Crafting More Credible Messages by Joe Hickerson

By at February 3, 2014 | 8:29 am | Print

Crafting More Credible Messages by Joe Hickerson

Joe Hickerson

Voters today are bombarded by more political messages than ever before, thanks in part to the proliferation of super PACs whose raison d’etre is running negative ads. And the growing prominence of unapologetically biased media sources means voters have fewer “referees” to help decipher what’s true and  what’s not.

Left to fend for themselves, voters are making snap judgments about the veracity of often competing messages, weighing the accusations of one candidate they barely know against the counter-charges of another they may not know at all.

So how can candidates be more believable when talking about their opponents? What makes one message more credible than the next? And what information helps to validate a message? With data from two surveys of voters nationwide, this month’s GSG Compass provides some answers and leads the way to more credible messaging for an increasingly cynical electorate.

Eliminating hyperbole, embellishment and exaggeration leads to more credible messaging about opponents.

Given the need to break through, campaigns often dial up the heat to make their message as incendiary as possible. But our research shows that doing so makes messages less credible and thus less effective. Voters react better when there is no hyperbole or extraneous name-calling.

GSG asked voters about a series of descriptions of their member of Congress. Half of voters heard descriptions with adjectives that summed up the negative with a pointed characterization, while  the other half heard descriptions that did not include the additional adjectives.

When asked if their member of Congress “has positions that are not moderate and lack common sense,” 49% of voters agree the statement is true. But when asked if their member “has extreme and radical positions that are not moderate and lack common sense,” just 27% agree – a 22-point decrease in believability. Similarly, when asked if their member “is a career politician who uses the title and office for personal financial gain,” 52% agree. However, when asked if the member “is a corrupt career politician who uses the title and office for personal financial gain,” just 31% agree – a 21-point drop.

Eliminating hyperbole in ways beyond the characterization of an opponent also boosts credibility. Fifty-seven percent of voters say it is true that their member “hasn’t accomplished very much, and someone else could be more effective,” but just 48% agree when the statement says their member “hasn’t accomplished anything at all, and someone else could be more effective.”

 First-hand anecdotes or specific examples are more effective validators of a message than statistics

That storytelling is a powerful way to convey a political message is not exactly breaking news. One only need remember the young girl holding a daisy to see how the tool was used early on by campaign ad makers. Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” argued the country was better off with him as President without citing a single statistic. And Priorities USA created some of the most effective ads of 2012 by putting the workers affected by Mitt Romney’s corporate practices in front of a camera to tell their story.

Yet every year there are more ads noting an unemployment, crime or graduation rate to argue one candidate’s position is better than another’s – and candidates themselves cite even more statistics than their ads, perhaps believing higher numbers equal more persuasive arguments.

But voters are more likely to believe messages that cite a few specific anecdotes over ones that cite statistics, even if those statistics are compelling. In fact, 60% are more likely to believe a candidate’s statement about an economic initiative if several specific local businesses that created jobs are highlighted, compared to 26% who are more likely to believe a statement that highlights poll results showing a solid majority believes jobs have been created.

In another example, 46% find a candidate citing first-hand knowledge of students who are succeeding because of an education initiative more believable than one citing the statistical percentage by which student test scores have increased.

 Cross-party support is a weaker validator, but media sources can boost credibility despite perceived bias

In today’s hyper-partisan environment, cross-party support has grown rare, seemingly making it that much more valuable to campaigns that can tout it. Witness Republican Chris Christie, whose campaign viewed cross-party support from local Democratic officials as so valuable that one of the world’s busiest bridges was shutdown over it.

But is cross-party support really so valuable? The data suggest otherwise (see chart on previous page). When a “nonpartisan, independent watchdog” is paired against “a senior member of the opposing party,” 50% of voters find the independent validation more believable, compared to 33% who find the opposing party validation more believable.

GSG also attempted to test the effect of “cross-ideology” support, using media sources believed (in the Beltway, at least) to carry wide perceptions of bias – FOX News as conservative and the New York Times as liberal. The essential question: does a Democratic candidate citing a FOX News report have more credibility than a Democrat citing the New York Times?

The answer, interestingly, is no. In fact, the number of voters who believe a Democrat citing the Times is five points higher than the number believing one who cites FOX. There is almost no difference in believability among Republicans (29% versus 30%), but validation from the Times increases believability among Democrats by six points and among Independents by eight. That said, a Democrat citing FOX is still more believable than a Republican citing no validation at all.

Joe Hickerson, Vice President Research Global Strategy Group (GSG); one of the nation’s go-to public affairs firms. Joe is also the Editor of GSG Compass;  a monthly effort to provide message guidance to Democrats nationally. He has conducted polling for clients at all levels of government since joining GSG in 2001.   His current clients include  the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ), Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (NY), Attorney General Jack Conway (KY), Senate Majority PAC, House Majority PAC, League of Conservation Voters, and the Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee. Prior to GSG, Joe worked for U.S. Senator John Kerry on the Small Business Committee, served as the policy director for a Congressional campaign in his home state of Kentucky, and earned a B.A. in Political Science from The George Washington University.

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