Every campaign, from President of the United States to Town Alderman for the Village of Wilson, Louisiana (population: 300), begins with a message grid. Small campaigns and quite a few large campaigns fail to actually put the message grid in writing. A lot of times, more often than not I think, the message grid is not actually written out – usually to the determent of the campaign.
A message grid is where the candidate develops his message that he will take to the voters. It consists of four quadrants. One quadrant contains all those statements the candidate will say about himself – no more than four, plus additional statements that bolster the four. The second quadrant will list all those things the candidate intends to say about the opponent. Generally the statements aren’t actually said. Quadrant one is just built so strong that people readily imply quadrant two. Quadrant three is where the candidate lists all the dirt on himself – the quadrant where he writes down what the other side could be expected to say about him. Finally, quadrant four is where the candidate lists all those things he would expect his opponent to say about himself.
Let’s look at what I would speculate to be the Bush vs. Kerry message grid.
Notice how Bush’s quadrant one lists lots of things favorable to himself that are readily contrasted with quadrant two. Bush keeps his promises. Kerry says what is convenient. Bush is his own man. Kerry is not. Bush seeks to portray his positives in such a way as to highlight Kerry’s weaknesses.
Look at Kerry’s quadrant four. He has sought to portray himself as cool by kite surfing and bike riding. His number one and two themes are Kerry as veteran and war hero. In quadrant three, Kerry seeks to portray Bush as a failed and corrupt leader in bed more with corporations than with the people or the world.
In every campaign, the candidates will build their campaigns around one or two of the major four themes in the message grid. Bush has built his campaign around steady and strong leadership. Kerry has built his around his status as a Vietnam Veteran and War Hero.
Building himself up as a war hero was actually a wise decision on Kerry’s part. We are in a war. The President has been a strong leader, but a number of people yearn for a change. Voters do not want to hand the reins of leadership to an untested idiot. So, Kerry’s theme is, in essence, “been there, done that.” He is a war hero. He is a veteran. He understands the military and the stakes in the war. It was a wise move poorly executed.
When a campaign builds its foundation on its themes, it should expect that his opponents will seek to crack the foundation. With Bush, Kerry has tried to make the case that Bush is not a strong leader or a steady leader. Kerry argues that Bush has brought ruin to our historic alliances and we are viewed so poorly in the world that we cannot lead. Kerry should have realized that the same thing he was doing to Bush would be done to himself.
Kerry is getting hammered on the issue of his veteran status and his self-styled war hero status. “Cool” does not win the campaign. His seeing shades of grey makes him look indecisive. Shrum “populism themes” have not won any recent Presidential election. All Kerry had going for him was his Vietnam status. Now that has been called into question and his campaign foundation is quaking.
If Vietnam Veteran is all that Kerry had – he effectively wrote off his Senate tenure at the convention – he should have planned how to counterattack the Swifties earlier. Washington cannot keep secrets. Everyone knew the Swifties were out there. Kerry’s campaign response has been poorly planned and poorly executed. If the current message is the best they could do, shame on McAwful for rushing through the primaries. It may have gotten an early winner, but the winner is a lemon.