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The critical role of framing in this presidential election 

As seen on Fox News

This presidential election is shaping up to be one for the history books. We’re unofficially down to two key candidates, long before the party conventions declare them. And in many ways, it feels like a rerun from four years ago. But aside from the candidates being the same, this election cycle looks and sounds a lot different. 

A lot of people are wondering what’s going on; specifically, how in the world Donald Trump is leading by so much on the Republican side, despite having four indictments and 91 criminal charges against him. 

I have to be honest. I’ve been surprised by the “comeback” of Donald Trump as the emerging leader of the GOP primary. And I’ve learned some key lessons from voter analysis this election cycle for CNN and Fox News. In studying people’s responses, I’ve realized something: framing – how Trump’s message is shaping people’s perception of him – explains a lot in this election cycle

Language and framing matter. The way you talk about something has the power to shape how people perceive it. That’s what we call framing. In this case, it’s the way each candidate positions themselves as the next candidate for the President of the United States. Simply put, it helps us fill in the blank in a sentence like this: “I am voting for XYZ candidate because they are __________.” 

At m+p, our roots are in politics, where the best message wins. We know a lot about messaging. Over the years, we’ve helped change the language on some key issues, to shift perception in a more favorable way. For example, we rechristened “estate tax” as “death tax”; and “education spending” as “investing in our youth.” Both shifts changed the shape of the conversation and resulted in much more favorable outcomes. 

When you’re communicating, in business or politics or anywhere, there’s typically an inherent gap between your truth and your audience’s truth. That’s why we operate by the foundational principle that “it’s not what you say that matters, it’s what they hear.” And framing is everything. It’s more than just choosing a word. Frames start with words, but they go further to actually achieve a goal. With the right framing, if you change the language, you can truly change – and win – the debate. Ultimately, your frame either dooms your argument, or sets it up for success. 

Right now, only one candidate is framing the election in terms that matter most to voters. Among the Republican field of former contenders and one last Trump opponent for president, here’s a look at paraphrases of how they framed their candidacy and why they should win votes: 

“…I’m an outsider who will get things done.”

– Vivek Ramaswamy

“…I will fight the woke culture and protect your children.”

– Ron DeSantis 

“…I’m a true conservative.”

– Mike Pence 

“…I’m a pragmatist and will tell you the truth.”

– Nikki Haley

“…I am running on hope and the American Dream.”

– Tim Scott

And then there’s Donald Trump. In the past, his campaign had a central message and frame. It was about sanctity vs. degradation, and it was summed up in an utterly memorable and successful slogan, “Make America Great Again.” 

This go-round, he’s framing it in a new way: 

“They treat us unfairly.  The system is rigged.  They look down on us.  I will fight back.”  

-Donald Trump

He’s tapping into something bigger by stoking issues of freedom vs. oppression, and fairness vs. cheating – messages that are resonating with people. A poll from Ipsos last year suggested that nearly seven in ten Americans across political ideologies believe that the system is rigged to favor the elite. And 61% said they want a leader who can “take the country back.” Only one is promising to do that – and that’s why he’s winning on the Republican side. Whether right or wrong, Trump has clearly framed the reason to vote for him – and it’s working.