Persuasion Tactics Used at the 2016 RNC and DNC

Title art by Van Ganapathy.


The 2016 presidential election is best described as, for lack of a better term, insane. The rhetoric used by candidates on both sides, the infighting within the parties, and even the rise of the third-party candidates has been unprecedented. Entire full analyses of the persuasion tactics could easily be written on these topics. However, most persuasion theories and concepts can be found at work by reviewing only the party conventions. The goal of this paper is to survey the topics that were spoken about at the conventions and compare and contrast how each party addressed them. I will analyze how the audience processed the information using heuristic-systematic processing, the emotional appeals made by each party, the message features of the speeches, inoculation attempts, and other influential tactics employed by the speakers. 

The main message of both conventions was “Support our party!” Each party attempted to persuade the American viewer by bringing out a variety of speakers on different subjects. Congressman, senators, former candidates, governors, celebrities, and every day people all spoke in an attempt to build up credibility for their party’s nominee and platform. These speakers also appealed to different emotions and established heuristics to strengthen their arguments for their party and against the opposition.  

In the conclusion of this paper, I will identify the similarities and differences in the rhetorical styles of the major parties and present my thoughts on why people are persuaded to one side or another. By looking at the message features, appeals, and other tactics, we can better understand the effectiveness of each party’s message and why voters choose the way they do. 


To understand the strength that heuristics have when it comes to a person’s decision making, we first need to understand the Heuristic-Systematic Model, also known as Elaboration Likelihood Model. This model surmises there are two pathways that can be taken to influence another person: the heuristic pathway and the systematic pathway. Heuristics developed over time make decision-making more efficient. They rely on easily identifiable cues, such as credentials or feelings towards the message, to decide whether or not to adopt a particular belief or commit a certain action. Because of HSM’s “least effort principle” heuristics are a valuable tool for a speaker to use to persuade somebody to their side. Systematic processing occurs when the audience member follows an argument in-depth, thoroughly analyzes all the information provided, and arrives at a conclusion. This method of thinking is time-consuming and mentally draining and to properly undergo this process the audience member has to have the ability and motivation to do so (Chaiken & Ledgerwood). While both pathways are important to use while attempting persuasion, the conventions focused entirely on the heuristic pathway. 

Heuristics dominate everyday decision-making; therefore there are countless kinds that are highly personalized to each individual. In an attempt to simplify a complex set of guidelines, I will focus on four kinds of heuristics: authority, issue, ideology, and affect (Allen & Wilson). Authority is the heuristic that your credibility as a speaker plays to. Issue heuristics surround individual concerns you may have—such as 2nd amendment rights or pro-choice. Ideology is how closely your beliefs align with the speaker. And finally, affect is the feeling one gets immediately following a stimulus. Understanding which heuristic is being targeted, and by which tactics, is crucial to understanding the persuasiveness of the party’s representatives.

The easiest heuristic to identify is authority. Local and national leaders, servicemen and women, business leaders, and activists all took the stage on behalf of their respective parties. The programs made sure to reference all the titles of the speakers, their achievements and any other relevant information to boost their credibility. Convention organizers also used introductory speakers to emphasize the importance of the next speaker and to continue reveling in their accomplishments. Many of the speakers themselves then doubled-down and reiterated their accomplishments before moving on to the main subject of their speech. 

On the topic of national security, the two biggest speeches were by Rudy Giuliani for the Republicans and General George Allen for the Democrats. Giuliani was the mayor of New York on 9/11 and was the first major leader on the scene of the attack. Because of his actions on that day he received the nickname “America’s mayor.” He is also considered responsible for making New York a safer city and he made sure to remind you of that. Since leaving office, Giuliani has been an outspoken advocate for stronger security and stronger action against those that threaten America. All of this builds the authority that Giuliani has to speak on the matter of national security, which helped contribute to the impactful response to his speech. Allen, in addition to being a four-star general and having a colonel give his introduction, played up his authority with some pomp and circumstance. He walked onto the stage—surrounded by several dozen veterans—to the sound of marching drums, ensuring that viewers do not forget he is a general. The use of authority heuristics didn’t end with national security, they were present in all subject matters from jobs, immigration, social advocacy, and even when discussing the candidates themselves. 

Issue heuristics were used during each speech at both conventions. Most of the speeches contained only one topic — defense, the economy, etc.—rarely, did one speaker cover multiple topics. This is because each speech was designed to target a select group of individuals who cared about that topic individually. On the Republican side, this heuristic was very evident when discussing jobs. The party brought out small and large business owners, farmers, and many other entrepreneurs to discuss how government regulation, taxes, or Obamacare were killing their businesses. While these may seem like three issues, they played into the greater problem of the struggle that small-business owners face day-to-day. This issue was highlighted time and time again during the second day of the convention, making the small-business owners believe that the Republican Party cared about what was important to them. The Democrats appealed to the same heuristic when talking about social issues. They made sure to have representatives speak to a variety of issues important to the Democratic base.—Henrietta Ivey,  a leader for Fight for $15; Jensen Walcott and Jake Reed, promoters of equal pay for equal work; Erica Smegielski, advocate for gun control; and many more took the stage and highlighted the issues important to them. While most voters are not single-issue voters, many only pay attention to a select few. By highlighting a large variety of issues, the Democrats were able to target most of the major issue heuristics in the American electorate. 

Ideology is similar to issue, however the big difference is that faith is more involved. Both parties had speakers who emphasized their faith, even when it was not necessary or didn’t fit in to the speech flow well. Phrases like “my faith in Jesus Christ” and “God Bless America” all reinforce this heuristic. The reason this heuristic can be so powerful is because of a psychological desire to fit in with an in-group and conform. Conformity, according to Aronson & Aronson is “a change in a person’s behavior or opinions as a result of real or imagined pressure from a person or group of people This is such a strong psychological need, that it can greatly impact our ability to be persuaded. When you emphasize your in-group, especially one as identifiable as religion, it can encourage people to listen to you more and make them easier to persuade. Outside of the realm of faith, ideology heuristics are used when arguing for or against abstract ideas. One of the clearest examples of this is what Antonio Sobato Jr. said during his brief speech about immigration: “I know what socialism looks like… I don’t want that for my country.” The decades long ideological battle between capitalism and socialism can easily create similar in-groups as occur with those who share a religious belief. Most Americans don’t consider themselves socialists. In our culture that word carries a negative connotation, so by implying the Democrats are socialists, the Republican Party created the in-group of capitalists to which people were encouraged to join. Democrats also used ideology to garner support. There is no more concise an example than Clinton’s “I believe in science.” Short, simple, and impossible to misinterpret, the belief in science is a widely held belief among Democrats, moderates, and Republicans alike. Far-right leaders get accused quite often of denying science in order to advance their—or their donor’s—agenda. By clearly stating this belief, Clinton differentiated herself from the right, and made her the candidate of science, implying her policies will be scientifically informed.

 Finally, affect heuristics are based on the feelings an audience member has from listening to a speech. I can attest to experiencing a positive affect to Giuliani’s speech. He spoke with authority and confidence and, for the first part, his message was positive. This powerful heuristic is what contributed to the exuberant response to his speech when compared to the others. The Democrats used this heuristic when they brought out the “Mothers of the Movement” to speak about the racial issues surrounding policing in America. They wished to encourage people to feel sympathy towards the mothers and, by proxy, towards the Democratic message. Affect heuristics are harder to identify because they are the most personal of the three discussed above. To better understand how these work, you have to first understand emotional appeals; which will be covered in detail in the next section. 

Looking at the four main heuristics used in the conventions, both parties equally played to authority and affect heuristics. They both made sure to use credible speakers and to emphasize their accomplishments and they both attempted to persuade the audience using affect heuristics as well. Where the two parties diverged were on issue and ideological heuristics. While each party employed these other two heuristics, the Republicans leaned much more heavily on ideological heuristics while the Democrats focused more on the issues. 


Emotional appeals are powerful tools to have at your disposal when attempting to persuade another. Emotions can have pervasive impacts on all elements of the decision making process. To understand how, there are two broad categories of emotions that first need to be explained: integral and incidental. Integral emotions are those that are felt when experiencing the decision making process. They can be the fear or happiness you feel while being presented with evidence. Incidental emotions are those feelings that carry over from an irrelevant event to the current decision making process. The best way to understand this is to think of how hearing bad news can affect the way you think in another setting (Lerner et al.). It is impossible to infer all of the incidental emotions the audiences of the conventions were feeling while listening to the speakers, so I will focus on the integral emotional appeals made by each party. The reason emotional appeals are so powerful is because of their purposes in cognition. Emotions help a person quickly evaluate the environment and discern between positive and negatives affects. Emotions also elicit a physical response in a person. Finally, and most important, they shape behavior (Mongeau). 

The most obvious emotional appeal was also most prevalent at the Republican National Convention: fear. Mongeau defines this as “a negatively-valenced emotion accompanied by a high level of arousal and elicited by a threat that is perceived to be significant and personally relevant.” The easiest identifiable evidence of this appeal is the theme of the first day of the convention: “Make America Safe Again.” The title of this day, right away, triggers a fear response. This statement loomed over the speeches as speaker after speaker emphasized different threats that America is facing from terrorism, crime, and immigration. This is the first component of the fear appeal. To make a successful threat you must first show that there is an “environmental threat” to the audience member and then prove that they are susceptible (Mongeau 2013). This susceptibility was easily proven when the speakers referenced the terrorist attacks of Paris, Brussels, and most closely, San Bernardino. Republicans used fear in almost every topic discussed. When they discussed the economy they talked about how Clinton will be a job killer and will destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of middle-class workers. The many fear appeals were made in an attempt to make people fear Clinton. To make a fear appeal successful you also need to provide a way for the audience to cope. This is accomplished by providing response efficacy and self-efficacy. Response efficacy is providing an action that can be taken to relieve the fear — in this case voting for Trump. Self-efficacy is defined as “the ability to perform the recommended behavior” (Mongeau 2013). Fortunately in this case, going to the voting booths in November is quite easy. With these easy coping mechanisms, fear appeals can have a strong influence on the audience. 

In stark contrast, the Democrats’ convention speeches on national security were far less fearful. The theme surrounding the speeches on national security was “Protecting America.” This theme, unlike the Republican’s theme, didn’t emphasize the dangers that America faces—nor did they imply America is not safe—but the strength of the United States and how Hillary Clinton is the most equipped to continue protecting America. 

    The speeches themselves had almost no fear appeals; instead they appealed to hope. There is no better example of this than what General John Allen said, “This election can carry us to a future of unity and hope; or, to a dark place of discord and fear. We must choose hope!” General Allen spent most of his time appealing to hope and explaining why America should place its hope and trust in Clinton. Using emotional appeals—especially fear appeals—can be risky because of the boomerang effect. This effect can cause the audience member to retreat back to their original opinion and develop further psychological resistance to persuasion on that particular topic, and in some cases, adopt the opposite position (Bessarabova). This can happen when emotional appeals are used too heavily or too often. Avoiding a heavy use of fear appeals may have been a conscious decision on the Democrats’ part to prevent the boomerang effect from occurring. 

    Another emotional appeal both parties used was humor. While humor alone is not a strong persuasive strategy when compared to other appeals like fear, it can build likability and help prevent message counterarguments. The shortcoming of humor as a tactic is it encourages “message discounting.” To combat this, the conclusion of an argument should re-emphasize the seriousness of the content. At both conventions the speakers used humor to make fun of the opposition’s candidate (Nabi et. al.). Joke’s like Clinton’s “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man you can trust with nuclear weapons” and Capito’s “Now, we shouldn't be surprised by this because Hillary Clinton understands coal miners and blue collar workers about as well as she understands secure email” were used to create a likable, positive affect towards their argument. However, these one-liners never dominated the speech and the speakers quickly pivoted back to the main points of their arguments. 

    While both parties used emotional appeals they could not be more different in the emotions they used to persuade. Republicans chose to mainly appeal to negative emotions and did so successfully be providing proper coping mechanisms to the audience. Their use of response efficacy and self-efficacy helped prevent a boomerang effect and increased the influence of their message.  The Democrats chose to appeal more to the positive feelings in attempt to provide hope for the future. This was done to make people believe that Clinton is the better choice. Using negative emotional appeals to change negative opinions to positive ones would likely have increased psychological resistance to the Democrats’ message. 


The way a message is constructed has a great impact on its persuasiveness and there are three features that affect persuasiveness to varying degrees. They are: content, structure, and style. Content is defined as the topic of the argument; structure us the organization and presentation of the argument; and style is the language and speech of the argument. 

Within content there are four types of evidence: statistical, testimonial, anecdotal, and analogical. Statistical and testimonial evidence are considered to be the most persuasive of the four. Another important component of content is message sidedness. There are two kinds of messages: one-sided and two-sided. One-sided means that the opposing argument is not addressed where as two-sided is where the arguer acknowledges the opposing stance. Two-sided messaging is further divided into refutational and non-refutational—basically, whether or not the presenter chooses to refute the counterargument. Generally speaking, refutational two-sided messaging is the most persuasive followed by one-sided messaging. However, when the audience already has a positive opinion of the topic, one-sided can prove to be more effective. This is why most of the convention speeches were one-sided. 

When it comes to structure the first thing to look for is whether or not the speech had a climax or anticlimax structure. The difference between these two come down to where the presenter placed his strongest points — climax at the end; anticlimax towards the beginning. There isn’t a difference between the two in persuasiveness, but most presenters will use anticlimax if there is a risk of being interrupted. Another thing about structure to look for is conclusion explicitness. There are two differing camps on this topic: supporters of implicit conclusions and supporters of explicit conclusions. Those who favor implicit conclusion structures believe that arguments that leave the audience to form their own conclusions are more persuasive because explicit conclusions are more threatening and therefore reduce the speaker’s credibility and may trigger psychological resistance. Explicit conclusions differ because the speaker clearly defines the conclusion of his argument to the audience. While this may seem threatening, some studies have shown that explicit conclusions have a slight positive correlation with credibility and persuasiveness. 

There are many ways a message can be styled. The two most prevalent stylistic techniques used in the convention speeches were language choice and framing. The speeches used powerful language by avoiding hedging, excessive intonations, and polite forms. Powerful language is far more persuasive because it boosts the credibility of the speaker. There are two kinds of frames speeches can fit into: gain frame and loss frame. Gain frame emphasizes the benefits of compliance while loss frame emphasizes the costs of non-compliance (Shen and Bigsby). 

The features used by each party were identical. Just about every major speech was one-sided, structured with a climax, had explicit conclusions, and used powerful language and gain frame styles to deliver their arguments. One-sided messages were ideal because the majority of the audience already had positive views towards the topics, and exposing them to counter arguments could be risky. Instead it is smarter to further build their support toward the speaker’s side. Climax structures were preferred because the speakers had zero risk of being interrupted with counter arguments while making their case. Explicit conclusions, or in this case explicit endorsements, were critical. With how contested the primaries were for both parties it was too dangerous to leave it to the audience to draw their own conclusions, which is what an implicit conclusion forces the audience to do. The backlash from not using an explicit conclusion is best exemplified by Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse Trump. After that, clearly stating the endorsement became critical.


    Throughout the convention the Republicans had many speakers whose goal was simply to attack Clinton. These attacks helped inoculate undecided voters against Clinton’s persuasion attempts. Inoculation is used to build a resistance to persuasion attempts by the opposing side and can only be achieved if you are the first to speak. This process works by first identifying a threat and then provide a “refutational preemption” (Compton & Pfau). The best example of this inoculation was Chris Christie’s speech. In his speech, in prosecutor-manner, Christie laid out all of Hillary’s shortcomings providing the audience with counterpoints to use in resistance to the Democrats’ attempts at persuasion the following week. Since the Republicans went first, they had a unique opportunity to inoculate against Clinton and jumped at every opportunity to so. These inoculation attempts reaffirmed the opinions of the Republicans watching; but for the undecided voters, could be incredibly influential towards their final vote.


    In Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, he lists six main “weapons of influence.” These are: reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. Reciprocity is, in simplest terms, the perceived obligation one has to another for doing a favor; scarcity is giving the perception that either not a lot exists of a product or the audience is running out of time to take a particular action. Those two were not used often at the conventions, however, the other four were.  These weapons of influence are closely tied to the heuristics discussed earlier, and the speakers at the conventions wielded these weapons expertly. 

    Bernie Sanders’ speech opened with a “thank you” to his supporters for volunteering and donating to his campaign. This expression of gratitude served as a reminder to the commitment of his supporters; it was the most obvious use of the weapon of commitment and consistency. The reason this weapon is a useful one to use—especially by a speaker such as Sanders—is because people have a desire to follow through on their actions. To resolve cognitive dissonance, they will continue acting in a manner consistent with their initial commitment even when it becomes tougher to do so. Sander’s supporters were some of the most dedicated supporters in recent political history and his campaign has been heralded as a “grassroots campaign.” Knowing this, and knowing the message he would have to deliver to his followers, Sander’s had to make sure this weapon hit its mark. Most of his supporters were not fans of Clinton and the “Bernie or Bust” movement had gained momentum. If Sanders was unable to deliver his votes to Clinton, then a fractured Democratic party would surely lose in November. Because of these stakes, Sanders employed the commitment and consistency weapon, as it would be one of the strongest in his arsenal. 

    Social proof is the weapon that endorsements use. Celebrity endorsements of products has proven to be such a successful marketing strategy that the tactics also were picked up by political campaigns. When a well-liked figure shows his/her support for a candidate, it encourages that figure’s supporters to back the endorsed. You saw this with every celebrity on both sides of the aisle during the conventions. For example, fans of Willie Robertson (Republicans) and Katy Perry (Democrats) listened more closely when the celebrity said “I support…” Social proof, especially partnered with its cousin ideology heuristics, can be an incredibly powerful tool to encourage behavior. It is by far the most used weapon. 

    Liking—especially in today’s political climate where both candidates are not well-liked by the public—is difficult to use. It became the job of the friends, family, and other proxies of the candidates to humanize the candidate or make themselves so likable that the candidate, by association, is liked as well. No speaker better employed this tactic than Vice Presidential Nominee Tim Kaine. His speech was lighthearted when it needed to be, humorous, and he seamlessly entered and exited serious topics while maintaining your focus for the entire half hour. As a personal aside, going into the speech, I had a lukewarm opinion of Tim Kaine as the VP nominee, but by the time he finished I found myself wishing I could vote for him for the presidency. The way he made himself likable and approachable made his speech, in my opinion, one of the most persuasive speeches in favor of Clinton at the DNC. 

    Finally, authority—discussed in detail under heuristics—as a weapon of influence is an important first weapon to use. Speakers made sure to emphasize their titles, even going as far as to remind the audience mid speech with phrases like, “as a senator” or “as a governor.” Also, in most speeches, the first part was almost entirely dedicated to their personal achievements rather than directly to the topic at hand. Authority can be such a powerful weapon. It can be used to influence people, as demonstrated in the Milgram Study, to act in violation of their conscience. This is why it was important to have highly authoritative and credible speakers endorse Trump. Many moderate conservatives find supporting Trump a violation of their beliefs and struggle with his nomination. Having less controversial Republican leaders use their authority to back Trump, softens the internal conflict the voters might experience and helps persuade them to, even if reluctantly, support the nominee.

    These “weapons of influence” do not exist in a vacuum and are often times used simultaneously with one another. When used in combination they can reinforce your message content, strengthen your emotional appeals, and encourage more thought processing. The most successful speeches at the conventions used all the above weapons to persuade the audience to support their party’s candidate. 


When it comes to persuasion, the similarities here show that the tactics used are bipartisan. Both parties equally relied on heuristic processing as opposed to encouraging systematic. This is because systematic processing can be cognitively draining for people especially when they don't have the ability or the motivation to do so. Since most Americans don't have the ability to understand the nuances of policy, relying on heuristics is the safer bet when trying to appeal to the electorate. The major difference between the Democrats and Republicans was the emotions they chose to appeal to. Fear was the dominant appeal for Republicans while Democrats opted for another path—hope. It should not come as a surprise that people on both sides respond similarly to these tactics because of how similar the human psyche is from person to person. What I find most encouraging about this is how, if members of both parties stop exploiting these tools to advance personal agendas, there is potential for positive impacts in people’s lives. Instead of using these tactics to divide the American electorate, it is possible to make American politics a more civilized theater.


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