Anyone who has been in a presidential campaign knows that everyone has advice for how you can do better. Right now everyone is telling Mitt Romney: You need to do a better job of connecting. Not me. Yes, I have advice – just not that advice.
The campaign is in its battle of the agendas phase. The two sides are fighting over whose definition of the key issues before the nation will dominate discussion in October and early November.
You would think that with an economy stagnated at a disturbingly low level, unprecedented national debt that our top military man has said itself is a threat to our security, net-job-killing federal spending and troubles around the globe, both sides would be agreed on the serious questions facing us.
Instead the president has invented one war after another that he contends Mitt Romney is waging on the rest of us: wars on women, on the middle class, even on puppies, until it turned out that the president has eaten puppies.
By law, candidates must approve every message their apparatus puts out. If you had any doubts about how nice a guy Mr. Obama is, look at the way his campaign has stuck to the angry (bordering on hate-filled) message of businessman Romney shipping jobs overseas long after it has been revealed the former governor did no such thing. In his rise to prominence, Mr. Obama was fortunate that dirt emerged on several strong opponents, who then became unviable. The persistence of his campaign in trying to manufacture dirt on Mr. Romney leaves me, at least, wondering if those earlier revelations were the result of luck alone.
The Romney campaign has been focused and disciplined in its response, answering through surrogates when appropriate (particularly when the Democrats have misrepresented the governor’s economic achievements in Massachusetts) but not getting distracted from the president’s failed economic performance.
The president has plenty of money, having reportedly conducted by now more political fundraisers than his four immediate predecessors combined. And yet considering the intensity of Team Obama’s attacks, plenty of money looks like plenty of nothing. Yes, the polls have moved a little. But by and large, despite the full frontal assault, in the major swing states, the Real Clear Politics average of polls puts Mr. Romney substantially ahead of where he was at the toughest points in March, April and May. In all cases, the spread between the candidates is within polling’s margin of error.
So what is my advice to the Romney entourage?
First, pay more attention to pictures. The best press event the Romney people have staged in the last sixty days was the surprise visit to Solyndra headquarters. The picture of the lavish facility fit perfectly with the candidate’s remarks, a serendipity typical of Ronald Reagan’s campaigns. Too often, though, Team Romney’s stage settings borrow more from George W. Bush, depending on words pasted to a banner or stuck to a podium (“More Jobs. Less Debt. Smaller Government.”) to tell their tale. The Reagan method says more and excites emotions better than the Bush one. It connects. Go with Reagan.
Second, pay more attention to soundbites. Governor Romney’s speeches are well crafted, intelligently argued and draw a clear distinction between his vision and the president’s. His speechwriters are very good. There is a need, though, to work harder on defining phrases.
As cable television has come to dominate coverage and millions may see large portions of even minor stump appearances, campaigns have de-emphasized the catchy, memorable formulations that were the staples of the old network evening news broadcasts. The Romney campaign should bring back the soundbite. Mostly this requires asking the question for each event, “What phrase or sentence do we want people taking away with them?”
Third, pay more attention to merchandizing the message. Brief the media in greater detail before and after each press event — fact sheets, experts available on the press bus, that sort of thing. In other words, tell them what you are going to tell them, followed with telling them what you told them – and providing the kind of background that gives depth and detail to a story.
Yes, I know friends will still tell Governor Romney that he needs to connect more – some magical transformation of personality and delivery. I don’t buy it. He is who he is. He’s done very well with that over the years, including in the least hospitable state for a Republican in the nation. The challenge is easier. It is just a matter of doing it.