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Debate analysis: round one goes to the challenger

Charles McLean of Portland’s New York office considers the communications strategy that delivered victory to Mitt Romney in the first presidential debate.

The morning before the debate between President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, I listened to an interesting piece on National Public Radio about a technique politicians use to move from a question they don’t want to answer to a message they want to communicate. After playing a few set-up clips from past debates, reporter Alix Spiegel interviewed political consultant Brett O’Donnell on “the pivot.”

“The pivot is a way of taking a question that might be on a specific subject and moving to answer it on your own terms,” O’Donnell told Spiegel.

Sound familiar? It should, because what Spiegel and O’Donnell refer to as The Pivot is a technique we have been teaching our clients in media training sessions for years. And if you wanted to see The Pivot in action, you only needed to wait until that evening, when Mitt Romney artfully turned almost every question in his debate with Barack Obama into a passionate plea for more jobs for middle class Americans.

Obama: “Your budget numbers just don’t add up.”

Romney: “Of course they do, and what’s more, my budget will provide a million new jobs for middle class Americans!”

OK, I’m paraphrasing, but most of the first presidential debate sounded pretty much like that. And of course, when the reviews rolled in, Romney was universally acclaimed the winner.

But I would argue that Governor Romney’s debate victory was the result of much more than a clever rhetorical device. Romney won because he brought energy and focus, in stark contrast to Obama’s diffidence and detachment. And more important, Romney won because he had a plan and he executed it to perfection. He had astrategy; the president clearly did not.

I should say at this point that I am a big fan of President Obama and I plan to vote for him in November. So it pained me deeply to watch him struggle through his answers in the first presidential debate. But there are two more Romney-Obama debates before the election and I think the president has a chance to pick himself up off the canvas and take the fight to the challenger.

With that in mind, I would offer the president the following advice:

  1. Decide how you want to be positioned in the minds of the voters (and how you would like Romney to be positioned) when the debate is over. In other words, establish your Strategic Communications Objective, or “SCO.” This is the heart and soul of strategic communications.

Prior to the debate, President Obama seemed to have established his positioning as the candidate who best understood the problems of average Americans, as contrasted with the super-wealthy Romney, who, at a fundraiser last May, memorably dismissed almost half the American public as moochers looking for a government handout. Romney’s positioning in the debate as the candidate who cares more passionately about creating jobs for the American middle class brilliantly countered pre-conceptions. In round two, Obama needs to re-establish his credentials as the candidate who will best represent the interests of these crucial middle class voters.

  1. Develop a story line you can thread through all of your answers to lead the audience to your desired positioning, and flesh out your narrative with messages that support your story line.

In the first debate, Romney’s narrative was clear: “I care passionately about creating jobs for the middle class and I will do whatever it takes to make that happen.” And in fact, the Romney who showed up for the debate in Denver seemed willing to reverse all of the right-wing positions he’d taken during the primary campaign if it meant more jobs for the American people. Mr. President, you’ll need a competing story line that persuades the voters that you care just as passionately about creating jobs – and that you have a better plan to do it – if you’re going to win debate number two.

  1. Plan a “memorable moment” that will make the next morning’s highlight reel.  Last month Bibi Netanyahu got everyone’s attention at the UN General Assembly by using a crude drawing of a bomb to illustrate how close he claimed Iran was to developing a nuclear weapon. Take a page from Bibi’s notepad and do something similar in the next debate. When Governor Romney says his tax cut promises will not reduce budget resources by $5 trillion, as experts forecast, pull out a Sharpie, pick up the pad on your lectern and ask him to list all of the “loopholes” he says he’ll close to make up the difference. Refuse to put the pen down until he gives you specifics.
  1. And finally, Mr. President, look at the damn camera! Governor Romney spoke directly to the American people. You spoke to the moderator. Next time around, look us straight in the eye and speak from the heart.(Especially when you pivot).