Understanding the Message Context…

We’re heading into a very bizarre time — pre-primary candidate positioning. Campaigns are about time, money and messaging. In terms of messaging, most people focus on what a candidate says about him/herself. As this rolls out, consider this: the public perception is set in four ways:

1. Candidate on Candidate

2. Candidate on Others

3. Others on Candidate

4. Others on Others

For example, there’s what Romney says about himself (and he kind of changes his tune a lot). There’s what Romney says about others (not just Obama, but his Republican rivals). Then you have to consider what others say about Romney, and finally what they say about themselves (we’re the most reputable source on GOP politics…). Somewhere in this soup is a seed of a message.  A message that is clear, concise, and one that establishes an builds a brand that will organize or persuade voters and raise money.

In 2008, this was a $750 million endeavor by President Obama, that began four years out, but in earnest two years out. This is serious business, and the messaging construct is extraordinarily complex, never mind the fundraising, organizing, etc., etc.

I’ve been saying this for months now, but the Republican field, with the exception of Mitt Romney, is way too late into this game.  Most of them aren’t even close to the first-stage message yet.


— Jeff K


6 responses to “Understanding the Message Context…

  1. Michael Dunne

    In all seriousness, what would be some suggested, or possible, core messages that you feel (or others in this forum) Mitt Romney, Pawlenty, etc. need to craft?

    Say for Romney:
    “I am like you, and will be conservative and competent”?

    • If I were a Republican, I would own “jobs.” It’s counter intuitive, but so many are tempted to define themselves in relief of others, ie. by attacking Obama. There’s time for that later. Time now, especially when you have free media helping you in the early stages, to define a positive message before you get too far into the campaign and everyone rips each other apart. So for me it would go something like this, and this is with 2 seconds thought 🙂

      Romney: I will create jobs by… Job creator in public and private sector as head of Bain and Gov of Mass during boom time. Effective manager — knows how to create lean, effective, efficient, responsive govt that builds an enduring economy — an economy that can sustain the changes coming in the future (people are hypocritical — they want gov’t spending on some programs, but they also want spending under control)

      Huntsman — same as above, but has more credible public sector experience as Gov of Utah

      Palin — ?? I’ve never heard her talk about jobs beyond a cliche, and I’m being serious. If I could get her to be serious from a policy perspective, I’d say she should do some hard work and come up with her own budget, literally down to the hammer, and show how she’d cut spending. She’s credible as the outsider and the populist. She could have a jobs plan, but it’s hard to be credible like a Romney, so she needs to show how she’d manage the gov’t more effectively and efficiently. She could also social engineer it the way she wants to, but I’d literally get into the mix. She would probably be dismissed, but it would be a good way to re-position her.

      Pawlenty — Huntsman light. He loses if Huntsman goes in — they’re thesame person. How does he distinguish himself? He has to run on a jobs/economy record that’s better than Huntsman and from my reading of UT and MN, that’s not possible. He’s not going to outspend or outraise Romney or Huntsman, so it looks like he’s your VP unless he gets out early and out-organizes the rich guys with a good ground game…

      Santorum — Abortion is evil. Okay, couldn’t resist. He’ll try to be the conservative’s conservative. If Huck is out, he’ll try to ride the evangelical vote and hope there’s enough people in so that he can win with 25%.

      Barbour — Inside manager outside DC. He’s the ultimate insider who’s now on the outside. He’ll run as the true conservative.

      Huckabee — Buy my book, watch my show. Obama was inspired by his Kenyan father — did I get you to tune in now? If he was serious, he wouldn’t let his lead NH field organizer sign up with Pawlenty.

      I guess this is a long way of saying my point is this is the one time when they can talk about themselves and they’re blowing an opportunity.

      — Jeff K

  2. Long-time podcast listener, first-time poster. And junkie on all things 2012.

    I wonder how absolutely necessary it is for potential Republican presidential contenders to have a clear message and established organization at this point.

    Bill Clinton is the last man to defeat an Incumbent President, and he didn’t officially enter the 1992 race until October 1991.


    On March 7 2007, the primaries were much more advanced than now, but the Republicans were competing with the Democrats for media and attention, and vice versa. It’s unlikely that there will be a competitive primary for the Democratic nomination, so that’s one less competing story for the 24 hour news cycle, which provides more opportunities for free media. And in the unlikely event that Obama has a credible primary challenger, the Republican would be favored to win the General Election anyway.

    Plus, with viral videos and the like, it’s possible although not certain to get a lot of attention in a short amount of time. 2010 is full of establishment candidates who lost the primaries to relative newcomers, despite significant head starts. In a crowded field, 25% could be enough to win in Iowa and New Hampshire, and gain the necessary momentum to win the nomination.

    If potential candidates announced that they were running, it would also present targets for rival Republicans, the Obama 2012 campaign and the media. So there are benefits to limiting that amount of time opposition researchers have. Though as McCain’s 2008 primary showed, there can also be advantages to increasing the amount of time you have to recover from initial mistakes. And Obama’s campaign showed the value of those early months when it came to making the future President a more effective candidate.

    • Hi Thomas,

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Very interesting. I’ll send a longer note tomorrow, but I happened to be working for someone who was running for President in 1992…and then later backed out. I can tell you that Clinton only got in after a bunch of other people got out — so he waiting to formally announced, but I know for a fact that he was raising money and had staff on board, kind of running a shadow campaign as early as Fall 1989. I sat with him in a meeting in early 1990 and he was in — like a horse at the gate! But you are totally right that once you’re in, the campaign is engaged. I just think that a Republican, especially someone not well known, has a chance to own the field for a while if they get out. They can suck up the staff, field organizers, change the dynamic. If you’re Palin or Huckabee, you can wait until October, but if I were advising Huntsman or Pawlenty, I’d say go hard right now on the jobs message and don’t stop! More tomorrow, but thanks for the awesome comment. — Jeff K

      • Thomas Mets

        Cool. Looking forward to the longer note.

        Couldn’t you say that Romney, Pawlenty, Gingrich and Santorum have been running shadow campaigns for at least the last year?

        As an Ambassador, Huntsman has restrictions preventing him from actively campaigning until he is no longer serving in the position. So he’s stuck until April 30.

        From my understanding, actually running for President (rather than running in the so-called invisible primary) comes with some FEC constraints. And the increase in travel and staff can cost a lot of money for every day of your campaign, so there are benefits to having a shorter primary. Plus, I suspect Obama’s fundraising will kick in once the campaign is actually engaged, so a shorter primary provides a shorter General Election fundraising window for the incumbent.

        That said, it is kinda weird that you have more prominent Republicans announcing runs for Senate than for the White House. But isn’t it really only an issue for the party if the relative lateness of the entries will hurt the eventual nominee in the General Election?

  3. Tend to agree with Jeff on this one. It worries me that these guys have not announced – but mostly relative to the strength of the field – not the actual timetable. With a stronger – electable field, I think they can hold out longer. But I think lots of these guys are going to shake out quickly. I dread being left with a choice between Romney, Palin, and Huckabee – hello second term.

    I think the winner of the primary and potential challenger is going to have to create a new hybrid message, something that melds jobs and fiscal discipline. The electorate is going to be really tired of hearing about jobs and debt 18 months from now. Just imagine if we are here in Sep ’12 having made little progress economically and hearing the same thing over and over – We’re broke – Obama is a socialist, and Healthcare stinks.

    These may be all true things in the minds of conservative voters, but this is going to have to be re-packed into something to energize conservatives and retain the attention of the independents in the middle who will become more and more skeptical of government in the coming months.

    I still believe the possibility of an independent viable challenger is high.

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