What makes the ad work is that it’s an attack ad whose dominant theme is optimism. Rather than spending 2 minutes whacking away at Obama and Warren, it frames Brown as an American brand that transcends ideology, and frames Obama and Warren as small, bitter people who don’t understand America and have no vision. The ad begins with optimism and ends with optimism. It implies that Obama and Warren are aberrations in the American journey. It links their pessimism to the poor economy. And it does all this subtly without having to spell it out.
Attack ads are weakening. They diminish the candidate making them. The best attack ads don’t just diminish confidence in an opponent, but boost confidence in a candidate. The best attack ads are innately optimistic, they demonstrate fitness, rather than just unfitness. And that has to be the theme of a winning campaign.
To win, Romney is going to have to be that American brand. And it won’t be easy. It’s hard to argue with someone who has more airtime than you. The amount of money that Romney has raised is deceptive, because Obama will have a thousand times more free airtime from a government-media complex that does nothing but sing his praises.
Romney can run 30 percent more ads, but all the airtime in between will be unacknowledged ads for Obama. And not just on news networks or newscasts. Obama’s people don’t understand economics, but they do understand branding. Their goal once again will be to make Obama into the most familiar and recognized brand. They will embed him in every possible forum. When he isn’t making personal appearances, cast members will mention him. If they aren’t mentioning him, they’ll be picking up talking points bashing Romney and his V.P. or volunteering for his campaign. A few months from now, that is what half the entertainment news will be about.
The goal of all this activity is to present a manufactured consensus in favor of Obama. That consensus boosts confidence in buying Obama because it’s what everyone is buying.
Romney is not going to have a consensus on his side. Very few Republicans running for the big chair do. Only when their candidate is hopelessly weak and inept does the media shrug its shoulders and accept the inevitable. And only some of the time. But he’s also going to have to resist the temptation of going negative all the time.
People already lack confidence in Obama. Even most Obama voters are not particularly confident or optimistic. What they need is to have confidence in Romney. And that is doable. The narrative already exists. The template has already been used by two Republican Presidents to win two terms within recent memory, and against overwhelming media hostility. But it requires optimism.
Even when all the facts are set out before them, people still need to believe. Optimism can give people the confidence to leap the buying hurdle. Optimistic people are more likely to buy. People are more likely to vote for someone who makes them feel better, rather than someone who makes them feel worse. Obama understood that in 2008, and he’s still reasonably confident that this will work for him now. And it might.
Obama’s optimism is fake, but in bleak times, people will take the ersatz flavor if they can’t get the real thing. This election won’t come down to policy debates. It will come down to Obama’s failures and Romney’s ability to sell enough voters on his plan for success. Much of it will come down to trivial things. It will come down to feelings.
Romney is not an insurgent candidate. That is not the way that the voters decided to go. He is not there to shake things up. He will win or lose on the strength of his ability to make voters feel that he can make things better. And to do that he will have to find ways to avoid getting bogged down in the attacks and sell that simple message.
Deep down most people want a change. What they need is the reassurance that they are making the right decision. If they get it, Romney will be in office for the next four years. If they don’t, the next four years will be even worse.