Sharper Than We Think?

TPM Reader JR replies to my post on campaign messaging from earlier today …

I appreciated Josh’s blog post today on the handwringing in some circles about the Obama campaign’s messaging.

But I have an alternative that is more charitable to the campaign and frankly I would bet a more accurate take than what Josh offered.

Josh offered essentially that the campaign uses a lot of research data (polling, focus groups, etc.) to make educated guesses and shift the message as needed.

I think the campaign, and frankly all competent Presidential campaigns, are more sophisticated than that. The key is that a good campaign is built to win over “iffy” voters (i.e., nonpartisan/soft-partisan swing voters and sporadic/new base voters) in November, not to move polling numbers in May or June. Obama isn’t bouncing around searching for something that works, his campaign has made informed decisions about what works that they are sticking with in a succession of messaging over many months. The messaging in the spring and summer is about planting seeds in voters for later.

Recall for past example the Bush 2004 campaign. Remember Kerry’s infamous “I voted for it before I voted against it.” Bush and his allies hammered on that endlessly with their “flip-flop” meme, to the point of RNC convention delegates waving flip-flop footwear in the air on the floor, on national television. But all those months, did polling numbers move? NO, not in the trial heats, and not even in Kerry’s favorables. Rather, Bush was planting seeds of doubt about Kerry that wouldn’t profoundly sour people on him, but rather create just enough doubt to overcome their similar doubts about Bush. It’s hard to say that all this “flip-flop” messaging really worked, but by election day there was no lack of absorption in the electorate of Bush’s attacks on Kerry, and I think just enough of it worked to make a difference.

Similarly, Obama’s campaign now isn’t about driving back down Romney’s modestly improving favorables in any rapid fashion. Rather, as some reports of public (not private campaign) focus groups show, it’s about planting seeds of doubt about Romney, about whether he can be trusted to make their lives any better. The Bain attacks that started the TV wars, and now the attacks on Romney’s record as Governor, are all part of a master plan. It might not work……the old cliche about “best laid plans going awry” is tired for good reason, that it’s so monotonously true. But I don’t think the Obama campaign is just going by trial-and-error here. And, I don’t think any major party nominee for President does such a thing without eventually getting blown out.

And I think Romney is doing the same thing. He has ignored a lot of noise about his fundraising with Donald Trump (which really does speak to Mitt being of poor personal character, but that’s a different subject) and so many other things in favor of sticking with his own message and simple plan. As Obama is doing to Mitt, Mitt is trying to plant seeds of serious doubt about Obama, trying to make swing voters decide they’re just too scared of the future to trust Obama for 4 more years. Romney, like Obama, isn’t trying to move the needle in polling short-term, he’s playing a long game to move swing voters in battleground states away from the President over time, hopefully getting a “pop” post-convention.

Modern major party Presidential campaigns are sophisticated operations. A lot of commentators don’t realize , or simply forget, how sophisticated they really are. And unfortunately, that includes too many anonymous “Democratic operatives” quoted in news stories.