Obama’s PR Strategy: Will the 2012 Election Prove That Negative Branding Works?
By David E. Johnson, CEO, Strategic Vision
In elections with incumbent Presidents, the incumbent’s message is usually their record and what they want to do in the next four years. We saw this in 1956 with Dwight Eisenhower who ran on the message of peace and prosperity. In 1984, Ronald Reagan ran on the theme of morning again in America. In 1996, Bill Clinton ran on the bridge to the future. George W. Bush won in 2004 with the message of choice.
When incumbents are facing dire circumstances, their public relations message is to attack the challenger and say how worse things will be if they are elected. We saw this in 1980 when Jimmy Carter said the election of Ronald Reagan would divide America between races and religion. Even in 1992, George H.W. Bush and his campaign ran with the message that Bill Clinton was not trustworthy and a risky choice.
This year we are seeing the same messaging by the Obama Campaign. Why do this when it has failed in the past? Can it somehow succeed?
The Obama Campaign was never going to run for re-election on hope and change. Here’s why:
- First you can only elect the first African-American President once. That could never be replicated and was part of the hope and change message.
- Secondly, the economy is too sour to run on an optimistic note. Americans are more pessimistic about the future than any time since the late 1970s. Not all of this is Barack Obama’s fault. No President could have ever met the expectations that Americans had when he was sworn in. But with economists predicting that the economy will not greatly improve by 2016, it is hard to make promises of a better economic future. Finally, the country is too polarized at this point in large part because of the economy for a positive message. This means that all that is left is to paint Mitt Romney as unacceptable and destroy him personally.
In 1980 Jimmy Carter faced a similar situation and sought to destroy Ronald Reagan and make him unacceptable to American voters as being too extreme. It had worked in 1964 for Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater. Yet there were differences as well. In 1964, Goldwater’s fellow Republicans had destroyed his image in the primaries and Johnson just continued their work. Also, Goldwater never took time to introduce himself to the American people. Reagan was not damaged good coming out of the Republican primaries and sought repeatedly to define himself as reasonable and mainstream.
Reagan succeeded and was elected. In 1992, scandal after scandal came out against Bill Clinton and the Bush campaign thought he was would be easy to define and defeat. et just as in 1980, Clinton defined himself with his persona of a new kind of Democrat and made the election on the Bush economy and won.
Why then does Obama and his team think their attack message will work?
Because like Goldwater in 1964, Romney has not defined himself to the American people. He is largely unknown and has made no attempt to humanize himself as Reagan and Clinton did. Romney’s message has been one of stressing his business expertise.
So can Obama succeed with his message?
Possibly. Why could he succeed where Carter and Bush failed? Quite simply, he could succeed because he learned from their mistakes and you define your enemy early and often and stay on message even if attacked by the media. While the verdict is still out, the lesson is clear this election year for public relations professionals – message and defining your message counts. If Obama succeeds, brand experts and others will realize that negative attacks work and we will see more of that in not only our politics but also in our corporate public relations.
David E. Johnson is the CEO of Strategic Vision LLC, an Atlanta-based public relations agency. Additional information on him and his agency may be obtained at www.strategicvision.biz