Focus, damn it, focus!

Sorry to carp, but seeing this story about Rosales’s campaign on Globovision’s website made me despair all over again.

The Globo journo had to write up five – count them, FIVE – different themes in a five paragraph piece to cover what Rosales had said. So what’s a poor voter to make of it? Is this campaign about how much Rosales loves Jesus? Or is it about maintaining the misiones? or opposing the fingerpring scanners? Or about public employees’ pay? or is it about poll numbers?

The problem is that Rosales doesn’t have an elevator speech – he has six or seven of them, which he mixes and matches in a not-very-coherent way. The guy needs to settle on ONE elevator speech, and he needs to be much, much more focused on it as he campaigns.

Because the torrent of different themes, with no connecting thread running through them, just dillutes his message. It stops him from imposing his vision of what this campaign is about. And it wastes the very narrow window of opportunity he has to win over people outside his already committed base.

Message discipline is as much about what you deliberately don’t say – to avoid drawing attention away from your elevator speech – as it is about the elevator speech itself. No doubt many voters will find it heartwarming that he intends to govern under divine guidance, but that is not in his elevator speech so he should not be talking about it.

Staying on message when fielding questions
Granted, Rosales was fielding questions at an impromptu press huddle. Still, if he can’t wrestle control of the agenda when talking to stenographing journos, what chance does he have against Chávez? A key part of message discipline is learning to answer any question anyone throws at you in a way that brings the discussion back to your elevator speech.

Q: Do you think Bush is the devil?
A: I think Chavez said that to distract our attention. After all, he promised to distribute oil rents to everyone’s benefit, but he didn’t follow through. Too much oil money is going to other countries and to corrupt officials, and common people only get their hands on it if they wear a red t-shirt…

Q: What about collective bargaining for public employees’ pay?
A: The public employees have been subjected to the same political exclusions everyone else has. In my presidency, we will make sure that oil money is distributed fairly and cleanly, with no exclusions.

Q: What about the fingerprint scanners?
A: The government still thinks it can intimidate people into voting the way they want, because no one wants to risk their mision money. They’re holding the people’s oil money hostage, and that’s wrong. Venezuelans are tired of this kind of exclusion, they’re tired of having to put on a red t-shirt just to make ends meet. With Mi Negra everyone will get an equal share of the pie: chavistas, non chavistas, and everyone in between.

Q: Will you keep the misiones?
A: Of course we will, but they will be better. Everybody knows that too much Mision money is being stolen by corrupt officials, or funding hospitals and housing in other countries. In my presidency, we will make sure that doesn’t happen.

Q: How about the polls?
A: The polls show that every day, more people agree that Chavez did not keep his promise to spend our oil money for every Venezuelan’s benefit…etc.

This is a basic political skill, folks, almost a stereotype. A candidate should never answer the question he’s asked; he must always answer the question he wanted to be asked.

Looking at it from Pepe Apolítico’s standpoint…
Why is this important? Because the vast majority of people – and especially of NiNis – spend far less time thinking about politics than you and me.

The people Rosales needs to win over do not sit down to read the newspaper, much less a political website. When the news comes on the radio, they instinctively reach for the dial to scan for music.

They do not seek out political information, and they do not absorb it in big long chunks. They get it in little shards. A few seconds of news overheard on the radio. A glimpsed headline. A couple of soundbytes from the TV news report. That’s your window of opportunity for reaching them. And you can’t waste even a second of that, because CNE has limited paid ads on TV to just 4 per day!

Unless you focus on a single storyline, the information such voters get becomes totally muddled.

In today’s little shard, Pepe Apolítico hears that guy from Zulia talking about how much he loves Jesus. The day before, he heard him going on about some voting machines. Before that, something about some black girl in his family – didn’t understand what that was about. Maybe tomorrow he talks about collective bargaining for public employees – but hell, he’s a buhonero, collective bargaining has exactly no meaning for him.

Messages conveyed in this way do not help to build up a narrative, a coherent storyline that answers, in Pepe Apolítico’s mind, the question of what this campaign is about.

Only if the message is focused can Pepe Apolítico really take on board the storyline Rosales wants to establish as THE thing that’s at stake in this election. And if Rosales can’t seize control of the agenda, it’ll be very hard for him to win.