When Campaigning on the Third Rail: Keep it Simple

a maslansky luntz + partners initiative in collaboration with the Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group and SquareOff

This was supposed to be an election about the economy, but Paul Ryan’s entrance into the race changed all that. When Mitt Romney named his running mate, new issues shifted to the forefront of the national debate, most notably Medicare.

In recent weeks Democrats have been taking to the airwaves to attack Republicans for their plans to turn it into a voucher system, while Republicans have continued fighting back claiming Obamacare has taken away Medicare’s funding. And for Republicans, it’s clear they want to make this issue a focus of the campaign: so far, Medicare’s been mentioned 18 times in speeches at the Convention in Tampa, most notably by Ryan, who, to great booing, related how Obamacare "needed hundreds of billions more. So they just took it all away from Medicare."

As candidates scramble to paint their opponents as the bigger threat to Medicare’s future our firm, maslansky luntz + partners, researched whose arguments are resonating with voters and whose are falling flat.

To do this we tested six 30-second campaign ads on the subject with over 226 Republican, Democrat, and Independent voters from across the country. What we found might be sobering for the campaigns.

Republicans: The bottom line is don’t take it too far. They can get credit for trying to protect Medicare in something like its current state – which is pretty impressive considering their current proposals – but arguing too long and hard about this may erase those gains quickly.

Democrats: The takeaway is that opposition ads shouldn’t be laughed off. Voters don’t understand the issue well enough. And with an emotionally charged issue like Medicare, any perceived change will evoke negative reaction. As for their ads, narrow and straightforward attacks on the Republican’s proposed plans for Medicare, as laid out in the Ryan budget, seems to be the best approach.

Everyone wants to save Medicare.

They don’t call it one of the ‘third rails of American politics’ for nothing. Voters see it as a vital program and react positively to any language that promises to protect or secure it. Regardless of party affiliation, people want Medicare protected for today’s seniors, and for future generations.

In one of the ads we tested Rep. Scott Rigell (R-VA) focused narrowly on the need to save the program to help people like his father, a veteran. Rigell made no mention of Obama, or any political party, instead laying out his own position on protecting Medicare. It was simple, straightforward and to the point. Not surprisingly voters from across the political spectrum reacted positively.

‘We’ve earned it.’

The most powerful articulation about why Medicare should be protected was also popular across party lines. Whether uttered by a Republican or a Democrat, everyone reacted well to the idea that we need to save Medicare and Social Security "because people have earned it."

Connecting this so-called entitlement program, something liberals have traditionally supported, to the idea that individuals should be rewarded for their hard work and sacrifice, a more traditionally conservative line of argument, makes the message appeal to a wide swath of voters. As many conservative respondents said in reaction to this line of argument, "These are not entitlements, people pay into these and should get back what they paid into."

At the convention, Paul Ryan and others have continued beating this drum. "An obligation we all have to our parents and grandparents," Ryan warned, "is being sacrificed, all to pay for a new entitlement we didn’t even ask for."

The strongest arguments are the most straightforward.

Voters want to see this program protected, and getting them to think your opponent has other ideas doesn’t take much more than saying so. In fact, more complex arguments were less successful.

For instance, several of the Democratic ads tried to connect Republicans’ supposed desire to weaken Medicare to their goal of passing tax cuts for the wealthy. But the argument didn’t land well with voters.

While both Democrats and Independents seem to agree "tax cuts for millionaires" are bad, it’s unclear exactly how that connects to entitlement programs. And given the limits of a 30-second spot, campaigns could not sufficiently explain the connection. The result is a confused audience, not what the ad makers were going for.

Republicans ran into a similar problem. Ad testing indicates the argument that Obamacare has forced cuts to Medicare does seem to have legs, especially with the base. That said, voters were again easily confused by the logic.

Two of the ads we tested took a very hard line that the Affordable Care Act "cut Medicare. Why? To pay for Obamacare."

The message worked with the party’s base, but moderates and Independents generally didn’t identify with this message. These groups reacted negatively to the idea of cutting Medicare, but when they got to the explanation as to "why," they started to doubt it.

For many voters it just doesn’t sound believable. Republicans have invested significant time and money trying to convince Americans that Obamacare is all about giving government healthcare away for free. Suggesting that suddenly Obamacare is the reason people are not going to be able to get Medicare didn’t make sense.

Taken together, it seems that voters want to hear two things from candidates when it comes to Medicare: you’ve earned it, and that’s why I’m going to protect it. Remember Kelly Johnson’s famous acronym KISS: keep it simple and straightforward. Well, it works. The more complicated the issue, the more simple and straightforward the message has to be.

TV ads for testing were provided by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.

Below are links to the ads we tested:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cOrOO0vrGo&feature=plcp

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YfWaERDyS0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDETEiEqDj8

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-mtX8j4rh_w

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8lVlkjvntE&feature=plcp

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mnzIpQIbT4

Michael Maslansky (@m_mas) is CEO of maslansky luntz + partners, a language strategy and research firm, and author of The Language of Trust: Selling Ideas in a World of Skeptics.

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