“Tom Cotton: Wrong for Arkansas” read a blaring headline of a blog on U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor’s campaign website on Aug. 6, 2013, as Pryor’s campaign anticipated U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton’s (finally) official announcement for a U.S. Senate run.
“As Tom Cotton abandoned the 4th District for a shot at higher office Tuesday, Sen. Mark Pryor continued fighting for Arkansas,” the blog continued. “I don’t know who Mr. Cotton’s been voting for, but it hasn’t been for Arkansas. When you vote against student loans and against the farm bill and you vote to cut Medicare and Social Security, you’re not voting for Arkansas, you’re carrying someone else’s water.”
In his announcement speech the same day, Cotton retorted: “Arkansas families are struggling to get by. … For most people, they feel like they’re just treading water — and sometimes not even that. And it’s only going to get worse if Obamacare goes into effect. That corrupt law and its tangled web of mandates, taxes, penalties, and fines symbolize everything that’s wrong with Washington. … It’s time to say enough. Arkansans need a senator who will stand with them and stand up to Barack Obama. Arkansans need a senator who won’t just stand by and accept the status quo. I will be that senator. Mark Pryor is not that senator, at least not anymore.”
To the untrained eyes, the above statements from the opposing campaigns for the U.S. Senate can seem to be off-handed remarks, but they are part of a well-designed strategy. Both campaigns had likely developed and poll-tested parts of their respective strategy well before Aug. 6 when Cotton finally made his much-anticipated campaign official.
One of the key preliminary steps in professional political campaigns is the development of a narrative that aims at connecting with the majority of voters via a message that emphasizes the assets of a candidate in contrast to the liabilities of his/her (potential) opponents.
CAMPAIGN MESSAGE DEVELOPMENT
How do professional political campaigns develop a campaign message? They begin by analyzing the political environment. Political operatives conduct opposition research on their own candidate and on the (potential) challenger(s). They use polling data to gauge the name identification of the candidates among the electorate, assess, and rank the important issues that the electorate cares about. Professional political campaigns then proceed to create a message box so as to not only develop a catchy slogan and a simple message, but also to better communicate with different segments of the electorate.
Just by observing the Pryor-Cotton race from afar, and without having any access to non-public information that each campaign has certainly accumulated via opposition research, messages for the campaign between Pryor and Cotton might look something like the following.
Experienced Statesman with conservative Arkansas values
Unlike Tom Cotton, has a long history with Arkansas voters and has always kept his word
Supports most legislations that are good for Arkansas (Student Loans, Farm Bill, etc.)
Is an independent voice who would buck the pressure of various interest groups to protect the interests of Arkansas
Unlike Tom Cotton, adopts a bi-partisan, responsible, and common-sense approach to solving the country’s problems
Has risked life and limb to serve the country in the military
Got into politics because, like most Arkansans, was fed up with the liberal policies of Barack Obama and liberal Democrats , and the negative impact of Washington D.C. on Arkansas
Unlike Mark Pryor, will stand up to Barack Obama and defend our traditional Arkansas values
Unlike Mark Pryor, will work tirelessly to repeal and replace Obamacare
Will work to put a stop to the wasteful spending habit of career politicians in Washington, D.C.
Has voted to support Barack Obama’s Policies at least 90% of the time
Was a deciding vote on Obamacare
Voted for the Stimulus Package and other wasteful spending that Washington D.C. regularly engages in
Has been part of the Washington political class that has spent the nation into a more than $16 Trillion debt
Has lost touch with conservative Arkansas values and has embraced the liberal values of national democrats
A Young and inexperienced man who is in a hurry
Is quitting his current job after serving only 7 out of the 24 months for which he was hired
Has consistently voted against the interests of Arkansas (Medicare, Social Security, etc.)
Has consistently voted to satisfy the needs of wealthy out-of-state groups and hasn’t accomplished a major thing for Arkansas
Is dangerous and could care less about the damages that his actions/votes could cause to America and to Arkansas
The four categories of message listed above represent the messages that would define the strategic gamesmanship of this U.S. senate race. Pryor’s campaign would list the positive things that it would like to emphasize about Sen. Pryor, and it would list the key things that could constitute a liability for Cotton. Pryor’s campaign also would anticipate what the Cotton’s campaign is likely to say negatively about Mark Pryor, and Pryor’s campaign also would anticipate what Cotton’s campaign is likely to say favorably about Tom Cotton. In the meantime, Cotton’s campaign would go through the same process of developing a message.
PRYOR CAMPAIGN PERSPECTIVE
Looking at the messaging from the Pryor campaign’s perspective, it becomes evident that Cotton could be put on the defensive on the following points: Cotton hasn’t yet completed a term in the House of Representatives but is rushing to advance his career in Congress; Cotton has voted against bills that at first glance could be beneficial to Arkansas; Cotton has taken positions that could be seen as detrimental to America and to many Arkansans (his votes against the student loan reform, against the farm bill, etc.); Cotton has been the champion of and has received significant help from out-of-state groups such as The Club for Growth, the powerhouse conservative issue advocacy group whose interests are not necessarily aligned with the interests of Arkansas.
According to opensecrets.org, the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit research group that tracks the influence of money in politics, Cotton’s campaign was the top recipient of contributions ($86,250) from The Club for Growth made, via individual club members, to any politician in the country, from 2013 until early 2014. Those campaign contributions were also the biggest contribution that the Cotton’s campaign received, from a single group, during that same period.
In contrast to what Pryor would consider to be his main assets (consistently finding a responsible and bipartisan approach to solving the nation’s problems and advance Arkansas’ interests), an attack line slowly emerges to Pryor’s campaign strategists that Arkansas is not really one of Cotton’s priorities, hence the Pryor campaign’s slogan “Putting Arkansas First.”
Pryor’s campaign slogan could have been: “Still working for Arkansas”, “Moving Arkansas Forward”, “Experienced Leadership that Works for Arkansas”, “Positive Leadership, Proven Results.”, etc. The bottom line is, given the political environment, the best bet for Pryor is to not only emphasize his accomplishments in office, but to also contrast them with the ‘reckless’ motivations of Cotton. Thus, the message behind Pryor’s “Putting Arkansas First” slogan can be summarized this way: “I am Mark Pryor. You have known me for a long time and you know my unflinching dedication to always finding responsible and bipartisan ways to advance Arkansas’ interests. This other guy, Tom Cotton? Not so much. He will do anything, including hurting the interests of Arkansas, to hurriedly advance his own interests and those of out-of-state groups that are bankrolling his campaign.”
COTTON CAMPAIGN PERSPECTIVE
From the Cotton campaign’s perspective, a glance at the message box also yields considerable ammunition to use against Pryor: For the past few years, Pryor voted with president Obama at least 90% of the time, according to CQ/Roll Call, a Washington, D.C.-based media institution that conducts a yearly vote studies of members of Congress; Pryor voted for Obamacare; and he voted for the stimulus Package, etc.
The emerging line of attack that seems most promising for Cotton to use against Pryor is that the incumbent senator is deeply tied to president Obama and to Obamacare, and both have been consistently unpopular in Arkansas. According to the 2013 University of Arkansas poll released in October 2013, President Obama had a 27% approval rating among adult Arkansans and a 29% approval rating among likely Arkansas voters.
According to a July 2012 TalkBusiness-Hendrix College poll, even after the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the individual mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), 58% of Arkansans still approved blocking the implementation of the said law. Moreover, the same University of Arkansas poll put Pryor’s approval rating at 33% among adult Arkansans and 34% among likely Arkansas voters. Based on these unpopular factors, Cotton’s campaign strategists would see it as a no-brainer to make the senate campaign race mostly about (you guessed it) Obama, Obamacare, and to a certain extent Pryor.
Though the Cotton’s campaign hasn’t yet made a campaign slogan public, one would not be surprised if it came up with any variant of the following slogans: “Ready to Serve Arkansas”, “Standing up to Obama, Fighting for Arkansas”, “A Call of Duty: Defending Our Arkansas Values”, “A Natural Fighter for our Natural Values” etc.
The message behind whatever slogan Cotton’s campaign adopts will likely emphasize the fighting spirit of the military man that Cotton is and (subtly) contrast it with Pryor’s conciliatory/diplomatic approach in Washington. The underlying message of Cotton’s campaign could be: “I am Tom Cotton. My military experience and my conservative background have equipped me with the necessary tools to fight and defend against Obama’s liberal policies like Obamacare. I have done it in the House of Representatives and will do it more effectively in the U.S. Senate. By the way, I am not Mark Pryor, who has consistently supported Obama and Obamacare.”
The message that each campaign develops and ultimately adopts has to be simple, clear, consistent, and repeated throughout the campaign to get the desired penetration level among the electorate. However, the dynamic nature of the political environment coupled with the fact that a campaign message is constantly under assault from the opposing campaign(s), makes it challenging for a campaign apparatus to be on message all the time.
Next time, we will assess the political environment within which Pryor and Cotton are operating, and we will explore the efficacy of their respective campaign messages.