Beyond the Ballot 

By Molly Horan, Managing Director

With Massachusetts’ Presidential Primary Day upon us, members of IMG staff weighed in on moments and storylines from past & upcoming elections. This is part of a series of take-aways from the point-of-view of our expert communicators.

The power of incumbency is substantial, but in the last ten years two members of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation were ousted in their Democratic primaries. They both pulled off an upset in no small part because their core campaign message resonated with people. Here’s how the messaging strategies used by both contributed to their victories. 

2018 Ayanna Pressley  

The 1 Bus from Ayanna Pressley’s first Congressional race in 2018 is one of those campaign ads that is seared in the memory of most Mass. political operatives. It’s nearly two minutes long, defying the norm for length and making it an online-only spot. 

From a communications and messaging standpoint, it was striking for what it did not say. It did not mention her opponent by name, or reference him at all. It did not say that at the time our entire Congressional delegation was white, and predominantly male. It did not talk about policy or platform differences. It did not dwell on federal government dysfunction. 

Instead, it focused on the 7th Congressional District, its disparities and inequities, and the communities residing along a shared bus route. “You can learn everything you need to know about the 7th Congressional District by riding the number one bus from Cambridge to Roxbury.” It was a matter-of-fact statement that grabbed your attention at the start of the ad. 

Moreso, it begged the question of how Roxbury and Cambridge can be close enough in proximity to be in the same Congressional district and yet offer such vast differences for quality of life and economic opportunities. “In a matter of blocks, you will see a stark visual contrast of life experiences, household median income, and quite literally life expectancy drop by decades.” She was brave enough to name an uncomfortable and shameful reality that many Bostonians prefer not to confront. 

Pressley became the first woman of color elected to Congress from Massachusetts, defeating a twenty-plus-year incumbent and overcoming an almost two-to-one fundraising disadvantage. 

Many voters feel a disconnect between their lives and the lives of people in elected office, especially at the higher echelons of power. Ayanna Pressley told voters that she saw them and their struggles, that she walked (or rode on the bus) alongside them, and would carry their perspective into the halls of power to fight for them. 

2014 Seth Moulton  

Seth Moulton was a political newcomer in 2014 when he decided to challenge a longstanding incumbent member of Congress. Reflecting back on his campaign and considering what messaging really stuck with voters, there was one line that Moulton delivered over and over: “My opponent has only passed one bill in 18 years.” 

Political insiders understand that there is a great deal more to legislating and serving constituents than laws with your name on it. Some members of Congress are legendary for their constituent services rather than their policymaking. But average voters are not political insiders; they want to know what you have done for them lately so they can decide if they want to re-elect you. 

The beauty of this line for me was it let people reach their own conclusion about what it meant. It was simple, thought provoking, and nonpartisan. 

Were constituents satisfied with one bill in 18 years? What did he do the rest of the time? What did that one bill do? What do they have to show for his years in Congress? They were not told outright what to think about the statement. Voters don’t like being told what to think, they want to make up their own mind. 

The line stuck. Moulton repeated it every chance he got. There were many variables at play that contributed to Moulton’s primary victory, but that one liner, as someone who works in political communications, remains a lesson for me on simplicity of message  

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