Mitt’s About to Enter “Goldwater Land”

In an otherwise-routine and undistinguished interview a couple of months ago, Mitt Romney hoped that former Indianapolis Colt’s quarterback Peyton Manning wouldn’t head to the New England Patriots. Then, he added, “The owner of the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, both owners are friends of mine.”

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

Mitt Romney (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To many, that remark was similar to Romney’s earlier comment, made at the site of the Daytona 500, that “some great friends . . . are NASCAR team owners.”

Those off-hand comments wouldn’t have attracted much attention had it not been for a series of earlier remarks which suggest Romney is a remote wealthy business titan, hopelessly tied to Wall Street, beholden to the rich, unconcerned with the plight of the poor and oblivious to the struggles of the middle class.

Add to the sports-team-owner remarks, the following Romney’s statements: “I’m not worried about the very poor”; “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me”; “Corporations are people, too”; “Rick, I’ll tell you what — ten thousand bucks? Ten thousand dollar bet?”; and, “I know what it’s like to worry whether you’re going to get fired.”

At these ham-handed comments pile up, it’s no wonder a Romney adviser dreamed out loud about treating his candidate like an “Etch-a-Sketch.”

But Romney and his Republican allies should worry that the image of their candidate as rich and out of touch has become vivid, enduring and indelible. They should worry that voters have begun to view him, his personality and his record through the lens of that dominant narrative.

Romney, it appears, is now extremely vulnerable to the easiest and most deadly attacks by President Obama – attacks that require giving voters little or no information, but simply context for the information they already possess.

Romney has, in short, left himself open to another Daisy Girl-like attack — only this one won’t be about flowers, little girls and nuclear war, but rather the Republican nominee’s image as a 2012 version of Gordon Gekko.

It’s an image the Obama campaign will start exploiting on Monday with a new ad. In the tradition of “Daisy Girl,” the spot is set to run only once in a number of key battleground states.

The 1964 Daisy Girl spot, of course, is the most notorious television ad in American political history. In it, Lyndon Johnson’s campaign pounced on the many reckless comments by GOP nominee Barry Goldwater about nuclear war.

In the years prior, Goldwater joked about lobbing a missile into the men’s room of the Kremlin. He called the nuclear bomb “merely another weapon.” He speculated about defoliating the forests of South Vietnam with nuclear bombs. He opposed the nuclear test ban treaty. He wrote a book, “The Conscience of a Conservative,” in which he ridiculed those who feared a conflict with the Soviet Union. And he favored giving the NATO commander in Europe authority to launch a nuclear attack without White House permission.

Goldwater went out of his way to portray himself as a person who could not be trusted with the nuclear codes. By the time of the election, that image was his public persona.

The Daisy Girl spot wasn’t so effective because it informed voters about Goldwater’s many reckless statements about using nuclear weapons. It didn’t. In fact, the spot contained no real information. It was mostly just images of a little girl counting as she plucked flower petals prior to a nuclear blast. It did not mention Goldwater or show his image.

English: Senator Barry Goldwater.

Senator Barry Goldwater. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And that absence of information is what made it so effective. The facts about Goldwater’s statements on nuclear war were so well known to the public that Johnson’s campaign had little need to inform voters about them. Because that image of Goldwater was so deeply carved into the public’s consciousness, Johnson’s job was simple.

He didn’t need to tell voters that Goldwater was a threat to world peace. Instead, he used information and perceptions about Goldwater already in voters’ minds and put them to deadly effective use with a riveting story – an innocent little girl whose life was ended in a nuclear war.

Johnson’s advertising firm, Doyle Dane Bernbach, understood that it wasn’t information that voters needed; it was, instead, context for the information they already possessed.

When it comes to Romney, Obama likely won’t need to tell voters what they already know. He will simply need to find stories or images that bring to mind the information already the minds of the voters.

As one of the Daisy Girl spot’s creators, Tony Schwartz once noted, “Commercials that attempt to tell the listener something are inherently not as effective as those that attach to something that is already in him. We are not concerned with getting things across to people as much as out of people.”

The Daisy Girl spot’s skillful manipulation of the fears residing in American viewers minds showed a new generation of political professionals that television advertising in campaigns was about far more than which candidate had the best facts; it was, instead, more about which candidate could give meaning to and provide context for the facts voters already possessed.

Romney, with his inept comments and his record at Bain Capital, seems to have created an indelible image that President Obama’s advertising consultants should have little trouble using against him in the fall. Try as he might to erase that image by shaking the political “Etch-a-Sketch,” Romney’s unfortunate image may be engraved permanently in the public’s mind.

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