Messages go long way toward predicting candidates' success

Happy New Year! As you read this, you already know the winners of the Iowa caucuses, but, as I write it, those caucuses are still a week away. So, using this column to make Iowa predictions would be rather foolish, don't you think? Instead, let me offer a system for evaluating the candidates' messages and how those messages affect their chances for success.

Happy New Year! As you read this, you already know the winners of the Iowa caucuses, but, as I write it, those caucuses are still a week away. So, using this column to make Iowa predictions would be rather foolish, don't you think? Instead, let me offer a system for evaluating the candidates' messages and how those messages affect their chances for success. And, since this is very subjective exercise, don't take my word for it... play along at home.

Start by drawing a simple cross on a sheet of paper (you can use the one from Mike Huckabee's Christmas ad as a model). Label the bottom of the vertical axis "fear" and the top "hope." Label the left end of the horizontal axis "divide" and the right end "unite." Now, think about each candidate's message. Based on that message, where would you place the candidate along the two axes.

Start with an easy one - Rudy Giuliani. His core message is "9/11" or "if you don't elect me, the terrorists will kill you" - pretty far south on the hope-fear axis. But, Rudy is not a divider. He hasn't much taste for his party's classic wedge issues like abortion, gay marriage, guns, and immigration. That puts him squarely in the lower-right, "fear-unite" quadrant.

Hillary Clinton is often labeled "divisive." National polls show over 50% of the public unalterably opposed to her election support that view. Furthermore, while not as overt about it as Giuliani, her message of "strength and experience" is a subtle appeal to fear - "It's a dangerous world and you shouldn't risk electing Obama." Lower-left, "fear-divide" quadrant.

Mitt Romney preaches a hopeful, can-do optimism. He may also have been a "uniter" had he not opted to pander to his party's right wing on every wedge issue. Upper-left, "hope-divide" quadrant.

John Edwards is in that same quadrant. He has a generally hopeful message - "We can change this country; our time is now." But Edwards is a trial lawyer and understands the value of a villain. He casts his campaign as the weak against the powerful - "two Americas." That makes him the most overtly divisive candidate in the race.

There are three candidates in the upper-right, "hope-unite" quadrant. John McCain has never been a hater or divider, which makes this Republican popular with Independents and some Democrats. He also preaches a hopeful message, while still projecting toughness.

Barack Obama has the most consistent and explicit message of hope and unity. "We are not as divided as our politics suggests (and)... if we challenge ourselves to reach for something better, there is no destiny we can't fulfill" (December 27).

Mike Huckabee preaches redemption and salvation and eschews the harshest of the wedge-issue rhetoric, but may be too evangelical for mainstream voters.

Is the country ready for a hope-and-unity leader? I think so. In Presidential elections, we often choose the candidate most unlike the incumbent we've grown tired of. Voters may be searching for the un-Bush. If that's the case, look for a McCain-Obama race.

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