Message Framing Basics


MESSAGE FRAMING for state and local candidates

We progressives too often use the wrong language when talking to persuadable voters. We tend to use ideology-tinged words (e.g. corporate greed) or insider phrases (e.g. the Akaka Amendment) that we’d use with other committed progressives or with political pros.

The purpose of this short document is to help you use words that work. Please keep in mind that the goal of message framing is not to sell out or sink to the lowest common denominator. It is to communicate your side both truthfully and persuasively.

You’ll see in these examples that I want you to follow one overriding principle—to start the conversation from a point of agreement. You can’t persuade until you and the listener are in agreement. (This has been clear since at least the 1936 publication of How to Win Friends and Influence People.) First agree and then and show how that agreement naturally leads to your progressive solution.

Those of you who are familiar with my message framing seminar or my book, Framing the Future, will notice that I’m not trying to teach values here. That can’t be conveyed in just a few pages. If you know how to use the values “freedom, opportunity and security,” please continue to use them in conjunction with the following advice.



DON’T SAYthat you oppose “free markets,” deregulation, or tax cuts—even though they have wrecked our economy. Americans favor the market system, lower taxes, and smaller government. Instead, frame the issue by agreeing with Americans that the current economic system is broken.

GENERALLY SAY:Our economy is broken, we’re in a recession, and the conservatives in [your state capital] don’t get it. We need change. Let’s make certain the economy works for Main Street, not Wall Street. Let’s build a society where hard-working Americans can live the American Dream—where they can earn a decent living, afford high-quality health care, access world-class education for their children, and retire with security.

WHY SAY THAT: People want a fair economy. They’re not looking for special favors, they want a level playing field. Don’t sound like an ideologue who opposes the economic system, sound like a leader who knows how to fix a system that is fundamentally sound, but currently out-of-whack.



DON’T SAY: that you want to be fair to criminals—even though we certainly do. Americans want to know how your criminal justice policies protect them. So frame the issue by agreeing with Americans that security comes first.

GENERALLY SAY:Government’s top priority should be to keep its citizens safe. But our current policies don’t do a good enough job preventing crime. [Attack the conservative proposals, e.g. jailing juveniles with adult criminals turns impressionable kids into incurable thugs, or building more prisons to house nonviolent drug offenders takes hundreds of millions of dollars away from strategies that fight drug abuse and prevent violent crime. We need change. [Briefly state your proposal here.] This will prevent crime, it will reduce recidivism, and improve the quality of life for all.

WHY SAY THAT:Progressive policies make Americans safer from crime. That’s the only important point to get across.



DON’T SAY that our schools need more money or that teacher salaries are too low—even though both are true. Unfortunately, Bush and his allies have been pretty successful at convincing Americans that we can improve schools by punishing administrators and teachers. So frame the issue by agreeing with Americans that our children need a high-quality education so they can pursue the American Dream.

GENERALLY SAY: Public schools are supposed to give our children an equal opportunity to grow up and live the American Dream. Conservative proposals don’t focus on what’s best for our children. Instead they promote teaching to the test, tying the hands of our best teachers, and privatizing our public education system. We need change. Let’s make it a priority to provide our schools and schoolchildren with the resources they need, so young Americans can ensure that our country remains an economic and cultural superpower in the 21st century.

WHY SAY THAT: Education is a tough issue because there is no widely-accepted progressive solution. We know that public education is essential to equal opportunity and it’s vital for the future of our communities. Lean on that.



DON’T SAY that we need focus on the problem of global warming—even though it’s true. Because of soaring gas prices, that’s just not where Americans are right now. So don’t start by talking about sacrifice. If you have to deal with this mostly-national issue, frame it by agreeing with Americans that our nation needs to become energy independent.

GENERALLY SAY: We can’t afford our addiction to imported oil. Oil prices are squeezing families, sabotaging the economy, and undermining our national security. We need change. Our state can take a leadership role by promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy—which will also help solve the problem of global warming.

WHY SAY THAT: Sorry, unless you’ve got a truly local issue to talk about, this is not the election to lead with environmentalism.



DON’T SAY: that health care is a human right and it’s a national shame that 47 million Americans are uninsured—even though it’s true. Here’s the thing: over 90 percent of voters are insured, and they are focused on the reality that their own families’ health care has become too expensive and too insecure. So don’t start the conversation with the uninsured. Frame the issue by agreeing with Americans that they’re hurting and we all need access to quality, affordable health care.

GENERALLY SAY: Americans are struggling with soaring health care costs. Insurance and drug companies are putting profits before people. We need change. Let’s create a uniquely American system that lets us keep our doctors and gives us the choice of private or public insurance coverage. Let’s focus on lowering costs and guaranteeing that every American has access to quality, affordable health care.

WHY SAY THAT:First, let’s focus on the voters’ concern—his or her own insurance. Second, make sure that, whatever you propose, it’s clear that people can keep the insurance and doctor that they currently have. Voters demand that option. Third, when you are asked about the uninsured, emphasize that every insured family pays an additional $1,000 per year to subsidize care for the uninsured at emergency rooms and clinics—so expanded coverage saves us money. (There’s a ton of public opinion research telling progressives what works on the health issue.)



DON’T SAY: that we need to bail out homeowners. Conservatives have been pretty successful at making American’s blame them for the crisis instead of the rapacious mortgage industry or negligent conservative regulators. So don’t start the conversation by talking about foreclosures. Instead, frame the issue by agreeing with Americans that the banking industry is out of control.

GENERALLY SAY: The banking industry is out of control. To increase profits, finance companies sold subprime and non-traditional mortgages to millions of Americans who—the companies knew—could not afford to make the payments. And Washington did nothing to check this rash of irresponsible lending. We need change. Let’s stop the worst of the predatory lending practices that led to this disaster.

WHY SAY THIS: States and even some localities are able to address predatory lending. It’s one of the few housing solutions that doesn’t depend on the federal government.



DON’T SAYthat we need to protect illegal immigrants. While we have compassion for all, illegal immigration is a genuine problem and our fellow citizens demand a solution. Frame the issue by agreeing with Americans that the system is out of control.

GENERALLY SAY:Our immigration system is broken. Conservatives don’t have a realistic solution to this problem—they just want to divide and distract Americans. We need change. Let’s insist that the federal government protect our borders, crack down on corporations that hire illegal workers for cheap labor, and require immigrants who are here to register and meet a series of strict requirements to earn citizenship.

WHY SAY THIS:Illegal immigration is a very difficult issue. And yes, very recent polling shows that you should say “illegal” rather than “undocumented.” Polling also shows that if you use tough language (e.g. “require,” and “strict”) you can advocate for a generous policy.



DON’T SAY: that we’ve got to spend a ton of money on infrastructure—even though we do. People are hurting, so this is not the time to start calling for a lot more government spending. Frame the issue by agreeing with Americans that we have to shift our priorities.

GENERALLY SAY: Our government has wasted billions/millions of taxpayer dollars on corporate giveaways and tax loopholes for the rich. Conservatives promise to continue those disastrous policies. We need change. Let’s get our priorities straight, investing in areas that make our state stronger—like better roads, safer bridges, stronger levees, and modernized schools.

WHY SAY THIS: Voters generally believe that about half of their taxes are wasted one way or another. So they rarely think the government needs more money. But if you think of tax provisions as government programs (which they are), you can talk about changing priorities instead of raising taxes.



DON’T SAY:  that taxes are an investment or the cost of civilization. Voters don’t like taxes, sugar-coated or not. But look, many tax laws are unfairly tilted toward the rich. So don’t defend taxes. Frame the issue by agreeing with Americans that the system is unjust.

GENERALLY SAY: Our tax system is unfair. The tax burden on working families is increasing while [your local bad guy] pockets tax breaks. We need change. Let’s alter the system so that everyone pays their fair share.

WHY SAY THIS:Who’s going to disagree that the tax system is unfair?