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The Pre-Mortem: Where John Kerry Went Wrong

By Rachel Marsden

As any political strategist will tell you, messaging is everything in political campaigns. It’s the candidate who gets his message out there in front first -- who sticks to it and keeps hammering away at it -- that will ultimately win the race.

In the George W. Bush vs. John Kerry match-up, one campaign has stuck to consistent, clear messaging, while the other is still very much trying to find itself. And that is precisely why this political strategist is predicting a victory for President George W. Bush on November 2nd.

Key campaign messages need to be in the can long before any door-knocking, party conventions or stump speeches ever take place. They must be hashed out and debated, and then tested to death in focus groups in order to find out how they resonate with the public. When the rigorous process is complete, these messages become the candidate’s platform, and every advertisement, piece of literature, or candidate speech must be geared toward burning these messages into the brains of voters.

Certain key themes dominated the Republican National Convention: safety, security, leadership, integrity, compassion. Every example and anecdote presented by the various speakers served to illustrate one of these notions. By the time Bush took the stage himself, each one had already been driven home repeatedly. He didn’t have to explain what he stood for, because the consistent messaging throughout the entire four-day TV advertisement had already taken care of that for him.

Bush is now leading Kerry in public opinion by 5-10%, depending on which poll you happen to be looking at. But even when the two candidates were in a virtual dead-heat -- with Kerry even slightly ahead -- the Bush campaign didn’t change or alter its message.

The Kerry camp, however, is in deep trouble. Despite nearly 20 years in the Senate, no one really knows what John Kerry stands for. If you don’t believe me, ask any 20 people on the street the same question. In a recent Time Magazine interview, Kerry says, “The trail of broken promises and reversed decisions of this Administration is unlike any I have ever seen at any time that I have been in public life, and I'm going to draw that picture as clear as a bell.” In other words, the race is headed down the final stretch, and John Kerry is still psyching himself up and doing visualization exercises. At this rate, maybe he’ll actually have his messaging ready for 2008.

I have no idea whose brainchild it was to have Kerry base so much of his campaign on four months’ worth of military service, but the issue seems to register lower on the Richter scale than filmmaker Michael Moore doing a set of jumping jacks. Service to one’s country is to be highly commended, but it certainly doesn’t translate into election wins. If it did, Kerry wouldn’t be standing there representing his party in the first place--Democratic primary candidate and decorated former General Wesley Clark would be. George H.W. Bush was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces during WWII, and he was beaten in 1992 by draft-dodger Bill Clinton.

The Kerry campaign is now scrambling to find an effective message to cling to, but it’s too late. Signs of trouble include the recent drafting of Clintonites specializing in damage-control, such as former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart and presidential assistant Joel Johnson. The ship is sinking and these guys have been brought in to bail water with teaspoons. When your campaign announces, as Kerry’s has, that you’re getting the most extreme liberal in the Senate to stump on your behalf, you know the game’s over. The only ‘boost’ Ted Kennedy is going to cause is on some poor scale somewhere along the campaign trail. But then I suppose the DNC is like the basketball coach whose team is down by 40 points with a minute to go, and figures he may as well play a few benchwarmers. What’s the harm now? Let’s make it all about participation!

Bring back Howard “Screamer” Dean-er, too! That guy was fun. YEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAHHHH!

Once you’ve been thrown off your front foot in a campaign--and off your message, if you’ve ever had one--you’re toast. A perfect example of this is the June 2004 campaign by the Conservative Party of Canada against the reigning federal Liberal Party. The Liberal government had been drowning in scandal since it was revealed that $100 million had been paid to Liberal-friendly advertising firm cronies in exchange for little or no work. Canadians were livid, and it seemed quite feasible that the scandal could bring down the government. All the Conservative Party had to do was capitalize on the issue and paint themselves as a more fiscally responsible alternative.

The Conservatives kicked off the month-long campaign in a dead-heat with the Liberals. Key messages of fiscal accountability, good governance and ideological moderation were making their way out to the masses, and were resonating. Because the Liberals were on the defensive, they were hamstrung in communicating their own platform.

So why is Canada now saddled with yet another Liberal government today? Because the Conservative Party was bucked off message and put on the defensive. Near the end of the campaign, the Conservative leader’s office put out a media advisory accusing the Liberal leader (Prime Minister Paul Martin) of supporting child porn. Huh? Betcha they didn’t test that one in focus groups! It was over the top, and everyone knew it. Moreover, when he was confronted about it, Conservative leader Stephen Harper stood by the statement. Another horrible public relations move.

Then someone cued the knuckle-draggers. One Conservative Member of Parliament publicly opined that there’s no difference between abortion and the beheading of American contractor Nick Berg in Iraq. Another Conservative MP said in an interview that a Conservative government would invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to overrule court decisions that it didn’t like.

Now if you happen to agree with these sentiments, then good for you. Most people don’t. They don’t represent the centre of the political spectrum, and in Canada -- as in the USA -- you can’t get elected if you represent the extreme. The Bush campaign knows this, and it’s why you saw Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John McCain and political tranny Zell Miller during GOP convention prime-time--not Rick Santorum and Jerry Falwell.

The Democrats still don’t get it, as evidenced by the fact that they not only refuse to keep their extremist fringe on the sidelines, but they actually nominated one of them for President, and are now sending out another one for ‘reinforcement’. Maybe Ted can take the silver fork out of his mouth and stick it in his limousine liberal friend Kerry, because the guy’s done like dinner.




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