COUNCILLOR COLUMN: Those who tuned in to yesterday’s first US Presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama may be forgiven for thinking they were wasting their time. The airwaves everywhere from Australia to Austin were full of the cognoscenti informing us that campaigns cancel each other out, and debates never change anything at all. Leaving aside the obvious objections that students of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter would raise to the last point, I have been asked to offer a Campaign Manager’s perspective on what was really going on in Denver this week.
Unelected, unseen and unaccountable to everybody but the political masters we serve, campaign strategists are the unseen ‘voice in the ear’ of the men who would be King. Governor Romney and President Obama’s teams had noticeably different strategies heading to Colorado.
In spite of some very tight headline numbers, Barack Obama began this week with commanding – sometimes double-digit – leads in swing states as varied as Colorado, New Hampshire, Michigan and Ohio. If he were to carry these, the perennial ‘swingers’ of Florida and Virginia would become an irrelevance. So it was no coincidence that the President’s opening remarks focused explicitly on the bail-out of the automotive industry; a policy inherited from George W. Bush but which he has had no hesitation in exploiting in the ‘rust belt’ states of Michigan and Ohio. Similarly, beginning with a syrupy tribute to his wife Michelle Obama – hugely popular among minority and female voters, two groups with whom Mitt Romney struggles – was emphatically not a coincidence. The President was following a plan.
One of the first professional spin doctors Niccolo Machiavelli once wrote in a memo to Lorenzo de Medici that ‘what you appear to be is much more important than what you are’. This was advice that Governor Romney’s team seem to have inculcated well. Speaking in the ‘Spin Room’ in Denver, Karl Rove outlined the image that Romney needed to create:
* To be focused on his vision for the future, rather than dwelling on the policies of the past.
* To stay on the offensive in attacking the Obama administration’s record, rather than defending his own.
* A visual image of strength and warmth.
* A bi-partisan statesman, rather than a creature of his party.
Romney achieved all this in spades, comfortably besting the President in the debate and showing a humorous and human side that his campaign has failed to encapsulate. While gently chiding the President as “being entitled to his own plane… but not his own facts”, the former Governor of heavily Democratic Massachusetts invoked his own record of reaching across the aisle, while successfully turning the election into a referendum on the Obama presidency. Which is the number one aim of the Romney campaign. As top Democratic strategist – and friend of the AIIA – Joe Trippi described, “it was the type of fiery, confident performance that will give many voters pause when considering why this guy is down in so many polls.”
Was it enough to transform the race in his favour? On its own – no. Obama still has cards to play, not least calling Romney on his jaw-dropping insistence on blaming the 2008-09 recession on the President’s own policies. The Democrat’s best hope may be the comparatively tiny number – only 6% – of genuinely undecided voters in those vital swing states. His field operation – the Obama campaign’s offices and officials – still vastly outguns that of his Republican rival. Nevertheless the galvanising effect of Mitt Romney’s performance this week and the heated reaction it has generated from the President and his strategists, demonstrates that with 30 days still to go, this race is far from over.
Nicholas Wright is a Councillor at the AIIA NSW.