Today I want to go back in time a bit to the 1994 congressional elections in the United States.
The Republican Party was heading into a mid-term election in the hopes of regaining control of the House of Representatives: the party had been struggling for almost 50 years to establish a majority in the house.
Six weeks before the election, the party announced a shared agreement amongst the Republican minority as well as non-incumbent Republican candidates: titled “The Contract With America”, this checklist-of-sorts proposed 10 main policy proposals the Republican Party would pass if delivered a majority. The Contract unified the Republican campaign around these main ideas that connected back to the fundamental value of the party at that time: decentralization of federal authority. Part of the promise included pushing all policies through within the first 100 days of forming a majority (if a majority was given).
This contract, coupled with good timing (then-President Clinton had a low approval rating at the time) led the Republican Party to a majority in the house. Within the first 100 days, 9 out of 10 of these proposals were voted on and passed (although many factors of each proposal were changed, lacked implementation, or were straight-up vetoed).
I’m not going to get into the policy side of things since that ain’t my style: today I want to talk about how the contract played a pivotal role in how Republican’s communicated with the public. There are three aspects of the contract I want to highlight: it’s structure, the similarity in language to Ronald Reagan’s 1985 State Of The Union Address, and it’s timing. From a psychological and strategic standpoint, each of these aspects played an integral part in the popularity of the contract, and the electoral results that followed.
Structure Needs To Be Simple
When I first looked at the contract, I was immediately drawn to its simplicity: not only was it a few pages long (yes, I know, policy is NEVER that short: however for the public, you need the essentials), but it was organized in a 10-point checklist.
When it comes to communicating complex information, organization is key. In order to help the reader synthesize what they’re reading, it needs to be easy to follow. By doing so, the reader can make sense of and communicate (to themselves and others) what they’re reading.
The contract fulfills these requirements: by organizing information in a definable structure (10 point plan), the reader spends less time making sense of what they’re reading, and by simplifying the language the reader can digest the information faster.
The goal is to get from exposure to acceptance to action. The contract accomplished that.
Hierarchy is important here: it listed very brief explanations of each act they proposed, with opportunities for further reading if voters were interested.
(I want to note that the PDF’s I’m using don’t have working links to each act. However, congress.gov has records of each act, so it’s a simple google search of each act’s name to find those records. For example, here’s the digital record of policy proposal # 2: Taking Back Our Streets Act)
Say Something They Already Recognize
One of the less noticeable aspects of the contract was how it shared similar language to Ronald Reagan’s 1985 State Of The Union Address. I’ve written on the power of language before in conservativism, but I do want to reiterate the power of language that is familiar and well-received. With a keen ear, you’ll find similarities between the contract and Ronald Reagan’s 1985 State Of The Union Address.
It’s important to note that the contract didn’t just share the language with a former President: it shared language with one who was liked.
Reagan’s approval rating was pretty standard for presidents (not great, but a good chunk of presidents had a meh approval rating) and coming off an election win the year before where Reagan essentially swept the country set him up to be well-liked by conservatives and centrists. Having served as President just a decade before, there was a decent amount of time for the complexities of his presidency to fade from memory. Other, more positive factors, stuck (namely his communication styles and personal beliefs, hence the nickname “the great communicator”). Because of this, a positive nostalgia was easier to tap into for the Republicans campaigning to flip the house.
Using similar language to connect to a well-liked president allows a strategist to paint their idea in a positive light. Or, as Frank Luntz says in Works That Work, use novelty: a brand new take on an old idea. By taking the words a former president used and painting them in a new light, the public gets the best of both worlds: something exciting, and something familiar.
Here’s a few examples of similarities between Ronald Reagan’s 1985 State Of The Union Address and the Contract With America:
Reagan: “We’re here to speak for millions in our inner cities who long for real jobs, safe neighborhoods, and schools that truly teach.”
Contract With America: “… bill to fund prison construction and additional law enforcement to keep people secure in their neighborhoods and kids safe in their schools.”
Reagan: “When asked what great principle holds our Union together, Abraham Lincoln said: “Something in [the] Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time.””
Contract With America: “Like Lincoln, our first Republican president, we intend to act “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” To restore accountability to Congress. To end its cycle of scandal and disgrace. To make us all proud again of the way free people govern themselves.”
Reagan: “For an America of wisdom that honors the family, knowing that if the family goes, so goes our civilization…”
Contract With America: “It can be the beginning of a Congress that respects the values and shares the faith of the American family.”
Reagan: “Each Member of the Congress has a role to play in modernizing our defenses, thus supporting our chances for a meaningful arms agreement”
Contract With America: “restoration of the essential parts of our national security funding to strengthen our national defense and maintain our credibility around the world.”
Along with this, a common theme throughout Reagan’s speech was the focus on tax implications and fairness (he was a Republican after all). In the Contract With America, taxes appear multiple times throughout the proposal: tax “incentives” & “credits”, and limiting “hikes” & “increases”.
The takeaway here is that the Contract With America leaned on language from a Republican president that was, for the most part, well-liked.
Timing Is Everything
The last part of this contract I want to highlight is the timing in which it was introduced into public discourse: six weeks out. A month and a half before the elections.
I think we all know how lengthy campaigns are in the United States compared to other states. However, there is power in short & intense sprints where campaigns seize the attention of the public and propose their plans, especially closer to election day.
Strategically this is a good idea. From a risk perspective, the Republicans weren’t jeopardizing much: they didn’t have control of the House and hadn’t held a majority in decades. Because they were in opposition, they had the flexibility to take more well-planned risks. In this case, ramping up all campaigning six weeks out of E-Day. As mentioned before, approval ratings for then-President Clinton were low, and they capitalized on that to offer a conservative alternative.
Along with this, the contract served as a unifying document: while it’s important for candidates to offer benefits to their riding and constituents, running too independent implies the party doesn’t have a unified vision and plan. By outlining a shared strategy, every message is relatively the same.
The power of the contract was in its relatability regardless of where a voter lived. The ideas permeated every aspect of the American citizen experience: family & children policy, legal reform, job creation, tax limitations, etc. Even for subjects that aren’t directly connected to citizen life (like the return of U.S. troops from under the U.N. and re-establishing national defence initiatives), communication was still clear and appealed to potential concerns of voters.
Having this document come out six weeks out helped bring complex subjects into the spotlight in an easy-to-understand way, right around the most important day in political campaigning: election-day.
Wrap Up & Take-Aways
The Contract With America was the key behind the Republican sweep in 1994. Coupled with a president who had a poor public opinion and a unified campaign between Republican candidates, the “perfect storm” of 1994 enabled a conservative majority in the House of Representatives, the first since the fifties. No matter your political leanings, the contract can teach us a lot about political communication: The need to organize complex information into easy-to-understand structures, the use of language that is familiar and well-received, and being strategic with your timing.
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