Karl Rove is probably the most effective political persuader active in the past 20 years. He wins. Here’s how he wants to win against Obama right now.
The soft attack ad.
Attack ads work. Properly done they reduce support for the issue or person attacked and translate into fewer votes. But, they must be properly done. The proper here revolves around President Obama’s enduring popularity and likability as a person. Many people who voted against him, still find him a winning guy, somebody who’d be a great neighbor, colleague, or guy at the end of the bar. Attacks that don’t account for his likability may fail.
Rove is currently running a soft attack ad that evades Obama’s likability through indirection. Consider Wake Up.
The ad begins with a thirty-something woman alone in bed at 3am awakened by a storm. In voiceover we learn she’s worried about mom, kids, job, retirement. Then she recalls Obama’s plans and promises and we see photograbs of the President, headlines, and charts. The woman continues to worry. We’ve got to do something.
Notice the main element of an attack ad – the direct challenge on character or, in this case, competence. The ad provides those icons of credibility, newspaper grabs, to document the attack, but see how the attack is couched. A young woman in a modest nightgown, worrying alone in bed at 3am as a storm approaches. We see a picture of her with kids and hear about her mom. We never see or hear anything about her partner, but everything about the context looks like she probably has or had one. Thus, we have a young, vulnerable, and highly responsible woman thinking aloud the Attack Arguments against a highly popular and likable Obama.
Please read over the WSJ article about this approach as a great practical lesson in How-To with attack ads. Also find the emerging tactics Rove appears to consider. (I say “appears” because Rove will set you up. More on that in a bit.) Right now Rove sees more risk in the standard attack ad and wants to stay in soft. Rove asserts that he won’t go hard negative with his attacks unless Obama starts it.
Several groups, including American Crossroads, said they were ready to shift tactics if the Obama campaign turned sharply negative in its attacks on Mr. Romney.
That’s manifestly untrue. It sounds good and fair like, “We’re trying to be nice, but the other guy went negative and we had to respond!” Rove is going to maneuver Obama into a corner and punish him with hard attack ads, but that will depend not upon Obama’s attack ads, but when Rove thinks he can put Obama in a corner. Quotes like the one above are a part of those Rove “appearances” where he seems to be speaking plainly, but actually has a persuasion play.
Rove has a strategy. In military terms, Rove has identified the Obama Centers of Gravity and Rove will reduce or neutralize them. Anyone with eyes can see that one major Center for Obama is that likability. Right now Rove is not trying to make Obama less likable; he’s trying to neutralize Obama’s popularity. When Rove makes these soft attacks, he punishes Obama who cannot defend himself with his likeability. Yeah, sure Obama will run a nuanced response ad with shots of him comforting women in nightgowns.
Rove also has a fabulous history of provoking opponents into dysPersuasion. You might recall John Kerry’s babbling caught live on tape, exclaiming that he voted for a bill before he voted against it.
Not to waffle, flip-flop, or talk out of all sides of your mouth no matter how subtle, nuanced, or inspired. Rove had a camera team follow Kerry to town hall meetings then plant questions about this specific legislation that Kerry had voted both ways on. After no luck on several tries, Kerry finally got tired and delivered the double-talk Rove desired.
No single message is decisive in a campaign as long and intense as the race for President. While we learn a persuasion lesson in this specific instance, it’s all part of a much larger plan that can shift with contingency and circumstance. You’ve got to admire Rove for attacking through the strength of an opponent.