High Stakes Political Campaigns Work To “Frame” Candidates and Issues

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The debate goes on in Congress over the proposed $700,000,000,000 bailout, while the presidential candidates prepare for a high stakes debate on Friday. An Ohio University professor said this is an especially good week to monitor what she called the “framing” of candidates, issues, and political arguments. “Somewhere along the way, the estate tax became the death tax, which makes you think of it in a different way,” said Ohio University Assistant Professor Michelle Honald.

Honald added that framing is not the same as another persuasion technique: spin. She defines framing as a long-term, big picture view or vision of a candidate or issue, while spin is a short-term effort. For example, after a presidential debate, each campaign tries to spin or persuade the media and others that their candidate was the clear winner. That night and the next day, they continue with efforts to “frame” the politician as the choice for change.

Ohio Democratic U-S Senator Sherrod Brown demonstrated framing during an interview this week on All Things Considered. Brown told NPR’s Michele Norris, his constituentsdislike the $700 billion bailout proposal.

“People are saying, how are you going to right this ship without having the Bush, Cheney, McCain, Paulson Wall Street bias instead of looking out more for Main Street.”

Connecting GOP presidential hopeful John McCain to the Bush administration is a popular way for Democrats to frame one of their recurring themes: McCain/ Palin will continue the policies of Bush/Cheney. But Professor Honald says, traditionally, Republicans do a better job of framing than Democrats.

“Definitely since Reagan and probably since the ’70′s, Republicans have done a really good job of framing big issues and owning the language that we use to talk about those issues. It’s king of filtered down into the media and into the everyday vernacular.”

A long-time Republican frame for the Dems is tax and spend Democrats,” and the following excerpt from one of John McCain’s TV ads shows, this presidential campaign carries on the tradition.

Narrator: “Obama and his liberal Congressional allies want a massive government – billions in spending increases, wasteful pork. And we would pay painful income taxes, skyrocketing taxes on life savings.”

Honold says the GOP successfully presents itself as the Big Tent party, even though there might be disagreements under the tent. The Democrats, she says, are a different story.

“The Democratic party, historically, has been a more fragmented party. People join it for a variety of issues. There’s a lot of debate. Which is not a bad thing at all. But I think sometimes it makes it harder to create a singular kind of frame or world view. And I think the Democrats have struggled with that in the last few elections.”

Michelle Honold is an assistant professor of public relations in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.