The human brain is a marvelous thing. Each one is unique. Some work better than others, but many of them see things the same way. It's evolutionary. We're programmed to look for patterns, and if a pattern is identified we all tend to see it. But sometimes what is obvious isn't real. And sometimes we need to stop and think about what pattern we should be looking for.
Expectations vs. performance
There is an accepted pattern for Presidential campaigns. Use speeches and TV appearances to attack and counter-attack. Send out mailings. Make phone calls. Knock on doors. For incumbents, the opportunities are almost endless. For their opponents, not so much, but we expect them to reply forcefully against whatever the incumbent says. This wasn't happening for Mitt Romney in June, and mutterings abounded that he was wasting the summer. In July and August the Olympics were held in London. Romney dipped his toe in the water and was almost devoured by sharks. His innocuous but accurate comment in answer to a question about Olympic security in London was spun by the British press into an insult against the British, and amplified by our own So-Called Unbiased Media. Lesson learned, Romney went back to a lower profile for a while. And still, we who are experts on the ordinary insisted he was wasting time because he wasn't doing what WE would do.
When September 11 rolled around, with it came an attack on our Egyptian embassy and our "consulate" in Benghazi, Libya. After the Egyptian attack but before the killings in Libya, Governor Romney issued a statement (originally intended to be held until midnight but released earlier), regarding the Egyptian embassy's "tweets" during the attack. He was himself immediately attacked by the American So-Called-Unbiased-Media for having the temerity to have an opinion about statements published by an embassy. It mattered not a bit that the White House issued a similar statement later the next day, saying essentially the same thing. As they did so, they criticized Romney for "shooting before aiming" (an odd metaphor--his aim seemed clear). But this time, his words were reported more fully, and they stayed in the news long enough to be judged on their own merits.
Debate forecasts and reality
It's now October and we've had two debates. The first was forecast to be one of high importance to Romney. Make or break, if he could just hold his own against the great orator he'd have a moral victory and he'd still be in the race. But to do so, he'd have to be hard-hitting, ruthlessly tearing into President Obama's failures and exploiting them for all to see. He'd also have to provide details of all of his proposals from taxes to health care, and don't forget that RomneyCare would embarrass him. Anything less and Obama would win simply by virtue of being the incumbent. Obama was sure to hit him with the dreaded phrase, "47%," and Romney was reported to be memorizing "zingers" with which to come back when stung by Obama.
As it turned out, the pattern we expected to see didn't happen. Romney was soft-spoken, matter-of-fact, and direct. He explained his own plans and refuted Obama's attempts to misrepresent those plans as something else. Romney appeared to be as likable as Obama, or more so. Obama's vaunted oratory was replaced with a series of misstatements and missteps. He couldn't explain his own ObamaCare program, although he liked the name. "47%" never came up, and many of us wished that Romney would have taken some of the many opportunities to attack Obama on his record. For instance, we would have liked a mention of the missing budgets for 2011, 2012, and 2013. Still, viewers decided that Romney was the victor by a huge margin, for this sort of thing, and polls the following week confirmed that sentiment had swung towards Romney.
Enter the VP debate and Joe Biden vs. Paul Ryan. It was introduced on Fox News with Bret Baier saying Biden's strategy would be to "drive a wedge in between Paul Ryan and Governor Romney... to set up his boss before the next debate." Megyn Kelly stressed their almost-30-year age difference without telling us why that would be important. As it turned out neither was important, and that strategic plan, as near as could be determined between sniffs, wasn't followed. Earlier speculation was that the meeting would be confrontational, with wonky statistics being used by each to bash the other. Biden would be sneaky and tricky, and Ryan would come right back at him, giving him references to class and race warfare in return for references to "47%."
In fact, wonkiness was held to a minimum by both men, at least to the extent possible given the questions. Ryan seemed to be debating two opponents at times throughout the evening, with both moderator Martha Raddatz and VP Biden frequently interrupting an answer to dispute it, or to ask followup questions, or unrelated questions on another topic. Biden DID attack often, but Ryan's usual response was to ignore the tone and answer the substance. Biden WAS obnoxious, but Ryan responded with detached amusement or not at all, and never with hostility or petulance. Only once did he allow himself to suggest that the people would be better served if they "both" didn't interrupt each other, although it was clear the only interruptions came from Biden and moderator Raddatz. And for the second week the nice guy finished in first place. Not by the huge margin of the prior debate, but far enough in front for Wolf Blitzer of CNN to call it a tie.
So what the (bleep) is Romney doing?
The pattern we saw for weeks didn't match the one we expected and we interpreted it as mistakes on Romney's part. Throw away that pattern and we saw what a man who is mostly a non-politician can do when he has the skill set of Mitt Romney. I may be thinking wishfully, but my thought is that Romney has been planning his moves from the early summer to maximize the utility of his campaign funds and to expose Obama without sounding strident himself.
While we were hoping to see a little of Thor's hammer used on Obama, Romney was instead setting the President up to look like Larry, Curley, or Moe in a way that his shortcomings would be apparent to independents. By maintaining that low profile, Romney let Obama get the headlines with his mismanagement of the economy, energy, the border, et al. Since the So-Called-Unbiased-Media didn't care to cover Romney's speeches, they were left to cover Obama's actions and inactions, which hurt the President more than anything Romney could have said. Not what we wanted, but maybe more effective.
Why the change?
If ever a political party needed a turnaround, it was the Republican Party after Bush. The ball got rolling with the Tea Party, a grass roots movement that was inspired by Obama's incompetent handling of the TARP and stimulus monies after they had been granted to him to "save the country." It was completely independent of the Republican Party; in fact, it took way too long for Republican officials to realize they had been granted a chance at redemption, a chance to atone for too many years of "compassionate conservatism" and nominations of incompetent candidates like Bob Dole and John McCain.
We have now nominated a man who is a specialist in turnarounds. It's his profession, and he's extremely good at it. We expect him to be able to save the economy and save the country. Isn't it just possible that he can run a successful campaign for President that doesn't fit the old pattern, and save the party while he's at it?
It makes sense to let him set the economy and the country aright again, but he knew that he couldn't campaign on that theme. He recognized that it was in "personal likability" that Obama could beat him if he ran a traditional campaign. So he first started his turnaround on the Party by abandoning the old pattern and nominating a young, smart Congressman who could help him with both likability and with issues and content. He picked a man who might have upstaged him, but that didn't matter. He was improving Party image and Ticket credibility. Then he continued to campaign without confrontation but by gradually becoming more critical as he pointed out his differences with Barack Obama's failures.
Media look for old pattern
When it became debate time, the objectives were set by the media--for both, energize the base, and for Romney, show yourself capable. The assumption was that he would do so by attacking Obama directly on his record. Obama would use his oratorical skills to overwhelm the contender, generating a groundswell of Democrat base support.
But Romney recognized a couple of things that seem to have escaped the media and us as well. First, the best way for him to energize the base would ultimately be not by attacking the President, it would be by winning the debate. Second, the best way to win the debate would be to win over independents, and that would also not result from attacks on the President. So while Obama was playing to his base, Romney was addressing his remarks and demeanor toward independents, who were after all the voters he needed to win over. If he got them, any waverers in his base would come with them. He calculated that they'd be more impressed by logic and ideas than by bluster and gotcha.
The Vice Presidential debate continued the theme, except Joe Biden went off the chart with "confidence" that came through as rude, arrogant, and obnoxious. The Romney-Ryan ticket couldn't have been better served if they had scripted it themselves.
Understanding your audience is important to any public speaker. The Obama campaign decided its target audience was the Democrat base. That's the way they conducted themselves. OTOH, the Romney campaign targeted the independents and undecideds, and they did it two ways. First, they treated the debates as if they were opportunities for serious discussions rather than circus sideshows set up for flexing muscles. Second, they behaved as mature adults should behave in polite company.
Perhaps they also recognized that their target audience was comprised of people who might not be particularly knowledgeable about the details of the issues they talked about, or even about the existence of those issues, so they tried to provide some context for their arguments rather than simply spout sound bites, while they also introduced themselves for the first time to people who didn't know them.
The Democrats changed targets on the day after the Presidential debate. We have wondered why the Obama camp appeared the next day with myriad examples of how Romney "lied" during the debate, even though the President didn't seem to notice in real time, and the "lies" were rather questionable. We wondered how these claims could be effective, since they seemed be either inaccurate or based on imaginary statements or proposals. The answer, I believe, is smart politics on the Democrats' part: those questionable statements were aimed directly at undecided voters who didn't watch the debate and were therefore wide open to persuasion. Convince them that Romney lied, cheated, and/or stole and they would not bother to check further. It's a tactic that can work, and it's aimed at precisely the right demographic--undecided, uninformed voters.
Fortunately for Romney/Ryan, the original target was re-acquired by the Democrats just in time for the Vice Presidential debate. Biden played to his base, while Ryan played to civility. For a President who has lectured us all so many times on the need for "civility," he abandoned his interest in it for the first two debates. To some extent, both campaigns hit their targets; the question remains, which target was most productive?
Will the next debate be different?
Will tactics change for the Tuesday, October 16, debate? My guess is that they won't change much. Perhaps President Obama will choose to highlight some of his policy measures he considers to be successes, and tell us why he thinks so. If he does, Governor Romney may be more specific in his rebuttals. If Obama becomes more "aggressive," Romney may be a bit sharper in his replies. Overall, I believe Obama MUST do whatever he can to maintain his "likability" lead if he still has one. Behavior like VP Biden exhibited will be a big mistake, even if the devoted left-wing would love to see it. Acquiescence bordering on somnolence won't do either. His best bet may be to continue to misrepresent Romney's positions and fight on those grounds rather than to try to defend his own record, just as he did before. And Romney may simply try to remain calm, cool, and collected, with ready answers and honest criticism for everything but put-downs for nobody. That gave him a huge bump before and there is little reason to think it won't do so again.
In the end, what is said will be forgotten unless it is catastrophically wrong. How it is said, though, is what makes the impression, and it's what drove poll numbers following the debates in the Republicans' direction.
Cross-posted at Terriers of the Right.