"Our Karl Rove is the blog you should be glad that Democratic strategists don't seem to listen to"
-- what they're saying on Republican blogs

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Why You is Better than Me


No, I'm not going jive on you. You is better than me. When running for office (or, in fact, leading any organization), people utilize different levels of leadership in an effort to more effectively connect with their target audiences. During campaigns, voters have the ability to sense the level of leadership a candidate has mastered. And this matters, big time.

What do levels of leadership have to do with you being better than me? A lot -- and they're already having an effect on the 2008 primaries and presidential race. But before we jump right into the current races, it's important to see how leadership levels, and you and me, have played a critical role in prior elections...

A Look Back

The 2000 Election (Bush v. Gore) key messages:

  • George W. Bush ran on a lot of ideas (compassionate conservatism, lower taxes, unity [ha!]), but his campaign could be summed up as "I'm the guy who's more or less just like you, so of course I'll represent you the best in the White House."
  • Al Gore ran on a lot of ideas as well, which can be summed up as "I'm more responsible than Clinton, and I'm just plain smarter than Bush."
Revelation: For every "I" in Bush's message, there is a corresponding "you." Compare this to Gore's message of "me, them, me, them." Gore completely left you, the voter, out of the message. This can be boiled down to Bush's you-first message competing with Gore's me-first message. Guess which message voters preferred?

The big idea here is that one candidate had the confidence and wherewithal to always remember who he was courting, and was able to keep his head above water. People see this as a signal of superior confidence and leadership skills. And in national politics, these feelings can trump specific policy platforms (read this sentence a few more times, Democrats).

Now, onto the 2004 Election (Bush v. Kerry) key messages:
  • George W. Bush ran on "I'll keep you safe."
  • Kerry ran on "I'm ready for duty, and I'm just plain smarter than Bush."
You're smart. You see the pattern. Bush is still linking himself with you in his message, and the Democrat, predictably, is still all about "me, me, me!" (Yes, we all know that Bush vaguely, barely and shoddily won each race, but Gore and Kerry should have wiped the electoral map with Bush's gaffes and inexplicable track record.)

Onto the Democratic Primaries

So, how do the Democratic candidates measure up to the you is better than me leadership approach?

Hillary Clinton (primarily) focuses on the predictable Democratic message of "me"...
  • I'll be ready on day one
  • I am more experienced
  • I am a woman
Yet, she also has some "you" messages as well...
  • I'm going to worry about you every day
  • I'm going to fight for you
  • I care about you and your troubles
Yes, Hillary's you-first messages are bit depressing (which is another traditional Democrat message pitfall), but at least she has a few you messages in her collection.

Barack Obama (primarily) focuses on a less conventional message of "we"...
  • Together, we can change America
  • We are the ones we've been waiting for
Yet, Obama also has a secondary batch of messages, which are of the "me" variety...
  • I did not vote for the war
  • I will bring people together
  • I will change the tone in Washington
Like Hillary, Barack tries to focus on his primary message points whenever possible, but will fall back into his secondary messages when under the gun.

So, where do they stand? The answer lies in a simple leadership level calculus: You > We > Me. Simply put, you-first messages are stronger than we-first messages, are both are stronger than me-first messages.

If Hillary plans on winning, she's going to need to shift her focus from the less powerful me-first messages to her more meaningful you-first messages (she'll also need to clean them up to be less pessimistic). She can do this, but it's not very likely due to her depressingly piggish chief strategist Mark Penn.

If Hillary somehow does manage to shift to you, then Obama's movement-like 'we-first' messages get trumped -- he'll have nowhere to go but back to his store of weaker me-first messages. See the problem for Obama? He doesn't have any substantive you-first messages (did you catch that, Mr. Axelrod?). Fascinating.

The General Election

No matter who wins the primaries, Democrats will have a leg up on John McCain. Because, you guessed it, McCain is a me-first candidate:
  • I am a war hero
  • I am a maverick (ooh, sorry, I mean 'conservative,' my friends)
  • I was for the surge when nobody else was
  • I called for Rumsfeld's resignation when nobody else did
  • I co-wrote McCain-Feingold (notice whose name is first, my friends? Yeah, thought you did.)
Could this be the underlying reason why Republicans feel so skeeved out about their candidate? This kind of personality candidate sounds more like a modern Democrat ("me, me, me!") than a modern Republican leader who effortlessly stays focused on the you.

To John's credit, he does try to use some we messages as well, but these are secondary and not very popular with his base. Sadly, we as a pronoun rings very socialistic to Republicans.

Barring extraordinary factors, we can use the You > We > Me leadership level calculus to predict who has the best chance of winning races...

The Primary Calculus
Barack's we beats Hillary's me unless Hillary can quickly shift her message to one that says you matter more than she does.

The Election Calculus
Barack's we beats McCain's me. Even if McCain reaches into his backup store of we messages, it'll be hard to compete with Obama's primary we messages.
Clinton's me ties McCain's me, but Clinton has a backup supply of you messages she can deploy for the knock-out punch against McCain's backup selection of we messages.

In the end, while this is all instrumental to success, there is a very simple lesson for any candidate to glean: Voters are the ones voting. Think of them first, and the right words will follow.


Jim said...

Hello, very interesting perspective, as usual.

Though I believe that Obama's message is very we oriented. He is constantly referring to his audience, and then there is this quote from his web site:

I'm asking you to believe, not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington... I'm asking you to believe in yours.

Of course, I think you've distilled his main messages accurately, so a re-tuning is probably necessary.

Thanks for the insight!

I'm not officially with the Obama campaign, but I hope they're reading this.

Jon a.k.a. "Our Karl Rove" said...

Hi Jim,

Thanks for the comments. Yes, I am certainly generalizing when looking at campaign messages.

In a P2V (politician to voter) communication dynamic, brands are established based on the primary messages and ideas. The nuances do get lost except by the very few paying very close attention (like those of us writing and reading political blogs).

So, yes, Obama does have some "you" messages, but, honestly, they do feel a bit thin compared to his we and me messages.

Think about it - he says "I'm asking you to believe in your own change." What does that mean? What are the implications -- other than voting for him -- of this request?

I find this particular 'you-first' message of Obama's a bit self-serving, honestly. This is why it didn't make it into the list. I didn't want to get into analyzing which points were better than others.

There is no doubt that I have a personal preference who I want to win the nomination, but if I do my job right as Our Karl Rove, none of you are going to know it.

Our Karl Rove is about the Democratic party's success. This is why my advice breaks both ways for both leading candidates. I've providing Hillary with a way to win, and I've provided Obama with information that he can use to update his message arsenal.

Jon a.k.a. "Our Karl"

Anonymous said...


First off, LOVE this blog. Gmail offered me a link to it a long time ago and I've read ever since, and I've agreed with all your observations/suggestions.

Haha, until this one.

I think the theory is in its proper place, the You>We>Me, but I think this election has special circumstances. I think Obama's recent momentum is largely due to his We messages (even if he had stronger You messages). It's his strongest message, and it has largely built his following. I think the people have a different ear this election, tired of Bush's administration of deception and...well, ETC. I think this is the year of the We candidate, considering how vulnerable individuals feel with the economy, climate crisis, etc.

Normally, I'd agree constituents like hearing about what a candidate will do for them, but I think we may be upon a profound ideological shift. Temporarily anyway.

Now, Our Karl. Tear that theory to shreds, 'cause I'm sure you can, lol.

- (also) Jon

Jon a.k.a. "Our Karl Rove" said...

Hi (also) Jon,

There is no doubt that there are a lot of special circumstances surrounding this race. Partially, this is why Obama's "we" messages have worked so well so far.

What this model puts into perspective, however, is that we can be trumped by you-first messages.

You-first messages do not necessarily mean "solely you" or the "individual you" -- it can certainly be the "royal you." In fact, I would assert that in national campaigns, is the "royal you" that is more commonly deployed.

I can see how this would be confusing (I can only make these posts so long before they get boorish) -- so let me try to clarify here:

Obama's 'we' indicates that he is in this with us. This, to me, is a bit disingenuous. He and I are not in the same cart. He's running to be the leader of the free world. I am a would-be voter for him. "We" really wouldn't share much else other than his aspirations for high office.

The rest of his platform should be for "us" - the voters - not us+him (we).

In the end, "we" has a bit of "me" in it, which indicates that ego is still tied to his candidacy. There's nothing wrong with that (in fact, it's working quite well for him). But it's just not as powerful or as leadership-y than "you" -- which means indicates that the candidate is giving him/herself completely over to us, the voter. "You-first" messages remind the voter that they are running for public service, in other words, to serve us.

How many servants do you know who use "we" when they try to serve? And how genuine does it sound when they do?

Jon a.k.a. "Our Karl"

Anonymous said...

Hey, Mr. Our Karl,

Another excellent perspective!

Basically, what it boils down to me is the old (but true) lesson everybody learns in Public Speech 101: know your audience! In this case, the audience is the voting populous of the USA. If you don't engage them, they won't vote for you, no matter how wonderful your ideas might be. It's that simple!

For most voters the single most important question is this: what can this candidate do for me? If all the candidate talks about is himself (or now, also: herself), that candidate should expect his (her) campaign to sink fast.

So, good job, Mr. Our Karl, and I hope others are taking notice of your ideas, too.

Anonymous said...

Hello there,

Interesting perspective. But I think it gives W too much credit for not having "I" statements. I mean, what about:

"I'm the decider."
"I can press when there needs to be pressed; I can hold hands when there needs to be -- hold hands."

"All I can tell you is when the governor calls, I answer his phone."

and of course:

"I was a cheerleader in college." (no he didn't actually say this last one, Rove wouldn't let him, but it's true, he was a cheerleader in college)

Thanks for the blog!

Jon a.k.a. "Our Karl Rove" said...

Hi Anonymous,

All good points, but these were statements and messages deployed as a sitting President, not as a candidate.

The two statuses are quite different.

B.C. said...

It's true that "you" is more effective than "we" if you're talking about handouts. I'm not sure that it's true when you're talking about ideals. "WE are proud to be Americans." "WE believe in honor, duty, country." "WE stopped the Nazis." "WE have to save the planet." Substituting "you" for "WE" there sounds... aristocratic. In this case, "WE" implies "I am one of YOU."

I suggest that even "Ask not what your country can do for you" actually employs the generic "you," which includes "me" and thus "we" by implication.

McCain has some potentially great "you" and "we" messages. "I can keep you safe." "The government takes too much of your money." "You're sick of partisanship." It remains to be seen how effectively he can deploy them.


Jon a.k.a. "Our Karl Rove" said...

Good point about you vs. we with regards to ideals.

However, I find that politicians, in order to be genuine, have to not pretend that they are "one of us."

Everyone now knows that people who run for President simply are not "one of us." As a result, "we" falls flat.

However, to get the ideals across, doing the 3rd person "As Americans..." frame-up can be quite effective, rallying, and even patriotic.

So, agreed in principle, but we vary on what we see is the appropriate tactic.

Thanks for adding to the discussion.


Anonymous said...

You vs. Me message. In response to comments regarding Al Gore.

Al Gore DID win that election with his 'me' message. We all know that election was a joke. We all know that ballots were not counted, some cast by deceased individuals, etc...

Integrity in an election? Bush can't even spell or pronounce "integrity," yet alone adopt it as one of his qualities.

Anonymous said...

Simplistic tripe. And, in the specific case of Obama, it ignores the "movement" nature of his campaign where people feel like they genuinely have a stake, derived from his community organizing. It's no coincidence that "Yes we can" is taken from the farmworker slogan. And following the simplistic logic of your formula, "You shall overcome" would be a compelling message.