Sandy Seizes Control From The Campaigns

Obama and Romney can't control this narrative. A better chance to see what the candidates are really like.

For millions of Americans, Hurricane Sandy is once-in-a-lifetime occurrence and potential disaster that’s forced many to put their lives on hold, and some to even leave their homes.

For two presidential campaign's entering their final week, it's a rare moment where they’re no longer in control of the news “narrative” driving the race’s coverage, and must instead be forced to cope with unpredictability.

For them, this means that the next few days will revolve around developments – like crisis management, how to address the nation, and the real suffering of many Americans — that they do not plan, initiate, or foresee. Compare that to a typical day on the campaign trail, where the national conversation and media coverage are instead based largely on pre-planned press conferences, news releases, interviews, and attacks — all storylines created by the campaigns.

What it also means is that these next few days will provide voters unscripted moments and, perhaps, coverage of the candidates more revealing than the typical stagecraft.

All of which points to a critical question: In our current process, why do campaigns have so much control over what is, and is not, discussed and covered?

To understand just how pervasive this phenomenon has become, it may be helpful to look inside how campaigns think and operate.

During this time of year several years ago, I was working a race for a first-time political candidate, who was holding onto a tiny lead in a big-market race. Sensing we’d eke out a small win if nothing changed and we could permanently freeze the race in time, a key strategic decision was made for how to close out the final stretch: The candidate, like an offender under house arrest, would not leave home for the last five days of the campaign. Literally.

The obvious strategic downside: the opponent might figure it out and bash us. But this, we deemed, was trumped by the political upside: there would be few extemporaneous comments or twists of fate, other than carefully-scripted, written statements issued by us. As long as the candidate wasn’t saying much, we knew there were unlikely to be major stories about them during this time.

The candidate, who hated the idea and wanted to fire everyone involved, ultimately won the race by a hair (and has since gone on to achieve bigger things in politics).

The moral of the story: If the purported goal of the electoral process is for voters to receive sufficient information to assess how the candidates would govern, the goal of the campaigns' staffs is different: win, by dictating not only what gets discussed, but what doesn't.

In another race not long ago, a candidate I was working for had staked out positions and made comments unlikely to be viewed favorably by most of the electorate. But they had two aces in the hole. Their opponent was anti-abortion in a pro-choice state. And the opponent had opposed Wall Street regulation at a time when many had lost their homes and savings due to financial misconduct.

As a result, the campaign brain trust made a rule: Everyday by 8:00 am, the team had to have a “hit” — i.e., a statement, press release, news story, tip, or some other sort of impetus forcing reporters to cover a given topic — for abortion and one for Wall Street ready to go that day.

The goal was simple: to ensure that the primary topics covered by an overworked and exhausted press corps unable to walk and chew gum at the same time, would be the two our opponent couldn’t handle. It worked: most days of the campaign we were discussing these two issues at the exclusion of much else – a thorough exploration of my candidate’s background, vulnerabilities, controversial positions did not occur – and we cruised to victory.

One inescapable fact of campaign life is that much of the coverage about a campaign and its candidates is produced by overworked reporters who follow the candidates from town to town to watch what they say (over and over) to voters around the country. This has value, of course; it’s important for voters not in these towns to hear the campaigns’ messages.

The problem for voters, and the challenge for those covering the races, is that campaigns know that their stumping and other actions are where much of the coverage emanates. So they pre-package and plan exactly what they want voters to hear, whether positive messages about themselves or negative ones about the other side. But, there are limits to what can be revealed without a comparable focus to coverage emanating away from the campaign trail.

It's hard to spend large amounts of time on how exactly Mitt Romney governed in Massachusetts — his most recent and relevant resume item — unless there are reporters who spend all their time in Massachusetts, full time, learning as much as possible about it. And it's difficult to detail the scope of problems ignored by both candidates — like poverty and the environment — when the campaigns are dictating so much of the conversation.

Now, it's logical to assume that if both campaigns are planning positive messages and attacks, that it ultimately cancels out, and both sides end up getting real scrutiny. This may be so, but the kinds of issues that get aired out in such a climate tend to be the more superficial, flashy ones (“I like to fire people” or “bumps in the road”) rather than incisive, more nuanced ones, like, How do the candidates respond to crises? manage large staff? negotiate? work with a legislature? Those might provide voters with a greater sense of how the candidates might govern if elected.

After all, if you’re a campaign and you know that one “hit” on your opponent will be embarrassing and more conducive to a 20-second package on the TV news (and 140 characters on Twitter) than something else far more nuanced, you choose to emphasize the former -- even if the latter actually says more about the governing ability of the other side.

To be sure, there is plenty of excellent reporting being done both on and off the campaign trail that provides voters with vital information to make informed choices.

But for all the real-life serious implications Hurricane Sandy will inflict on Americans, there’s a different kind of roiling challenge for coddled, controlling campaigns: the temporary suspension of the normal campaign “rules” whereby candidates' aides schedule out much of the conversation directed at voters.

This ought to remind us not to be so surprised that many voters know so little about the candidates, their backgrounds, and how they’d actually approach the office.

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