Vote for the white guy/Baptist/Italian guy/guy from your local community…” It is not unreasonable for voters to assume that someone who shares demographic characteristics with them might understand their problems better or might be more likely to battle for their own. This kind of politics can get ugly, but it won’t go away by pretending it doesn’t exist.

2.  I am ideologically one of you. We are most used to this and it's most practical in general elections where our candidate supports the 99 percent and their candidate favors the one percent. If you’re going to distinguish your candidate from another based on ideology, you need to make it clear that your opponent is on the wrong side and use policy positions and votes to prove it. But be concise: voters are not going to understand if you say the opponent voted “to lower the upper tax bracket” or some complicated description of a specific policy. The average voter won’t remember specific policy positions for any of the candidates, just a sense of which candidate seems to be most on the voter’s side.

3.  I will get things done for you. This is the theme that wins most city or county elections. “Our candidate is effective/experienced/gets results/is a leader.” “Our candidate gets things done for you, your family, and your community.” Anyone can vote right, both you and voters know, but not everyone has the energy and skill to work the process and get results. When this is the theme, issues are used to demonstrate skill—the candidate increased wages, cracked down on criminals, built a new park, upgraded the local school. Or competence can be demonstrated by experience outside of government—she ran this business so she can balance the town’s budget. Endorsements from individuals and groups can be used to illustrate either a “gets things done” or an “ideologically one of you” theme.

4.  I am your candidate for change. Americans are hard-wired to dislike government. They are always ready to believe the worst about incumbents. So there are many opportunities to run a campaign that is focused on “change.” Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 and Barack Obama’s in 2008 were essentially about change. If voters strongly believe the state or local government is “on the wrong track,” then this theme might work for you.

In crafting a theme, you can combine ideas from these four. A candidate can be one of us who is an effective advocate, or, like Barack Obama in 2008, represents change from bad policies to good ones.

Whatever the theme, notice that all of them are about you and your. We ardent progressives like to talk about the common good, but that is not what average voters care about. Voters are focused on themselves, their families, and their own communities. Your theme has to be about how you are going to help them, personally. When you highlight issues, it should be to show how you will directly and indirectly improve the voters’ quality of life. Parks will be cleaner; traffic problems will improve; government offices will serve citizens better; unwanted real estate development will be thwarted.

The Message Box

Before you get into the heat of the campaign, work with a trusted inner circle of advisors to develop your theme into a campaign message box. The Tully Message Box, developed by the pioneering Democratic strategist Paul Tully, visually separates the components of your message and that of your opponent into four categories: What your campaign says about itself; what your campaign says about your opponent; what your opponent’s campaign says about itself; and what your opponent says about you. The Message Box displays clearly how the campaign will be defined if you control the message, and how it will be defined if you allow your opponent to do so.

what we’re saying
about us

what the opposing campaign
is saying about itself

 what we’re saying about
our opponent

what the opposing campaign
is saying about us

The following is an example of a hypothetical state legislative campaign’s use of the Message Box:

what we’re saying
about us

Ann Moore works hard for the people, not the powerful. As a teacher and elected school board member, she has helped lead the fight for lower class sizes, modernized libraries, and improved after-school programs for our kids. 

A mother of three who knows what it takes for families to make ends meet, Ann will fight to ensure that working families earn fair wages and benefits for a hard day’s work.

For two decades, Ann Moore has helped protect our parks’ green spaces that make our community a wonderful place for people like you and me to live and raise a family.

what the opposing campaign
is saying about itself


Don Smith has managed a thriving company with a multi-million dollar budget and provided hundreds of local residents with good jobs.

Don knows what it takes to create jobs and invest in small businesses and he has demonstrated a commitment to helping our community grow.

Don Smith shares your values of faith, family, hard work and opportunity for our families.

what we’re saying about
our opponent

Don Smith is a young millionaire from a prominent Wall Street family who is not on your side. He doesn’t share a history with or the values of our community.

Don values money over people.  He has spoken out against raising the minimum wage and has fought to eliminate overtime pay for his own employees. 

Don is destroying our community’s cherished parks, playgrounds and green spaces to build parking lots and strip malls.

what the opposing campaign
is saying about us 

Ann Moore is ineffective.  Since she joined the school board, test scores have dropped, school violence has risen, and schools have gone without much-needed repairs.

Ann wants to raise your property taxes to throw money at the problems facing our local school system rather than solving them.

Ann is more concerned with saving trees than creating jobs and investing in our community.

The message box encapsulates the positives of our candidate and the negatives of her opponent; it also anticipates the way the opponent will portray himself and the charges he will make against our candidate.

Developed early in the campaign, the Message Box forms the four legs of the message platform upon which all campaign communication is built. Incorporate your campaign theme and core messages into every form of communication, including: digital media, direct mail, earned media, paid media, editorial board meetings, PAC and group endorsement meetings, and the messages of your surrogates.

The Stump Speech

Throughout the campaign, you will use a prepared narrative to deliver your theme and messages. One of the most common mistakes candidates and lawmakers make is to think they can get by without preparing—and practicing—their stump speech. It happens at every level, from Congress to school board. Trust us, there is nothing more painful than listening to someone we’re supposed to like stand in front of the room wandering verbally for what seems like hours and then expecting us to applaud.

Your stump speech is central to your campaign. Prepare it as early as possible, even before you declare your candidacy, if possible. Your stump speech is the one you will repeat the most, at your announcement, house parties, meet and greets, rallies and other campaign events. It contains your core message and main points, which will, in turn, be condensed into other communication methods, including fundraising pitches, endorsement appeals, media calls, etc.

Any candidate who intends to speak directly to voters—and that’s all of you—needs a carefully crafted and executed stump speech. And it is especially valuable for candidates running in down-ballot races, from school board to statehouse, that depend on retail politics to win.

Write out your stump speech so you can edit it, practice it and perfect it. Memorize it so you can confidently shorten or lengthen it to fit any occasion. Change up the stories or examples to tailor it to specific audiences as the campaign continues.

If at any point in the campaign you feel like your stump speech needs to be rewritten, start the rewriting process again—don’t just change it on the fly. Treat the stump speech as a foundational campaign document just as you would your GOTV plan or your donor list.

Outline of the Stump Speech:

  1. Who are you?
  2. Why are you running? (Your answer should be about voters and your community, not about you, e.g.: “I know I will be a great legislator” or “I’m a lawyer and an expert on environmental policy.” These are not acceptable answers.)
  3. What problem(s) are facing your community? (Up to three.)
  4. What is your plan for addressing the problems?
  5. Create contrast between your opponent and his/her plan, and you and yours.
  6. Make your ask—request a vote, money, endorsement, etc.

Quick Tips:

  • Write from the audience’s perspective, not yours.
  • Keep your main points (problems, plan) to three things.
  • Don’t get too detailed.
  • Use stories, real examples to illustrate your main points.
  • Don’t spend too much time talking about your opponent, just enough to create contrast.
  • Don’t be afraid to inspire.
  • Keep it to 7-10 minutes.

Door-to-Door Canvassing

Door-to-door canvassing is one of the most effective ways to persuade voters to vote for you. Research shows that voters are most persuaded by personal contact, more than the content of what you say or what your literature says. And the positive effect of going door-to-door and talking to voters (not just leaving literature at the door) is greater with persuadable voters. This is because showing up at a voter’s door demonstrates that you are willing to invest one of your most important resources—time—to connect with that voter. It also reduces the social distance between you and the voter, making you more relatable and accessible. 

That’s not to say that you can just show up without a message; just that, as with all face-to-face communication, the non-verbal counts the most.

Quick Tips:

  • Don’t sweat it—just remember your main message points.
  • Keep it short: Say hello, introduce yourself, ask if the voter has any top concerns she would like you to address, ask if she will take your literature, thank her for letting you come to her home, and say goodbye.
  • Be yourself—develop rapport.
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Just do it—don’t compromise your door time.

The Fundraising Pitch

Your core message should be incorporated into your fundraising pitch, since this is another valuable opportunity to communicate with supporters and potential supporters. Fundraising provides friends and family an opportunity to support you, gives progressives a tangible way to promote the issues they believe in, and allows everyone an opportunity to participate in the politics of their community in a meaningful way. Approach asking for money with this in mind, and you’ll convey confidence rather than appearing apologetic or hesitant.

Quick Tips:

  • Do your research. Know the basics about the individual you’re approaching, such as his/her giving history, issue interests, and profession, as well as the name of his/her spouse or partner.   
  • Make a personal connection. Establish a friendly rapport that will facilitate not only your initial ask, but the basis of a continued relationship. If you have a friend in common, your children attend the same school, or you’ve both been publicly supportive of the local YWCA, make the connection. This will put you at ease, make the chat more conversational, and help gain the donor’s trust.
  • Make an ideological connection. This donor is a member of a local union and has fought vocally for collective bargaining and you are a tireless advocate of worker’s rights committed to doing the same once elected. Highlight this shared value, and make it clear why electing you—and defeating your opponent—will make a difference on this issue.
  • Communicate viability. People like to back the winning horse, or at least one that has a shot at the roses. Give a snapshot of how and why you can win this race. Share your fundraising success, key endorsements, and statistics that show your district is winnable. 
  • Make the donor relevant. By explaining what their support will mean to your campaign, such as putting a radio spot on the air or funding a mailing, you are making support tangible and realistic for your prospective donor.
  • Make a specific ask and stop talking! Always have a specific contribution goal in mind before making contact. Ask for a specific dollar amount directly. Say “will you please give $500 to help us win this race?” rather than “I’m hoping you will give…” or “will you consider giving…” Hoping the donor will give implies she doesn’t need to answer you right now. Offering her the option to “consider” giving is easy, who wouldn’t “consider” it? And then after you’ve made your ask, be quiet. Don’t try to fill the silence or lower your request to fill the void. Give the donor time to respond.
  • Have options available. If you request $500 and the donor balks, provide other options. You can ask her to become a sustainer, or give $100 a month for the next five months. You can provide additional incentives for the full gift by offering free tickets to your next event. You can ask the donor to give $200 and raise $300. Or you can simply lower your request. Don’t be afraid to negotiate, just keep it all donor-centric and know when to stop.
  • Say thank you and follow up. Express your appreciation and ensure that appropriate follow up—such as donation collection, mailing of a thank you note, and updates to your database—are conducted. You’ll be re-soliciting that donor before you know it!

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