Spin Cycle

05.25.12

Sob-Story Campaign Between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama Turns on Personal Pain

The latest Obama and Romney campaign videos dramatize the plight of the jobless. Howard Kurtz explores why the tactics go for emotional appeal—and why they’re misleading.

They speak slowly and soberly, the pain evident in their voices, their faces etched with despair.

“I’ve been looking for a job for two years and haven’t found anything,” a middle-aged woman says.

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“One day we had a job, the next day we didn’t,” says another middle-aged woman.

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The first woman appears in a web ad for Mitt Romney. The second appears in a web ad for Barack Obama. And that may be the campaign in a nutshell: a contest to rub the raw wounds of the country in a way that disqualifies the opposing candidate.

The videos also make a statement about the state of political communication in 2012, in which the rival campaigns have distilled their messages to dueling sob stories.

Political admakers, not to mention journalists, have long relied on individuals to humanize complex policy debates. But the pain blame game now seems to have taken center stage in the battle for the White House.

A central reason is that campaign strategists are determined to get these online films on television news shows—capturing “free media,” as it’s known in the trade. The Obama team has spent just $150,000 to air the first of two ads involving Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, and while they have drawn more than 400,000 views online, that is still a modest impact compared with the reach of TV. Romney’s video on the impact of the “Obama economy” has attracted 54,000 views. 

And what appeals to television producers and correspondents? Emotional video that can be spliced into attention-grabbing sound bites, which pundits and political types can then argue about. It’s a perfect loop: the campaigns essentially provide free programming for television news, which carry the candidates’ propaganda at no charge. 

What’s lost, all too often, is meaning and context.

Let’s start with the Romney video, which runs just over a minute. It features disconnected people, who aren’t identified by name, describing their plight in staccato bursts.

“I have to work part time in order to make ends meet,” an elderly woman says.

“I had to file my own personal bankruptcy,” a man says.

The pain blame game now seems to have taken center stage in the battle for the White House.

But is Obama responsible for these tales of woe? What policies of his caused these people to be unemployed? How much of the mess did he inherit from George W. Bush? What would Romney do differently? The ad doesn’t say.

Yet it closes with a killer sound bite from a black woman who is supposed to capture the country’s sense of disillusionment: “I expected great things from the president when he was elected, and now it’s just a feeling of disappointment that he hasn’t been able to fulfill all of the things, all of the changes he talked about.” Cut to the closing graphic: “Believe in America.” It’s a spot designed solely to appeal to the heart, not the mind.

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The Obama ad, just under six minutes, is more successful at telling a story: the bankruptcy of office-supply company SCM after it was taken over by Romney’s former firm. We get to know the victims.

Valerie Burton, a forlorn-looking black woman, frames the narrative by saying: “I really feel in my heart people need to know what Mitt Romney did to Marion, Indiana, in 1994.”

Television clips pick up the story as we follow the plight of Burton and other workers who suffered when the plant closed. She grasps the wrinkled front page of the local paper, announcing the shutdown. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2000.

“This was the worst day of my life,” Burton says. “At the time all this happened, I was pregnant, I had two kids at home, and I’d just lost my job.” She recalled having to apply for food stamps to feed her kids: “That was the most degrading thing.”

By definition, the video—like an earlier one on the closure of a Kansas City steel plant—focuses on the human cost of one of Bain’s failures. There is no attempt to examine how many Bain-backed firms created jobs and how many went belly-up—or any mention that Romney left the takeover outfit in 1999, before the bankruptcies depicted in these two videos.

It’s up to the press to provide the missing information in both the Obama and Romney attacks, and some newspapers have done a good job. Television pundits tend to argue about such videos instead of dissecting them, but more important, the shows feed off the emotion and replay the commercials, becoming conduits for these partisan messages.

It is hard not to be moved when Americans talk about the anguish of losing their jobs, giving voice to the numbing statistics. But presidents cannot govern by anecdote. The hard slog of improving an ailing economy does not easily lend itself to such slogans as cutting taxes or investing in the middle class; not when the country has yet to recover from the mortgage debacle and much of Europe is trying to stave off default.

So we are left with merchandizing the politics of pain, told one agonizing story at a time—great theater, perhaps, but ultimately misleading and unsatisfying.