Why John Fetterman is So Good at Messaging
Every Democrat is lauding Fetterman's messaging. Here's why he's so good.
Most of the conversation around Democratic messaging is about why we suck so bad. Democratic activists and donors look longingly at Republican messaging and fall in love with former Republican action committees like the Lincoln Project. A feeling of messaging inadequacy is almost the price of admission for being a Democrat. I have written about why this narrative is incorrect — or at least more nuanced than “Repubs good, Dems bad.” However, there is an exception to this rule, and that exception has a shaved head, prefers gym shorts to suits, and once flew a ‘Legalize Marijuana’ flag on a state building. Every Democrat I speak with is blown away by Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman’s communications chops. I hear from Democrats of all stripes and at all levels about the need for more Fettermans. There is no question John Fetterman and his campaign are putting on a messaging masterclass. Fetterman is a uniquely talented messenger running against a uniquely vulnerable opponent. Not every Democrat can do what he does, but some of his approach is broadly applicable. If we want more Fettermans, it’s worth understanding what John Fetterman is doing right.
More is More
Modern politics is a battle for attention. Therefore, campaigns need to communicate 24-7 and aim to dominate the political conversation. The Fetterman Campaign is always on offense. They are constantly putting out content that amplifies their message and puts Dr. Oz on the defensive. They never let up. Every day brings more videos, ads, and social media posts hammering Oz and amplifying the positive Fetterman message. When political news breaks, the campaign treats it as an opportunity to communicate on his terms. For example, soon after the pro-choice side prevailed on the key ballot initiative in Kansas, Fetterman was out with this tweet:
In this media environment, you are either serving lunch, or you are lunch. If you take a break or give your opponent breathing room, you could easily lose your advantage. As the FWIW newsletter noted in June:
[Fetterman’s] campaign posts on Facebook on average 4 times a day - usually a mix of memes, family photos from the campaign trail, and text posts sharing voters' frustrations about a political issue. While some other campaigns post sleek, branded graphics or polished videos, Fetterman’s team seems to know that quick and dirty content often performs much better.
And it’s working. According to FWIW, Fetterman’s Facebook page received four to five times the number of interactions as other high profile Democratic Senate candidates.
Talk Like a Human to Humans
The first piece of advice that Jon Favreau gives to politicians is “talk like a human.” This seems simple and axiomatic, but most politicians are incapable of following my co-host’s guidance. Too many rely on jargon, acronyms, and focus group applesauce-esque verbiage that reeks of everything people hate about politicians. John Fetterman talks to his voters the way he talks to his friends. Human to human. He doesn’t parse every word or seem deathly afraid of making a mistake. He isn’t doing karaoke and trying to sound like John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama. Fetterman just talks like John Fetterman. It’s refreshing and relatable.
Fetterman also talks directly to voters. His campaign frequently posts videos on Instagram and elsewhere of the candidate talking directly to the camera about the campaign or reacting to the news. These videos are lightly produced and therefore feel more authentic.
The Yin and Yang of Message Synergy
This newsletter is named after the most basic foundation of campaign messaging. The message box is an exercise every campaign should do at the outset of the race. Create a grid with four squares and write down four things:
Your message about yourself (why me?)
Your message about your opponent (why not them?)
Your opponent’s affirmative message (why them?)
Your opponent's negative message about you (why not me?)
The best campaigns are the ones where the affirmative and negative messages are inverse of each other. In other words, every argument for why my candidate should be elected is an implicit message about why my opponent shouldn’t be and vice versa. It sounds simple, but it’s rarely accomplished. Obama’s 2008 message in the primary and the general was one of the outliers. Obama was change and Clinton (and then McCain) were status quo. The argument for change was an argument against the status quo.
John Fetterman also found this Yin and Yang in his messaging. Fetterman is a Pennsylvanian through and through who will fight for all Pennsylvanians. Dr. Oz is a rich celebrity and New Jersey carpetbagger who will look out for other rich celebrities. Fetterman’s strength is Oz’s weaknesses. As noted above, Oz is a particularly vulnerable candidate. Most politicians’ weaknesses are not as manifest. This messaging synergy is what every campaign should actively seek to accomplish.
Creative and Courageous Content
There is a cookie-cutter element to a lot of political advertising — the same visuals, voiceovers, and messages; and a fundamental lack of creativity and abundance of risk aversion. The digital ads are often worse — cut down versions of television put on the Internet. The problem with most campaign ads is that they presume to have your attention. They were conceived of a time when theirs was a captive audience of linear television viewers who watched commercials because they had to. The only competition for the voter’s attention was grabbing a snack or going to the bathroom. That sense of artistic entitlement and ensuing lack of creativity has continued despite massive change in the information ecosystem. Campaigns are now competing with every piece of information in the world, every show ever aired, every movie ever made, and every song and book ever written. They are in competition with Netflix, TikTok, the NFL, and everything else.
The Fetterman Campaign’s content looks and feels different. It’s entertaining and attention-grabbing. They are confident in their message and content. There is no fear of making a mistake. They understand that in political messaging, sins of omission are exponentially worse than sins of commission. His campaign is hammering Oz for being a resident of New Jersey (an odd choice for someone running for Senate in Pennsylvania). In recent weeks, the Fetterman camp used Cameo to get Snookie of Jersey Shore fame to record a video congratulating Oz on his move to Pennsylvania. They followed that up with a similar video from Steven Van Zandt from the E Street Band and Sopranos.
The campaign also bought billboards on the New Jersey/Pennsylvania border trolling Oz.
Creating content is only part of the battle. Campaigns have to get that content in front of their target voters. This is done through paid promotion, pre-roll ads, and boosted posts. But there are other ways too. Fetterman has a huge base of enthusiastic supporters. While his campaign is, of course, leveraging them for donations and volunteer shifts, that’s not all. Last month, the Fetterman Campaign launched a “Social Media Squad” to empower their supporters to amplify the message on social media. Every campaign should be doing this. Most aren’t.
The polls right now are very good for Fetterman. Still, great messaging may not be enough in a tough political environment. In 2018, Beto O’Rourke ran one of the most innovative campaigns in memory and still came up short. But win or lose (and lord, I hope he wins), John Fetterman is showing every Democrat what modern messaging looks like. I hope we all follow his lead.