April 11, 2012
If only renowned Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson were still alive to cover the hot swirling mess that has become the 2012 presidential campaign.
A year ago, even late in 2011, it all seemed so straightforward. The themes of the election would be about what voters cared about most: the economy, jobs and debt.
But February’s headlines featured decidedly non-economic matters, including contraception, ultrasounds, abortion and Satan. As the nation approached the Super Tuesday primaries on March 6, audiences had already witnessed a bizarre communications buffet of sexual harassment allegations, tone-deaf candidates, an unpredictable rotation of fringe social and religious issues, and the shadowy clout of deep-pocketed kingmakers.
So much for conventional communications wisdom. The candidates’ need for both strategic and tactical flexibility is an enduring communications lesson of the 2012 campaign.
Communication plans often look invincible on paper, but people must revisit and refine them regularly.
By Feb. 29, Rick Santorum was the only Republican candidate with a net favorable rating — the former Pennsylvania senator’s reward for the ideological consistency that his party’s conservative wing demanded. (Santorum dropped out of the race on April 10.) Two-thirds of GOP primary voters had selected someone other than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the de facto incumbent by virtue of his nonstop campaign since 2008.
“Romney is still running away from his record as governor of Massachusetts while seeking a consistent campaign message that resonates with the GOP electorate who have yet to embrace the man who can’t seem to embrace himself,” said Bill Dalbec, a senior vice president with APCO Worldwide and a veteran of two presidential campaigns and more than 100 lower-office races. “Voters look to support candidates with whom they can empathize, and a candidate cannot connect on that level if he is not comfortable in his own skin.”
Consistent performance makes brands and reputations. Unfortunately for Romney, the most consistent attribute of his campaign has been his inability to connect on a personal level with voters. The fact that reporters view him as inaccessible doesn’t help people’s perceptions of him.
Although Romney’s showing in the Super Tuesday primaries reinforced the mathematical likelihood that he would become the GOP’s eventual nominee, it failed to erase deep-seated doubts about his ideological clarity and political consistency.
This election is the first in which more Americans are gathering campaign news from the Internet than from newspapers, according to Pew Research Center polling. And online sources now rank second behind cable news. For campaign reporters, Twitter has become an indispensible ear to the ground.
“Social media, in particular, has influenced how reporters cover campaigns, how campaigns get around the media filter, and how they must respond to it,” said Glen Johnson, the politics editor at Boston.com, now covering the fifth presidential race of his 25-year career. “Many reporters learn of their rivals’ work through Twitter, for example. Scoops can be broken or amplified with something as simple as a tweet. Stories can be discovered by random follows on Twitter.”
While Twitter is an intelligence-gathering tool for reporters trying to cover a primary race that once featured eight candidates, the fire-hose nature of the nonstop stream overwhelms readers.
Since the 2008 presidential election, the number of Facebook users has grown eightfold, and the number of Twitter users has multiplied by 30. Just as wired consumers added a new dimension to retail public relations and marketing, tech-savvy voters, donors and volunteers have forced campaigns to adopt strategies for integration and segmentations.
“In 2008, social media was an auxiliary component of the campaign,” Zac Moffatt, digital director of the Mitt Romney campaign, told the San Jose Mercury News on Feb. 26. “Now it’s integrated into the core concept of how the campaign will reach people. We have moved away from the mind-set that the website is the primary place where people will interact with the campaign.”
After the Feb. 23 Republican debate in Arizona, a USA Today/Gallup poll reported that more Americans had a favorable opinion of President Obama than any of the four remaining Republican contenders. In fact, only Obama and Santorum had positive favorable/unfavorable ratios.
The President — whom Americans once widely perceived as incredibly vulnerable — continues to hold a solid lead over any challenger.
“None of the four Republicans vying for the GOP presidential nomination have strongly favorable images among the American public, and none have favorable images as positive as those of the three previous nonincumbent Republican nominees at the same point in their campaigns,” said Gallup analyst Frank Newport.
Despite seven high-profile debates in January — and 25 total by early March, Romney, Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich still carried the same net unfavorable ratings they had in a mid-December Gallup survey.
“Having numerous debates — most of them created to promote networks and their on-air talent — has prevented the campaigns from controlling their messages as in the past,” Johnson said. “Moderators, candidates and crowds are feeding off each other. For a projected front-runner like Mitt Romney, his message control has been challenged by the requirement to respond to other candidates or the moderator’s questions.”
A communications phenomenon that not everyone hopes to see in the next presidential cycle is the super PAC, the ultimate political action committee that the 2012 candidates have treated like a mistress — disavowed publicly but always waiting in the wings. Super PACs are unique to the current race, thanks to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that lifted a federal ban on independent spending by corporations and other organizations in elections.
So all bets are off when 23 millionaire mega-donors are willing to bankroll $54 million worth of negative advertising in key Republican primary states.
“The super PAC has redefined the 2012 race and is playing a major role in the GOP nomination race,” Dalbec said. “A super PAC has kept Newt Gingrich afloat, while one supporting Mitt Romney is doing most of his dirty work. President Obama and the Democrats are raising record amounts of money. With no opposition for the nomination, they will have all of their cash to unleash on the GOP nominee.”
Polls confirm that the more voters know about super PACs, the more they dislike their negative influence. But in a cluttered communications environment, it’s not easy for the average voter to readily identify the source of campaign information.
Candidates maintain superficial “plausible deniability” on super PAC activities, but Johnson noted that they are “risking a situation where the campaigns have to apologize for mistakes not of their making.”
Dalbec expects that campaign financing will re-emerge as the sole focus during the election’s homestretch, which will commence with the Republican National Convention on Aug. 27-30 and the Democratic National Convention on Sept. 3-6.
“The Republicans will be in Tampa, [Fla.], with a perfect opportunity to appeal to [their] core Southern vote, Hispanic Americans [and] seniors — and win back that important state,” Dalbec said. “The Democrats will be in Charlotte — the first time a convention has been held in North Carolina, in the heart of NASCAR territory — attempting to compete in the South and keep this once reliably GOP state in the Democrats’ fold.
“The President has the benefit of going second,” Dalbec continued. “Will he and the Democrats stick to their own script or be forced to respond to the Republicans?”
Given the unpredictable nature of the campaign to date, it’s probably best to leave that as a rhetorical question.
Ed Cafasso is a former newspaper editor and reporter who worked with Dave Callaway at the Boston Herald. He is a member of PRSA’s Corporate Communications Section and a managing director at Burson-Marsteller.
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