What a communicator learned from President Obama’s win

November 8, 2012

Go negative, go early, and set the agenda from the outset

When it comes to communications, I check my politics at the door and instead just enjoy the delicious, vicious game of American politics. If you want to win in the blood sport of American political PR — an arena I never desire to enter — then the lessons learned from this year’s election are invaluable.

The path to victory is clear. In order to win, go negative early, often, and hard. Take out your opponent’s legs before they can bear weight. Attack on every level, particularly their strongest asset, and recast reality to suit your best possible light.

That’s the new truth in American politics. And I salute President Obama’s willingness to accept a standard first established by George W. Bush when he swiftboated John Kerry. By turning a hero into a coward, Bush reinvented the man, reducing him to a yellowbelly deserter, when he was a decorated Vietnam vet, who volunteered for service instead of cashing in on the Yale degree he held in his hand.

The Obama team wrecked the same havoc on Mitt Romney. At a time of lingering recession, when millions of Americans have been out of work for a record length of time, and as debt threatens to swallow all of us, business acumen would seem an asset. But not in the parallel universe of American politics.

Six months before the election, Jim Messina, the manager of the president’s re-election campaign, hatched a plan to spend their money early and go hard, and go negative, painting Romney’s business experience as nothing more than an assault on working Americans. Instead of building Staples, Sports Authority, Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, and other companies we love, Romney pillaged them. Instead of creating jobs, he shipped them to China. Instead of holding real business skills, he stumblebummed his way to success, a modern-day Thurston Howell, III. At least that’s the story that $336 million in advertising buys.

Back then, Paul Begala said it all when he proclaimed that if his Super PAC Priorities USA Action ran a single positive advertisement about Obama, he’d be outraged. Instead, every single ad, all the scores of million dollars at his disposal, would be attack ads, in an attempt to Romnify Bain Capital, transforming it into Halliburton.

It was a brilliant ploy — the same political tactic that draft avoider Bush used to nullify the war hero Kerry. And it worked wonderfully. Romney was immediately set on to defend a point that should have been his advantage.

Sure, there were risks in taking the lowest road dug. During the first debate, when Obama failed and Romney rallied, Obama paid a price once voters saw first-hand the deceit. But it didn’t last. Thanks to “go negative early and hard,” the President created an image that could never be clearly erased from the electorate’s mind. It lingered for months, and in the end, helped to create a perception that could never be overcome.

It was a grand bet, indeed. One I would not have had the guts to play. Preferring to advance as I do in communicating for my clients. Concentrating on the value of their own brand, the quality of their own plan of action or product or service. But Chris Matthews calls his show “Hard Ball” for a reason. The president learned many of the tactics at the hands of his own opponents. They blazed the path. He just followed in their bloodied footsteps.

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