One presidential contender has entered the ring, and many more announcements are coming in the days and weeks ahead. Before too long, what will seem like a steady buzz of messaging to voters will become a steady drumbeat of messages to show the contrast between the candidates as they try to one-up each other in winning the nomination and ultimately the White House.
Looking back at recent presidential elections, President George W. Bush won reelection on a message of security. In 2008, then Sen. Barack Obama took advantage of the war weariness and downtrodden economy and won on a message of “hope and change.” What will be the message that separates the candidate with the winning edge in 2016? It really boils down to providing a vision that addresses concerns, confidence, and connection.
It seems that every election it is said that our nation is at a crossroads, but it is true now more than ever. A recent Gallup Poll shows that Americans’ top concerns are the ‘possibility of terrorism’ (which is up 12 points since last year), the economy, and the affordability of healthcare. These are the concerns that have worried voters off and on over the past decade. While they are nothing new, the knowledge and skepticism of the public in these areas has grown. Therefore, rhetoric and platitudes will not do, but concrete proposals that are realistic and actionable will be well received.
While abroad we face the growing threat of ISIS with no clear understanding of how to thwart it, at home we struggle with economy, healthcare, and the economic divide that has grown over the past decade. There is another crisis that has to be addressed before all others: the crisis of confidence and competence.
In a different poll conducted by Gallup in March, Americans said the most important problem in the U.S. was the government. Not the economy, not healthcare, not unemployment, but the government. Pairing that with the approval—or really the lack of approval—rating of Congress, which is in the double digits and the approval rating of the president, which is below 50 percent, we have a crisis of confidence and competence in the governing bodies of our nation. All of this has been brought on by elected officials over-promising and under delivering to a background chorus of partisan bickering.
Last, a candidate needs to be able to connect and identify with voters. It’s not enough for his or her message to win over voters on the issues and trust, but also ability to connect. It was a hard lesson learned by Republicans in 2012. When asked in an exit poll “which one of these four candidate qualities matter most in deciding how you voted for President,” Republican nominee Gov. Mitt Romney won by double digits on shares values, strong leader, and vision for the future. However, when it came to “cares about people like me” voters balked. An overwhelming majority, 81 percent, said Obama cared about people like them, while Romney only garnered 18 percent.
What it proves is that it’s not enough to be good on the issues, but candidates have to be able to identify with the everyday struggles that Americans experience. Voters want someone who knows firsthand the everyday struggles Americans experience.
The winning message for 2016 must provide a vision of where our nation is going that is supported with achievable policies, a vision delivered by a candidate in whom the American people can put their faith and trust and with whom they can identify. In sum, a winning message must do four things: provide a vision, address concerns, build confidence, and personally connect. A tall order, but imperative to winning the trust and will of the people and the ability to govern effectively in 2017.