Veterans of John McCain’s presidential campaign of 2008 lamented a maddening process that only worsened as that election season progressed. A liberal blog would make a stunning allegation about McCain or, later, Sarah Palin that was not easily verified or disproved. Within an hour or two, a major newspaper reporter or television news producer would call the campaign and demand a comment or denial; the clock was ticking to avoid the dreaded “the McCain campaign had no comment,” which suggested evasiveness or a de facto confirmation of the often bogus or wildly exaggerated claim.
Patrick Hynes, who was an online-communications consultant for McCain, recalls Sam Stein of the Huffington Post calling about a rumor that McCain had been involved in a car accident that killed someone shortly after returning from Vietnam, and that military authorities had somehow covered up the entire incident.
“Within a very short period of time, the Associated Press called, and we had to take the time to debunk it,” Hynes recalled. “It was a smart tactical move on the part of the Obama people, because the time we spent debunking that we could have done much more fruitful work in terms of a communications strategy. That was the one that blew me away — that something trickling up from the lefty blogs could make its way to the Huffington Post and the Associated Press in an afternoon, something just absurd on its face.” (Stein ultimately wrote about reporters from Rolling Stone and the National Security News Service fighting with the U.S. Navy over records that could illuminate details of the purported 1974 car crash.)
The other side of the coin was that John McCain didn’t want to win the race by using any tactics he deemed “dirty campaigning.” John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s account of the 2008 race, Game Change, details how McCain was emphatic that Obama’s mentor, Jeremiah Wright, was off-limits, at the precise moment that the Obama camp was testing its own vulnerabilities in focus groups: “Dozens of Obama-funded faux negative ads against Obama were produced and tested: about Wright, [Bill] Ayers, Muslimism, the flag pin — the works. And some were devastatingly effective.”
The bad news for Obama four years later is that the first weeks of the general-election campaign have demonstrated that Mitt Romney and his top staff are not going to play by the same rules as the McCain campaign.
On April 11, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen appeared on Anderson Cooper’s CNN program and scoffed at Ann Romney’s value to her husband in helping assess the economic challenges of women voters by declaring that “she never worked a day in her life.”
Some campaigns might have questioned how much they could do with an off-key insulting comment from a talking head. But the Romney camp made sure a YouTube video of the comment was distributed to hundreds of blogs, and less than two hours after Rosen’s comment, Ann Romney set up a Twitter account. Her first message was, “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.” Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, and campaign manager Jim Messina were quick to assert that they disagreed with Rosen’s comment, and the next day, Michelle Obama, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and the president himself followed suit.
Rosen’s extensive ties to the White House (35 visits, more than some cabinet members have made!) became the issue the following day, and on the third day Ann Romney joined her husband on stage at the NRA convention to roaring applause and saluted stay-at-home moms — and stay-at-home dads as well. Rosen’s stray comment kept the Obama campaign on the defensive for three days, with reporters insisting that Obama’s people confirm that they think stay-at-home moms should be credited as hard workers, too.
The following week brought an even more vivid example of the Romney campaign’s opportunism. The tale of Mitt Romney putting the carrier containing the family dog, Seamus, on the roof of his car is one of Democrats’ favorite knocks on the all-but-certain GOP nominee. The idea is that Romney is a terrible monster to man and beast alike.
On April 17, Jim Treacher, a mostly comedic columnist and blogger for the Daily Caller website, asked if Democrats really wanted to talk about what each candidate had done to a dog decades ago, pointing out that Obama’s autobiography tells about how as a child in Indonesia he “was introduced to dog meat (tough).”
Within a few hours, Twitter was full of jokes about “Obama dog recipes.” At 10:11 p.m. Eastern time that evening, Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom tweaked David Axelrod about a photo of Obama and Bo riding in the presidential limousine, which Axelrod had put on Twitter back in January with the comment, “How loving owners transport their dogs.” Fehrnstrom linked to Axelrod’s tweet and wrote, “In hindsight, a chilling photo.”
The message was subtle. There was no direct mention of the president eating a dog; Fehrnstrom said just enough to get people who were unaware of the emerging story line to wonder why a picture of Obama with his dog now seemed chilling. The Obama campaign could have laughed it off or ignored it, but instead they went with indignant outrage. Campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt tweeted back, “What’s the next attack [Fehrnstrom] and the RNC will surface on a 6-10 year old?”
With representatives of the two campaigns publicly sparring over this, it became legitimate for a major newsman like ABC’s chief White House correspondent, Jake Tapper, to offer a quick summary, headlined “Obama as a Boy Ate Dog Meat.” Probably not the headline Axelrod had been hoping for that day.
Many conservative bloggers and reporters believe that mainstream publications and networks ignore stories that make the president or his allies look bad. One of the few surefire ways to force the media to cover a story they would prefer to ignore is to have the Republican presidential candidate talk about it. In 2008, McCain’s refusal to do so was particularly hobbling, but the Romney campaign is, so far at least, proving more willing to highlight those controversial topics or ones best handled with a bit of laughter — and utilizing the later hours of the campaign news cycle to do it.
“Twitter has really quickened the news cycle,” says Ryan Williams, who worked for Romney in 2008 and is a spokesman for the current campaign. “You have to respond faster, and if you don’t respond faster, you’re going to lose. The Rosen thing broke at 9 o’clock at night on a Wednesday. This is a time when in previous cycles, you couldn’t move a story. It was after the evening news, after most of the papers had gone to print or were about to go to print, and you couldn’t get anything out there. Now with Twitter and everything, it’s completely different.”
The Romney campaign is approaching the coming weeks with a strategy of “bracketing” — doing events before and after key Obama campaign stops, making Obama’s message for that event implausible, refuted, and silly by the time he delivers his remarks. Before an Obama stop, Romney will do interviews with local radio stations. Last week Romney went to Charlotte, N.C., to give a “pre-buttal” to Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in September. Romney was supposed to speak on a rooftop with a view of the convention site, the Bank of America football stadium; bad weather forced his team indoors, and Romney spoke with a the city skyline behind him.
Romney’s campaign bus has rolled around Ohio, stopping outside Obama and Biden events and bringing supporters to protest. In Lorian, Ohio, last week, Romney went to a closed factory that Obama had visited during the 2008 campaign. It’s still closed. “Had the president’s economic plans worked, it would have been open by now,” Romney said at the event. “But it is still empty. And it underscores the failure of this president’s policies with regards to getting the economy going again.” It was an echo of a similar speech by Romney at Allentown Metal Works, which shut its doors after an Obama visit in 2009. (With Solyndra, Ener1, Beacon Power, and Amonix, expect to see a lot of shuttered-factory visits in the months ahead.)
One of Romney’s communication strategists says that while he’s not counting chickens before they’ve hatched, he’s pleasantly surprised by how flatfooted the Obama camp has proven on these breaking stories. “They have 700 people in Chicago — 50 percent of their staff is social media,” the strategist says. “I’m afraid to be happy about it, because they can’t be this weak. . . . I wonder if some of this comes from the attitude: ‘How dare anyone question our commitment to women’s issues? We own women’s issues; no one can ever outmaneuver us on this.’ That kind of attitude invites you to get embarrassed.”
A trio of reporters from BuzzFeed toured Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters in early April and concluded, “To say that the campaign doesn’t fear Romney is an understatement — he’s viewed as almost a joke.”
Perhaps as the campaign progresses, the electorate will see Romney as a joke as well. But for now, a lot of people are laughing at jokes about the grumpy mood of President Obama’s dog, Bo — and what possibly could be eating him.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.