Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Cleaning a real PR mess

On October 13th, 2012, a reporter for the Washington Post’s Election 2012 Blog reported that Paul Ryan, accompanied by his wife and children, visited a soup kitchen in Youngstown, Ohio after patrons had already left and the volunteers “appeared to have already cleaned up” (Sonmez). He proceeded to take “some large metal pans that did not appear to be dirty, soaped them up and rinsed them, remarking as the cameras clicked and the TV cameras rolled that he had spent a summer washing dishes when he was younger.” This has become a minor controversy now as organizations like CBS have learned that the Romney campaign never asked the head of the charity if Ryan could visit. According to Brian Antal, the president of the Mahoning County St. Vincent De Paul Society, the apolitical nature of his organization does not authorize political candidates to stage photo ops there (Montopoli). This, combined with Romney’s other PR mistakes relating to struggling Americans, brings into question the campaign’s commitment to those less fortunate than him.

Throughout the campaign, Obama and Romney have been speaking frequently about the middle class, and both candidates have been trying to appeal to them by speaking about jobs and improving the state of the economy. Though both candidates are trying to look relatable, Romney in particular has had setbacks in this regard. In particular, his personal wealth (and how he acquired it) as well as his PR missteps have made it difficult for him to overcome this perception that he is out of touch with the common person.

Personal wealth has not always been a barrier to presidential candidates in recent history. In particular, John Kerry, who is worth $198 million (due in part to his wife’s share of the Heinz family fortune) (Bogardus, Wilson), was not attacked for his wealth but rather for his honesty when it came to his military service, attacks widely seen as a smear campaign (Hosenball). The problem likely arises from how Romney acquired his wealth. Though Romney gained a private education and an upper-class upbringing through his father’s wealth, he made a lot of it by running Bain Capital, a private equity firm that was involved early on in the business of outsourcing American jobs (Hamburger). He has to explain and defend that record to middle class families who are struggling because of economic challenges, and that record detracts from the narrative he wants to present. In that same article, the Romney campaign refused to comment on the specifics of Bain’s involvement with outsourcing, saying only that “Bain Capital’s business model has always been to build great companies and improve their operations. We have helped the 350 companies in which we have invested, which include over 100 start-up businesses, produce $80 billion of revenue growth in the United States while growing their revenues well over twice as fast as both the S&P and the U.S. economy over the last 28 years.” (Hamburger)

In addition to his personal wealth, his inability to connect with average voters has been a problem, most notably in September when a leaked video published by Mother Jones showed Romney’s comments behind closed doors at a fundraiser. The now-infamous “47% comment” that came from this video is just one gaffe in a string of many, from the $10,000 bet he offered to Rick Perry during a Republican primary debate (DeLong) to his wife’s “couple of Cadillacs” (Trumbull). This most recent PR misstep with Ryan in the soup kitchen shows that the campaign is trying to connect with voters, but do not understand that their actions could be seen as condescending or patronizing. Photo ops are, like every aspect of a presidential candidacy, meticulously planned, but while planning minimizes risk, the strategic gains made by Obama or Romney serving patrons at a soup kitchen could be offset by those who believe that they are not doing this out of the goodness of their heart, but rather in a calculated attempt to gain votes.

For better or for worse, presidential campaigns are as much about style as they are about substance. Campaigns realize this, and during the election season, hundreds of restaurants, bars, factories, and power plants are visited in an effort to meet average voters and give off the perception that the candidate is not afraid to get his hands dirty and fraternize with the commoners. During the election, the Obama camp has been emphasizing comments Romney has made in the past (including an entire campaign video on YouTube titled “Out Of Touch”) in an effort to make him unpalatable to those who are still undecided. Both Romney and Ryan have tried to come off as relatable, but given these recent PR missteps, the GOP ticket has a distinct disadvantage. Without this key attribute, the Republican ticket will have to rely on policies alone. Those, too, will be influenced by the perception that the Republican ticket is out of touch, as the opposite side can easily criticize his ideas as policies coming from someone who does not understand the plight of those all-important middle class voters. Having one hand tied behind your back like this is no way to win an election.

Works Cited

Bogardus, Kevin, and Megan R. Wilson. "The Hill’s 50 Wealthiest Lawmakers." The Hill. Capitol Hill Publishing Corp, 21 Aug. 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <>.
DeLong, Matt. "Mitt Romney Challenges Rick Perry to $10,000 Bet in GOP Debate." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 11 Dec. 2011. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <>.
Hamburger, Tom. "Romney’s Bain Capital Invested in Companies That Moved Jobs Overseas." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 10 July 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <>.
Hosenball, Mark. "Obama Campaign Accuses Republicans of Smear Tactics over Bin Laden, Leaks." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 15 Mar. 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <>.
"Mitt Romney: Out of Touch." YouTube. YouTube, 13 June 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <>.
Montopoli, Brian. "Charity President: Paul Ryan "did Nothing" at Soup Kitchen Photo-op." CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <>.
Sonmez, Felicia. "Charity President Unhappy about Paul Ryan Soup Kitchen ‘photo Op’." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <>.
Sonmez, Felicia. "Reporters Barred from Covering Paul Ryan Exchange with Homeless Ohioans." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 13 Oct. 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <>.
Trumbull, Mark. "Another Mitt Romney Clunker? 'Ann Drives a Couple of Cadillacs, Actually....'" The Christian Science Monitor. The Christian Science Monitor, 24 Feb. 2012. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <>. 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Wanted: A Kinder, Gentler GOP

Can Republicans be altruistic and, well, nice? It doesn’t seem like it if you listen to a Democrat. During the Republican National Convention, speakers often attacked Democrats for fostering a society of dependence (Politico Staff). Bill Clinton responded the following week and made a very credible case that “If you want a ‘you’re-on-your-own, winner-take-all society, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared prosperity and shared responsibility — a we’re-all-in-this-together society — you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”(Washington Post) Based on what we typically associate with altruistic, kind behavior (sharing, helping when someone needs it, etc.), the Dems seem nicer. To date, they’ve been portraying Republicans as out-of-touch, unsympathetic to the needs of common people, and more concerned with caring for the rich than helping the poor, and the attack ads that advocate for this government-provided kindness (ironic in itself) are everywhere.

One glaring example is an ad called “Understands” that was released by the pro-Obama super PAC PrioritiesUSA. In it, a former steel worker essentially blames his wife’s death from cancer on Bain Capital’s decision to close his plant, a company that Romney was affiliated with for many years (Condon). Like many political attack ads, it stretches the truth. The wife of the worker who was profiled, Joe Soptic, was diagnosed four years after Bain closed the factory, while Soptic claims the diagnosis “shortly afterwards”. She also had her own health insurance (Rovner).

Through the “Understands” ad and others like it, the Obama campaign has sought to portray Mitt Romney as someone who lacks compassion. But consider this: when Mitt Romney ran unsuccessfully against John McCain for the Republican nomination in 2008, his campaign ran an ad claiming that he was instrumental in finding the missing child of a Bain employee. In the ad, the girl’s parents said that Romney insisted on participating in the search personally instead of just sympathizing and delegating the responsibility to the police. He closed Bain for the day, and ordered that his employees fly to New York and hand out missing person flyers to passerby. He set up a command centre in a hotel room and coordinated between local authorities and his own employees. Not only that, he called in favors and had colleagues at New York investment banks go out and join the search. The publicity resulting from ostensibly wealthy businesspeople in suits handing out missing person flyers meant that the girl was eventually found and returned to her parents safe and sound (Politifact). has confirmed the accuracy of this story, citing articles from the New York Times archives, and Romney has reused the 2008 ad on his 2012 campaign YouTube channel.

I am always skeptical any time someone attacks another person’s personal character, because he rarely knows his adversary personally. I have no reason to believe that Mitt Romney is not “a nice guy”. He probably is a nice guy, but does that mean I want him to be the 45th President? In the immortal words of my economics professor, Dr. Peter Kennedy, “not necessarily”.

The Mother Jones video featuring Romney at a $50,000 a plate dinner where he insulted 47% of the country was astonishingly tone-deaf, but among the many now-controversial statements he made that evening, there was some truth. It would be a strategic mistake for Romney to spend time and money trying to convince die-hard Obama voters to switch their vote. He should instead focus on the key minority of undecided voters that swing an election from one party to the next. This is simple strategy. Of course, writing off half of your electorate is no way to win an election, and implying that they were all just waiting for a government hand out is highly questionable, but he was pandering to a very wealthy crowd, and some of them might believe that Americans should not expect the government to provide basic necessities like food (Mother Jones). Romney could either admit to pandering, or to stand by the statements and risk being viewed as unsympathetic. Between a rock and a hard place, Romney chose the latter.

During his convention speech, Romney spoke of uniting Americans behind his plan, which would bring tens of millions of jobs through non-specific policy reforms like “cutting the deficit” (with no mention of what he would cut out) (Politico Staff). However, Romney the uniter was not on display while talking to donors. As Adam Hanft argues in The Atlantic Monthly, this was the businessman talking. He was just coldly accepting the facts and doing a frank assessment of what he needed to do to maximize his chance of winning. Hanft refers to this as “Bain Brain”, and it makes him an astute businessman, but an inept politician, because politicians are expected to be likeable. They’re expected to have some empathy for the common man. Does this necessarily mean more money in your pocket or better health care for your children? No, but people still want this, and it’s this that Romney lacks. No matter how hard Romney tries, he will not be the mythical uniter that America elected in 2008. He is a technocrat who aims to solve problems, not hold your hand. He might be compassionate in his private life, but it is unclear as to whether or not that compassion extends to his policy stances. So, to answer the original question, can Republicans be altruistic and nice? Privately, yes, but politically, altruism doesn’t quite fit into the current platform. Ultimately, that’s why I think Obama will win. No one wants a president who can’t “feel their pain”.

Works Cited

"Bob McDonnell RNC Speech." Politico LLC, 29 Aug. 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. <>.

Condon, Stephanie. "Priorities USA Action Ad Revives Bain Attack." CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 7 Aug. 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. <>.

"DNC 2012: Bill Clinton’s Speech at the Democratic National Convention (Full Transcript)." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 06 Sept. 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. <>.

"Full Transcript of the Mitt Romney Secret Video." Mother Jones. Mother Jones and the Foundation for National Progress, 19 Sept. 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. <>.

Hanft, Adam. "Bain Brain: How Managing Like a CEO Has Led Romney Astray." The Atlantic Monthly. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 27 Sept. 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. <>.

"Mitt Romney RNC Speech." POLITICO. Politico LLC, 30 Aug. 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. <>.

Rovner, Julie. "Pro-Obama Steelworker Ad Draws Republican Ire." NPR. NPR, 09 Aug. 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. <>.

Screenshot from Obama YouTube Channel. N.d. Photograph. Ironic Surrealism. 8 Aug. 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. <>.

"Viral Internet Story Says Mitt Romney Helped Locate Missing Teen Daughter of Bain Capital Partner." PolitiFact. Tampa Bay Times, 30 Jan. 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. <>.