Failure or Forward? The competing frames in the 2012 presidential campaign

Today's blog is posted by Jerry Johnson, executive vice president at Brodeur Partners.

You may have noticed there’s a presidential election underway. It is a contest between two candidates and two political parties, to be sure. But it’s more than that; a contest between two “frames” of how we view the current political and economic landscape.

The frame that Governor Romney and his campaign would like you to see through goes something like this:

The current presidential policies have failed. They have not produced the employment and economic growth that was promised and that we need. Worse, they continue the nation and society down an unsustainable path of big government and even bigger government deficits. The reason the President’s policies have failed is because they don’t follow the principles that historically have made our country and society strong – capitalism and free enterprise.

The campaign slogan for the Romney campaign is “Believe in America” but – arguably – the frame is “failure”. President Obama promised renewed growth, reduced unemployment, and reducing the deficit. That hasn’t happened. If you look at the presidency and politics from this vantage point, the bet is that you’ll vote for Governor Romney.

The frame President Obama and his campaign would like you to see through goes something like this:

We are slowly rebuilding from one of the worst economic crises in recent history – a crisis brought about by policies that favor the few at the cost of the working middle class. Now is not the time to go back to the policies that got us into this mess in the first place. We built our nation based on the principles of fairness and equal opportunity. That means moving forward with policies that invest in people.

The campaign slogan for the Obama campaign is “Forward.” This is also – arguably – the frame. Tax reductions for the rich only increased the gap between rich and poor. Indiscriminate deregulation led to the corporate hijinks that taxpayers ended up paying for. Given the struggles of the middle class and precarious state of the economy, now is not the time to slash investments in things like infrastructure, education and the environment. If that’s your frame, the Obama campaign is betting you’ll vote to re-elect the president.

Framing is not unique to politics. It is intrinsic to being human. It is how our brain organizes or “fits” what is going on around us in a manner that allows us to make sense of the world. The concept was made popular by cognitive linguist George Lakoff in his book Metaphors We Live By (later amplified for political communication in Moral Politics). The latest in neuroscience and behavioral research confirms this basic theory – that people are pattern seekers. We look for patterns and frames that help us make sense of both ourselves and those around us. Science writer Michael Shermer, in his book The Believing Brain, puts it this way:

The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses, the brain naturally begins to look for patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning.

Great communications is the perfect balance between tapping into existing people’s patterns and frames while identifying and introducing new ways of looking at things. Key to that is identifying personally relevant factors that can “change the frame.”

Sometimes it can be as simple as marrying two seemingly disparate elements that get people to rethink an old way of looking at things. A good example is the current American Cancer Society campaign (which Brodeur is part of) that frames the organization not around the disease of cancer but the ultimate goal of the organization – giving people more birthdays. Another example is a campaign recently launched by Pfizer with the surprising tagline “Get Old.” Together with nearly a dozen advocacy organizations, it is reframing the whole notion of aging and what it means to be “old.”

Most times, framing focuses on identifying an underlying feeling or emotion that can trigger or crystallize an action that you may already be predisposed to do. Rather than confront, the frame nudges you towards a desired behavior. In the case of the two presidential campaigns, the ultimate behavior is a vote on November 6th.

The winner will be more than just one of the two candidates. Beyond the candidates, the contest is between two different frameworks for political and economic action.

It will be a plebiscite on which frame is the most relevant and meaningful to voters.

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