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What does Mitt Romney's new ad say about his strategy?

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(Read caption) Romney’s latest campaign ad, titled 'Silence'

How does Mitt Romney want persuadable voters to think about the upcoming presidential election? Yes, we know he’s emphasizing the economy, and putting voters back to work, and so forth. What we’re getting at here is the sort of emotional context the Romney camp hopes will prevail among the swing electorate in November.

As it happens, we think Mr. Romney’s latest campaign ad, titled “Silence,” is a pretty good guide to what might be his overall strategy here. So as the late great Washington sportscaster George Michael used to say, “Let’s go to the videotape!”

About these ads

The ad begins with "CBS Evening News" anchor Scott Pelley saying, “Tonight, new evidence the economic recovery is slowing." Then it moves swiftly, cutting between clips of reporters bemoaning the state of the job market and short bursts of President Obama giving a speech.

The Obama appearances are so brief as to be mere impressions. At one point you hear him say, “Ask if you’re better off than you were before..."

Then the montage accelerates, and the kind of rising music featured in horror movie trailers comes up. You hear only phrases – “We’re not seeing a ton of sunshine,” and so forth. Just as the tension peaks, we see not a slasher attack but Mr. Obama again, this time saying, “It’s not just how we’re doing today. It’s how we’ll be doing tomorrow."

Boom. Halfway through the ad, the music and the clips stop.

“Today, millions of Americans are suffering in silence,” comes on the screen in large white letters.

What follows is a succession of quotes, interposed over shots of people looking very worried, in dead silence.

“Job growth not nearly fast enough to recover from the Great Recession,” says one quote. “More than 340,000 workers dropped out of the labor force,” says another.

About these ads

The ad ends with this: “This is the Obama economy. It isn’t working.”

For those of you who don’t obsess over this sort of thing frame-by-frame, as if it were an “Avengers” outtake, we’ll make a couple of Politics 101 points.

Where's Mitt? Challengers generally want elections to be referendums on the incumbent. They themselves are simply the replacement, a relief pitcher out of sight in the bullpen, waiting to be called. That’s why there’s lots of Obama in this ad, but no pictures of a certain former Massachusetts governor. The only Romney reference comes at the end, when his last name appears in small type as having paid for the message.

How are you feeling right now? Romney might be better off if voters cast ballots based on their emotions of the moment. He likely would get more support from folks who are worried about their present circumstances – after all, the unemployment rate is at a daunting 8.1 percent. Millions of Americans who still have jobs go to bed at night worried about losing them. That’s why this ad ratchets up the anxiety level – or reminds voters of how high their anxiety level already is.

In contrast, Obama wants voters to think about a longer time frame. His message could be summed up as something along the lines of, “Remember how bad it was back when I took this job? I inherited a mess, and it’s getting better. Let’s not change horses in the middle of the race.”

Generally speaking, it’s the employment trend line, not the absolute unemployment rate, that matters most in presidential elections. It remains to be seen whether the current “meh” job growth numbers will generate enough optimism among voters to convince them to give the incumbent another chance.