In my doctoral program, I was required to engage in a project I didn’t much like. In fact, I didn’t like it so much that I almost left school over it. It involved counting words in texts and comparing the counts. The project didn’t require knowing the meaning of the words — just counting them.
Being a “deeper meaning” kind of wonk, I resented taking all that time for what seemed a superficial enterprise — but I learned something. I learned that sometimes there’s a message at the most superficial level, and it’s important to pay attention to that message too. I’ve used that word counting technique many times since those days.
One of the times I used it is just recently, to analyze the home pages of the two 2016 presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. What I found startled me, and I was dismayed. It also explained a lot to me about how a lying, dangerous demagogue can attract such a following in this country.
The campaign pages change almost daily at this point, but at the time I checked, here’s what I found. Trump is a brilliant content marketer. If he wins, it will be his content marketing that wins this campaign. Hillary, or those who work on her behalf, are not as skilled at messaging.
Let’s not make the mistake, as I did in the course of my doctoral program, of saying that’s just a superficial thing, and it has no meaning. It has meaning, and the meaning might determine the course of this election.
I will highlight three items: branding, framing the other candidate, and vision.
Branding. OK, here’s where the word count comes in. I counted the number of times the Trump name appears on Trump’s page and the number of times Hillary’s name appears there. I performed the same exercise on Hillary’s page. I used Trump’s last name because that is what he has chosen as his brand. I used Hillary’s first name because that is her brand.
Trump mentions his own name 15 times on the page. Hillary appears three times, not as “Hillary,” her brand, but as Hillary Clinton. “Clinton” is used by itself two more times. The Hillary brand does not appear. Branding — “Hillary” gets 0% of the coverage on Trump’s page. If we use the appearances as part of “Hillary Clinton,” she gets 20% of the web real estate on Trump’s home page. The Trump brand dominates.
Hillary mentions her brand name five times. “Hillary Clinton” appears three times. The Trump name appears five times, four as “Donald Trump,” not the branded name, and one in the sign before the fold, “Love trumps hate.” If we count those appearances just as we did Hillary Clinton on his page, Trump gets just as much name real estate on Hillary’s home page as she does.
Framing. When Hillary’s name appears on Trump’s home page, it is framed by keywords that shape her image in the way the Trump campaign wants to shape it: losing, untrustworthy, failed foreign policy. Headlines tell us in bold caps, “L.A. TIMES/USC DORNSIFE POLL: TRUMP 47%, CLINTON 40%.” Next we see, “DONALD TRUMP TELLS VETERANS HILLARY CLINTON CAN’T BE TRUSTED TO OVERHAUL VA.” And finally, “OWNING THE 3RD TERM: OBAMA-CLINTON’S FAILED FOREIGN POLICY UNLEASHED ISIS, TERRORISM & SUFFERING.” Did we get the message here?
Trump is not effectively or memorably framed on Hillary’s page with one exception. Here are the contexts: “We put Hillary Clinton’s resume side by side with Donald Trump’s…” Yes, and? “Donald Trump got one thing right during his terrifying RNC speech…” A little better thanks to the almost incidental use of one keyword, “terrifying.” “Get the facts about Donald Trump and the 2016 election…” Why on earth would anyone who hasn’t already formulated an opinion go to Hillary’s website for the facts about Trump? Why not use the facts in short, pithy, memorable terms, to frame Trump on the home page? Let them link to the full post?
And finally, we have the financial attribution at the bottom of the page: “Paid for by Hillary for America, a grassroots campaign of 1.5 million donors committed to electing Hillary Clinton (and keeping Donald Trump out of the White House).” And why would we want to do that? Did the page tell us? No, so again, the Trump name uses up valuable real estate without framing.
Now the exception. “Love trumps hate.” It’s memorable. It’s lower case (diminishing Trump). It makes the point. It presents Trump’s name above the fold, but the power of the message probably makes up for that.
Vision. The biggest problem with Hillary’s home page is that it fails to present a vision, and this indeed is one of her major campaign flaws. Bernie Sanders commented on this issue at the end of his campaign. She cannot be the lesser of two evils; she must provide a vision for the country. I’ll come back to that in a moment. For now, let’s look at the details of the home page that make this problem clear.
Trump’s website above the fold provides us with an energy-filled picture from the RNC convention, bold red, white and blue balloons filling the picture along with Trump’s family on stage. The contribution form to the left proclaims, “America is Back
I am Your Voice.” To the right, we see this message: “It’s a very exciting time for America. Your voices represent a bright new future for our great nation full of more opportunities for everyone, not just a select few. Together, we have created a movement that continues to gain momentum. Together, we are making history. Together, we are bringing back the American Dream. The time is now. Together, we WILL Make America Great Again!”
On first coming to the page, above the fold, we know the vision Trump wants to project through keywords: excitement, energy, movement, momentum, opportunities for everyone (not just a select few), making history, bringing back the American Dream, together. Finally, we get Trump’s well-known, therefore memorable, slogan: “Make America Great Again.” Notice those keywords. Where have we heard “movement,” “opportunities for everyone,” “select few,” “voice,” “making history” and “together” before? Trump steals them from the Democrats, effectively speaking not only to his own but to unwary others.
Before the convention, Hillary’s campaign home page had no keywords or statements connected to her vision for America above the fold. Zero. Currently there are two pieces of content that start to edge in that direction: 1) “Love trumps hate,” which both frames Trump, as we have seen, and presents an alternative concept, love and 2) the “History made” button. In much smaller words, it says, “Stronger together.”
This is an improvement over the pre-convention page but in my opinion, not enough of one. Barak Obama wasn’t elected because he was black but because he presented a powerful vision of who we are and who we can be. Hillary Clinton will not be elected because she’s a woman. She must present a vision of who we are and who we can be that is inclusive, and that vision gets a start in the phrase, “Stronger together.” Our entry to the page, the material above the fold, doesn’t communicate effectively and strongly enough who Hillary is, what her vision is and that she is the person to work with us to fulfill it. What we know about her is that she is a woman, and she broke the glass ceiling. That’s meaningful to many but not to all she needs to attract, and it shouldn’t be enough for anyone.
The remainder of the page for both candidates shows a similar energy and sharp focus on the Trump home page and missed opportunities to do the same on Hillary’s home page. Every phrase and every caption on the Trump page hits hard to either frame Hillary or promote well-known Trump themes, well-known because they are presented through memorable slogans and hot button keywords. The captions on Hillary’s page are uninspired: “Jobs and wages…” What about them? What do we learn about Hillary from this header? “Immigration reform…” Yes? Trump is for immigration reform also.
Final words. Hillary wasn’t my choice of candidate, and she is flawed. I also know that she isn’t as flawed as what Trump and other Republicans manage to project in memorable slogans and words that way too many now accept as complete truth. Objective studies show that Hillary lies far less than all other candidates with the exception of Bernie and that Trump lies constantly. That’s the game of politics, though, and with regard to Hillary, Republicans play it better.
We can’t all be a Barak Obama with his extraordinary rhetorical ability to provide us with a vision. We can’t all be a Bernie Sanders with his very different way of engaging us in a vision. Hillary has a long record of doing things that improve lives, though. I appreciated the glimpse of that provided in the convention. I hear, not only from those on the stage last evening but from friends who know her, that she is personally warm and caring. She works hard, she has a lot of expertise, and she pushes hard to accomplish things on behalf of a platform that, for the most part, especially now that Bernie pushed for changes, I strongly support. I’m going to accept the flaws, and I’m going to accept that our leadership will not be as inspirational if she is elected.
But if she’s going to be elected, Hillary needs a team that works better on her behalf, a team that gets the opposition framed the way they must be and keeps them there. A team that presents a vision for America that inspires and engages people, that works for the people who will determine, in a way like never before, the future of this country.
So far they haven’t done that. In addition to browsing the candidates websites, yesterday I filled in the unsubscribe request for the DCCC. My email box is filled, multiple times every day, with emails that usually start with, “We’re livid,” or “We’re terrified,” or “It’s scary.” These emails requesting contributions have little valuable content, and they project a poor image: hysteria and incompetence. Democrats, we need to do better! While it’s important to point out factually and consistently the real dangers Trump presents, WE MUST PRESENT A VISION. That is what will win.
It’s time for Democrats to take back the words Trump stole from us in the opening to his home page. It’s time for us to weigh every word and every image we put out to be certain we communicate excitement, energy, movement, momentum, opportunities for everyone (not just a select few), making history,
bringing back fulfilling the American Dream, together.
Let’s add one more concept, engagement or individual empowerment. As President Obama reminded us last night, we don’t need to be ruled by one person who will “fix” it — we need to shape our own future.
But we also need the campaign to do a better job of shaping Hillary’s message and projecting it on her behalf. They need to find the words and promote them expertly, consistently and massively. We need to know what Hillary represents for America ABOVE the fold and everywhere else that we connect with the campaign, and we need a sharp, unhysterical contrast with Trump.
If the campaign does its part, and if we do ours, and we elect Hillary, we will get part of our progressive agenda now instead of the world a dangerous demagogue promises to create for us.
And then we have an opportunity to fulfill that vision, because the words won’t mean much without results. If we elect Hillary and she succeeds with us in fulfilling some part of the Democratic platform, if more people experience the benefits of living in America, then we can hope for a truly progressive administration next time.