24 October 2011

Presidential Candidates Selling Themselves

In its essence, running for President is like a prolonged job interview, only with the media spotlight intensifying things and distorting mistakes. Since voters tend not to be policy wonks, people want to make personal connections. But you are not just selling yourself, you are truly selling your own brand, which includes some policy prescriptions.  Most people don’t pay much attention to the day to day campaigning until the final month, so honing and repeating the same distilled message to different audiences on the hustings is mostly how you interview.  During this campaign cycle, one of the clearest messages has been Herman Cain selling his 9-9-9 tax reform/deficit reduction plan.

Since reporters have heard stump speeches numerous times with only the local greetings changed they generally will not report on the familiar rhetoric.  Other ways to generate earned media is to develop new campaign themes, participate in debates or grant exclusive interviews.

Granted that it is journalists’ instincts to find (if not create) controversy. Hence the Piers Morgan question to Herman Cain was following normal campaign script.  Obviously, abortion is a hot button issue that EVERY Republican candidate needs to be ready for and have a honed response.  So Cain’s mixed message raised the hackles of pro-abortion advocates while it worried and confused single issue some anti-abortion GOP primary voters.

 As abortion is a wedge issue, asking a candidate’s stand will polarize listeners and raise the defenses of politicians on the spot.  By asking a hypothetical about a family member can reveal quite a bit.  During the 1988 Presidential debate, moderator Bernard Shaw asked Gov. Michael Dukakis (D-MA) about Capital Punishment through a hypothetical: "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"

Dukakis clearly articulated his liberal viewpoint, which was not what the majority of Americans wanted to hear. But his sang froid technocratic answer also abandoned opportunities to make personal connections with voters.

Another low light for Dukakis from the 1988 debates was when the Governor was asked about burning the American flag. This question was precipitated by rumors that then VP candidate Senator Dan Quayle (R-IN) and Kitty Dukakis had burned flags.    Dukakis thoughtfully answered that he consulted with the Massachusetts Supreme Court (which Commonwealth Law allowed) and felt like allowing such protest was the right choice.  A contemporaneous pundit quipped that Dukakis’s Flag Burning answer  won the hearts and minds of 12 lawyers and lost two million votes.

Cain’s unclear answer about abortion temporarily derailed the Cain train. So as Cain was building momentum as a top tier candidate and his primary brand of 9-9-9 was dominating the debate, he had to sidetrack to in order to restate.  Despite Cain’s protestations that his abortion answer was taken out of context, his clarification still sounds as clear as mud.  In fact, Cain said that he would sign an anti-abortion Amendment to the Constitution.  He protests too much and showed political ignorance as Presidents have no official duties in enacting Constitutional Amendments.  As long as there is controversy, the media will feed on the frenzy rather than amplify his message on radically reforming the tax system.

Ironically, being too polished can also be a problem.  Former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) looks quite Presidential and aside from last week's Wild, Wild West Las Vegas debate, he has been publicly  unflappable.  Yet Romney is having difficulty winning the hearts and minds of GOP primary voters because he is perceived as being plastic and giving too perfect answers.  Conservatives complain that Romney is too centrist, even though he was seen as the fiscal conservative choice during the 2008 GOP primaries against Senator John McCain (R-AZ).

An ardent Cainiac complained that critics think that: "Herman Cain shouldn’t be elected because he wasn’t smart enough to figure out what to lie about ahead of time."  Not quite. All candidates are imperfect and will have to deal with verbal gaffes.    As Oscar Wilde put it “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes”.

Unfortunately, a tick is becoming apparent with Cain’s several clarifications.  Cain will impatiently insist that he has been misunderstood. This is true of the Piers Morgan interview or how his opponents construe his 9-9-9 initiative.  Railing against being misunderstood by the press will score some points amongst partisans, but it is dangerous to gird for battle against opponents who buy their ink by the barrel.  It also hints of a thin skin against the press, which is a prescription for disaster with a liberal Lamestream Media that is compliant and sympathetic with this White House.  Moreover, there is an incumbent who will have buckets of money to toss in slinging mud and play class warfare games to keep his position of power.

Public Relations experts urge job candidates to be deliberate in everything that they do in order to sell their personal brand.  Every utterance should convey a consistent message and be molded so that it is easy for decision makers (in this case voters) to say yes.  Cain is running by necessity a lean and mean campaign as a non-politician’s politician. Cain’s candor can be refreshing but mixed messages on hot button issues kills word of mouth or bandwagon support and misses opportunities to make the sale.

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