Friday, September 21, 2012

Election Week in Review....The Futility of Controlling the Message (September 21, 2012)

This week was dominated by the Romney “47%” video and its aftermath.  This is the sixth straight week that the campaign has been dominated by a single theme…and not one of those themes has been “Barack Obama has failed the American people on jobs, and Mitt Romney has the required experience to do better.”  That, of course, is Romney’s message.

There has probably never been a more disciplined and cautious candidate than Mitt Romney.  No candidate has managed his message more carefully than Romney.  The back-story dates to his father’s failed presidential bid in 1967, when the first Governor Romney committed the mortal sin of admitting that, when it came to his views on Vietnam, he had been “brainwashed” by the U.S. generals. 

Thus, Mitt Romney has been ever so careful, and is as faithful to the one-note theme of Obama’s jobs failure as he could possibly be.  And yet, when has this message ever dominated the news cycle?  It is often said that any day not spent focused on jobs is a bad day for Romney.  If that is true, I can’t remember the last time he had a good day.

Conventional wisdom is that America starts paying attention to the election with the conventions, but let’s push that back a few weeks in 2012 with Romney’s early (by recent standards) announcement of Paul Ryan as his running mate.  That’s been six weeks.  Let’s take each in turn.

  • Week of August 12 – The news of the week is that Romney names Paul Ryan his Vice-President, and the media cycle is all about the Ryan Budget, the deficit and Medicare –-not jobs.

  • Week of August 19 – Senate candidate Todd Akin’s bizarre comments about abortion overtakes the national news.  This shifts the campaign discussion to social issues, specifically women’s rights and abortion.

  • Week of August 26 – This is the week of the Republican Convention.  The consistent message was to “humanize” Mitt Romney (and, secondarily, to introduce Paul Ryan).  And the most memorable event of the convention was, by far, the unscripted “Eastwood and the Empty Chair” routine.  You had to be watching the undercards to find consistent pummeling of Obama on jobs.

  • Week of September 2 – Romney had no chance to control the message in the week of the Democratic Convention.

  • Week of September 9 – No sooner did the conventions end when tragedy strikes in Libya.  With the Mideast protests and violence, and Romney’s widely panned “rapid response,” the dialogue shifts to foreign affairs.

  • Week of September 16 – The Romney video is released, and Romney is forced to spin it into a dialogue about competing government philosophies.  Not a bad spinning job, but off-message yet again.
Even the monthly jobs report – clearly the most important data of this election -- has been effectively blunted.  The early August report was elbowed aside by Harry Reid’s claim that Romney had paid no taxes in the last ten years, and in early September it was overwhelmed by the Democratic Convention.

All of this is reminiscent of 2008, when the VP selection (McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin), Palin’s unforgettable interview with Katie Couric, the economic meltdown and McCain’s unconventional responses to it overwhelmed McCain’s messaging.

There is certainly a place for messaging in swing state stump speeches and ads.  Those candidates who find an effective message, positive or negative, benefit greatly.  That has simply not been the case in this election.  Neither candidate, in fact, has broken through with an effective message.

But even if they did, campaigns are at the mercy of external events and self-inflicted wounds.  Victory goes to the masters of gaffe-prevention and nimble responses to major news, not to givers of rote stump speeches.  Romney would do better if he realized he is being judged more for his reactions to the news cycle than his failed attempts to shape it, and take his time for thoughtful responses accordingly.  If Romney loses, the post-mortems will be filled with references to his unscripted failures.

Meanwhile, come back Monday for an update of the see how the latest has played with the electorate.

Comments welcome!


  1. if obama had to face a REAL candidate, well then

    1. Ah, the Hermanator, we do miss him. He mighy well be doing better than Romney!


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