Flickr photos by Max Morse, Phil Konstantin
Quick. Where have you heard these two phrases before?
1.) "We should focus on three things: Creating jobs, cutting spending and fixing education."
2.) "We need someone in there with the skills and the knowledge, and maybe more importantly - insider's knowledge, but an outsider's mind."
If you don't know that those statements have effectively become slogans for the campaigns of Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown, respectively, the inevitable barrage of political advertising primed to drop this summer and fall will pound them into your head soon enough.
But even off the air, both Whitman and Brown – and the organizations that cover them – have repeatedly rehashed these convenient catchphrases in public appearances, news articles and interviews in front of local, state and national audiences.
After declaring his "insider's knowledge" and "outsider's mind" in the video announcing his candidacy, Jerry Brown continued to trot out the phrase for several weeks, including an appearance on Larry King Live, according to our Politics Verbatim database. It quickly caught on with media organizations, which used the phrase dozens of times in stories about Brown. Whitman's campaign also slugged him on it once, and interestingly enough, a Bay Area TV reporter used the language when asking Whitman a question about her opponent.
For her part, Whitman has stayed on message like a champ. Our database shows at least a dozen instances of her breaking out the "three-things" theme in news articles, events and rallies, and no doubt we're missing a lot. Brown even came out with his own "three things," at a speech last month at the University of California Santa Barbara.
There is a method to all this repetition. A 2004 study by a University of Virginia professor talks about how repetition helps the candidate "prime" voters, which is described this way:
"The basic idea of priming is that by making some considerations more accessible, by pushing them to the top of the head, the speaker increases the likelihood that those considerations will serve as the basis of judgment."
And that "priming is generally meant to suggest a short-term psychological inﬂuence on judgment – one that inﬂuences judgment without necessarily invoking any conscious awareness of its inﬂuence."
In other words, by repeating key campaign issues – say, Whitman's jobs, spending and eduction – campaigns can effectively tell voters what issues to care about without the voters even knowing it.
Ironically, repetition as a propaganda tool was in part popularized by Joseph Goebbels – the Nazi propaganda minister to whom Jerry Brown compared Meg Whitman in an off-hand conversation with a reporter a few weeks back.
As Goebbels reportedly once said: "The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly – it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over."