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This blog offers an international look at the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Indeed, campaigners worldwide are fascinated with American election campaigns. We observe relentless paid television advertising, straight-forward attack spots, sophisticated targeting and record-breaking fundraising. One cannot – and should not – simply copy paste American campaign techniques. However, campaigners out there in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia can get a lot of inspiration and specific takeaways from the most professional campaign in the world. This is the purpose of this blog.

“Don’t interrupt when your opponent self-destructs”

A very famous and often cited rationale of political campaigning states: “Don’t interrupt when your opponent self-destructs”. While it is said that emperor Napoleon coined this phrase centuries ago, it lost none of its validity up until today and political strategists like James Carville still make a point of living by this timeless rule.  
While usually there is a lot of disagreement amongst the political community on various issues, the press and commentators of all colours certainly agree on this these days: Things don’t and didn’t go well for the Romney Campaign for quite a while now. Whether it was Romney’s unfortunate appearance on his overseas trip to Great Britain and the Middle East, his hasty and inapt response to the attack on the US embassy in Libya, the infamous 47%-comment or the uncalled for release of his tax record this weekend: Until today, the republican bid for the presidency has in fact travelled a bumpy road. In my book “How to overcome the power of incumbency in election campaigns”, I define the concept of challenger quality. I use six characteristics and talents that make up campaign skills for a candidate. He has to be popular and charismatic; he has to have good speaking skills, the ability to communicate over mass media and the ability to stay on message. Finally, he needs good managerial skills as campaigns are often chaotic and only the top guy can – and has to – establish discipline. It is safe to say, that Mitt Romney hardly excels in any of these areas. Or as the Republican strategist Ed Rogers puts it: “Not much is required of Governor Romney on this. He has to be poised. He has to be sure-footed. He has to be precise. He was none of those”.

But not only the candidate’s performance leaves a lot to be desired. The Republican Party and its functionaries certainly have their share in the “self-destruction” of Romney’s Campaign, too. More and more prominent Republicans, amongst them famously Peggy Noonan, start to distance themselves from Mitt Romney. In addition to that, many of the party’s candidates for senate this fall start to worry about the negative influence Romney’s behaviour might have on their chances to get elected. Thommy G. Thompson, the Republican candidate for Senate in Wisconsin, for example, stated on TV: “If your standard-bearer for the presidency is not doing well, it’s going to reflect on the down ballot”. Also, many associated with the Republican Party start to voice loud and public critics on Romney’s failure to take command of any battleground states yet and call for a “campaign shake-up”. According to the New York Times, Romney responded to these demands in a chivalrous but not so smart way by reminding the public once more of his weaknesses and saying: “I’ve got a very effective campaign. It’s doing a very good job. But not everything I say is elegant”. Finally things got so far, that Romney’s wife, Anne, felt the need put a foot down in defence of her husband and said somewhat desperately on a campaign stop in Des Moines: “Stop it. This is hard. You want to try it?”. 

Now, with all the talk about what has gone wrong in “Camp-Romney”, one might easily lose sight of the Obama Campaign and its reactions to all these events. Do they live by the rationale stated above and refrain from “interrupting the opponent’s self-destruction”? 
A good example for proving the point that they indeed do obey this rule is the dynamics that came into play after Romney’s remark on the Middle East on September 11. The only reaction the Obama Campaign showed as an immediate result of Mitt Romney’s imprudent statement was a brief declaration by spokesman Ben LaBolt saying that they were “shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack." Nothing more was said on the matter, especially not from Barack Obama himself who abstained from commenting the subject completely. He smartly preferred to uphold a statesman-like appearance, seemingly superior to political games and mud wrestling. Mitt Romney on the other hand rushed to hold a press conference with the good intention to justify his remarks and the actual effect of making everything worse. Not only was Romney now accused of playing politics with the death of four US citizens, but foreign policy suddenly became an general election issue (on this subject, see also my entry of September 12). Of course the press gladly and to some extent gleefully took up Romney’s own lacking record in the field of foreign policy and couldn’t publish enough polls showing how the electorate actually trusts Obama incomparably more than Romney when it comes to foreign politics. 
Observing the activities of the Obama campaign, we can see that they do many things just right and really do make the best out of Romney’s failures. They comment briefly and sharply and then leave Romney struggling to make amends for his own missteps –usually making things worse. Also, they make a point of never letting Obama do the “dirty work”. Whenever the Obama campaign launches a counter-attack on Romney, they either use surrogates like Vice President Biden or high ranking campaign officials like Ben LaBolt, Jim Messina or David Axelrod. 

Romney might still be convinced that he doesn’t need a campaign-turnaround. I am convinced of the opposite. He is running behind in a setting that actually still strongly favours the challenger. He needs to shake things up in order to change the dynamics of the campaign. I think it was a Republican strategist who recently said that in a presidential campaign, there are ten important moments. I’d say that about 7 of these are over by now. This leaves Romney three.

How will the crisis in Libya and the Middle East play out politically?

Some see the events starting to unfold with the tragic death of four diplomats in Libya as a major problem for President Obama. This view is stressed, unsurprisingly, especially by conservative circles who try to frame the situation as though Obama is losing control. But also more moderate sources, like the German Spiegel see trouble in the making for Obama and publish this Saturday an article with the title “Obamas Middle-East Policies in Ruins”.

I disagree with the notion that these events have a negative impact on the Obama campaign. On the contrary, I think that Obama can actually benefit from this politically. Every crisis is an opportunity for an incumbent to show himself as a man in charge and in action.

Foreign Politics has so far not been an issue in the general election. The debate has been dominated by the economy. Obama must welcome this sudden shift of focus decidedly because compared to Mitt Romney, he does have solid credentials in foreign politics. An article of the New York Times published last Saturday confirms this by citing officials from the Obama campaign who stated, that they were “glad to be challenged on what they consider the comfortable territory of foreign politics”. Mitt Romney is still lacking credibility on the international stage as a poll conducted by CBS and the New York Times confirms. Only 40% think that Romney would do a better Job than Obama in foreign politics while 47% believe the opposite.

Clearly it is easier for an incumbent President than for a challenger to respond to a tragedy like the one caused by the protests in Libya and throughout the Middle East. He can (and has to) present himself as a statesman, as commander in chief and the leader of the free world. A challenger candidate on the other hand is quickly accused of taking advantage by politicizing a tragedy. Romney’s initial reaction to the situation, however, was so clumsy and imprudent that he was criticized for it even within his own party. Instead of offering the president his “full support in such difficult times” like the customary response would be in such a situation, Romney launched a full flagged attack on Obama and accused him of being too soft and in sympathy with the attackers. Clearly, Romney does not understand his own poll ratings. Both his favourability and his rating on handling foreign policy are not a basis to attack Obama.  As a result, Romney now is accused of trying to get personal political gain out of the tragedy.

Also: Romney’s allegations of Obamas losing control seem somewhat farfetched at the present time. It can hardly be painted as Obama’s fault if a number of radical individuals break out in violence in a country that has just overthrown its previous government and is full to the brink with weapons. For Obama, things could only become uncomfortable if, for example, the protests somehow spread onto U.Ss soil or keep on going for a very long time causing more casualties in other embassies.

All things considered, the Romney campaign should try to shift the focus back to economic issues as soon and with as much force as possible. This is clearly the issue where Obama is vulnerable. Romney would win if he could make the case that he can do a better job on jobs than Obama.