Fear and Flight vs. Exercising Mental Muscles: How Electoral Campaigning Differs from Strategic Frame Analysis®

FrameWorks gets asked repeatedly to explain why we don’t use tactics from electoral campaigning as part of our “big tent” strategy. There are many reasons. In this blog-post, FrameWorks Senior Researcher Adam Simon, author of two books on campaign communication and persuasion, sorts out some of those reasons.

Elections are intrinsically all or nothing, zero sum games. They have a clear end point, namely Election Day, where the winner gets all the rewards and the loser goes home with nothing or less than nothing, because their political future is diminished.

Winning campaigns, thus, rely on a short but intense burst of very expensive messaging. Not only does this mean that candidates’ interests are irrevocably tied to donors and fundraising, it also means that a sort of scorched earth messaging strategy is the sole route to success. Campaign messages focus on immediate change; nothing is to be gained by dissenting or otherwise supporting minority held views. These messages also tend to rely on emotional appeals, especially fear and other negatives.

Tactically, elections are all about defining the electorate. The aim is to identify the persuadable, the roughly twenty percent of the electorate who swing between parties. These voters are the only ones amenable to short term persuasion. Because elections are won by getting just one more vote than an opponent in a decision arena, candidates’ only option is to bore in on individual targets in swing districts. Candidates want to turn off voters who are inclined toward the other side, either hoping or actively pursuing ways to get them to not vote. Put simply, a vote lost to your opponent is just as good as a vote won for yourself. Not surprisingly, again, candidates often resort to negative advertising to drive up their opponent’s dislikes and reduce the electorate.

The upshot is that campaign effects tend to burn out quickly, after the election leaves citizens overwhelmed, exhausted and disinterested. Further, it takes little knowledge to vote, a decision that has come to depend on heuristics or rules of thumb about candidate likability, one big issue, or party affiliation. Such a strategy does not build a base for sweeping political action; for example in the 2012 Presidential race, Obama won the election handily but he didn’t capture the House of Representatives as a broader strategy might have. Likewise, he took a “shellacking” in 2014. In fact, this reality underlies contemporary political dysfunction, short-term lurches and long-term gridlock.

Strategic Frame Analysis®

The SFA approach has far different goals, means and results.

Here, messaging is about long-term political change, and there is no end date, rather a constantly evolving attempt to better society and solve political problems. In this process, losers are not sent home; rather persuasion attempts to bring them into the fold as part of the solution. The focus on incremental change and bringing everyone to the table turns politics into an inclusive, positive sum game.

A winning SFA campaign is based on a small but steady stream of messages that work through accretion to recreate the cognitive base of the public’s decision making. The net cost is much lower than an equivalent electoral campaign though the effect may be much greater.

SFA is an educative process that depends on building and sustaining interest for the long haul. Necessarily, this rules out a message strategy based on negative appeals. At the same time, it opens up the space for dissent and the pressing of minority held views that are necessary for democracy. SFA effects tend to cumulate over time, slowly building an avalanche of citizen interest. The act of support is based on acquired knowledge and forms a much stronger base for long-term action.

SFA is an open game, which assumes that most people are reasonable and open to any effective messages. FrameWorks strategy expects messages to exert effects on Republicans, Democrats and Independents. In short, SFA tries to persuade everyone save the most extreme five or so percent. When we look for movement in our survey experiments, we look to see whether exposure to a frame moves multiple audiences, helping them distinguish between meaningful and disproven policies. When we see movement across the board, we know that the frames are movement-builders. These frames become the core of the “big tent” communications strategy that serves to invite people to get smarter about the issues of our time and to consider solutions using what Daniel Kahneman has called their “system two” faculties: the deliberate, effortful and orderly thinking that supports a robust democracy.




Andrews, K.T., & Edwards, B. (2004). Advocacy organizations in the U.S. political process. Annual Review of Sociology, 30, 481.

Benford, R., & Snow, D.A. (2000). Framing processes and social movements: An overview and assessment, Annual Review of Sociology, 26 611-639.

Carmines, Edward G. and Stimson ,James A. (1989) Issue Evolution: Race and the Transformation of American Politics. Princeton University Press.

Downs, Anthony (1957). An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper.

Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Schattschneider, Elmer E. (1975) The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America Wadsworth Publishing.

Simon, A. (2002). The Winning Message: Candidate Behavior, Campaign Discourse and Democracy. Cambridge University Press.

Sundquist, James L. (1983) Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States. Brookings Institution Press.