Let’s skip over the issues for a moment and get back to the basics. Elections are transactions in which we buy the services of a candidate for four years. Like any other business deal, closing comes down to salesmanship.
There are two basic elements when buying a product or service.
1. Practical. “I need this product.”
2. Emotional. “This product makes me feel good.”
Smart shoppers will make a practical decision, but not everyone is a smart shopper. And even smart shoppers employ emotional elements. Many people will buy a product because of their associations with this brand, even if the brand only exists as a logo stamped on products by workers in Shanghai. Most people want to feel good about the product that they’re buying, they want to feel comfortable with their purchase.
This is where the media plays its most insidious role, providing reassurance to Obama buyers that they are doing the right thing and damping their unease, while doing just the opposite for Romney buyers. The media can’t compel someone to vote one way or another, but it can encourage bad decisions and discourage good decisions by providing false levels of confidence through their reporting.
Romney has the same problem as a company with a good product, but bad media coverage. The way to counter that is on two fronts, by providing practical consumers with the specifications to help them make informed decisions, and providing emotional consumers with the reassurance that they can count on him.
Practical buyers have built-in confidence about their buying decisions because they carefully research a product and match it to their needs. Emotional buyers, however, lack confidence and shop as a means of boosting their own confidence. Products have to project confidence for them to buy them. They don’t buy products that lack a confident image, because they don’t make decisions that make them feel more insecure than they already are.
In an insecure time, people buy the most confident brand. A brand that exudes confidence and which is recommended by others. Obama projected a false confidence, that some mistook for charisma, and used a media consensus to bring in these voters in the last election. Most of those voters are still worried and nervous, but they haven’t made the change because they don’t feel enough confidence in the alternative.
Attack ads can partly sway them by diminishing their confidence level in the existing product, but they have less effect than positive ads that make them feel good about the other product. An attack ad is just as likely to make them sit out the election as it is to make them vote the right way.
The secrets of the 3 two-term Republican presidents of the 20th Century is that they projected that confident sense that they knew what they were doing. Bush and Reagan both had it. Eisenhower had it to a lesser degree. Teddy Roosevelt had it in spades and nearly won a second term as a third-party candidate. Two-term Democrats like FDR and Clinton had the same skill. Regardless of their abilities and the consequences of their actions, they projected a confidence that swayed voters.
No matter how badly Obama performs, a sizable number of emotional voters are not going to drop him because he still makes them feel better about the future. Those voters may well be the difference between victory and defeat.
To win, Obama has to project confidence while his media apparatus sows doubt. The combination is lethal and toxic. It may not be as effective as it was four years ago, but it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be effective enough.
Romney won by running a mechanical campaign that was heavy on attack ads. He ended up crossing the finish line on the sole positive of being the “most electable candidate”. But voters in a general election are not going to elect him because he is electable, that’s an internal strategic calculation. If they elect him, it will be because he makes them feel more confident about the future. And that’s a tall order.
To win, Romney is not just going to have to attack Obama, he is going to have to make emotional voters feel good about going with him. It is possible to do both at the same time. Reagan did it well. Scott Brown just ran a commercial that does it pretty well too.