Skip links


The Campaigner's Handbook: Defining Your Opposition

The White House in Washington D.C., 2006. Courtesy of Wikipedia user UpstateNYer.

Posted: November 5, 2012 at 1:30 P.M.
by Shelby Calambokidis

The 2012 presidential election is just around the corner, and PR professionals can take away valuable lessons from the candidates’ campaign strategies.

Successful campaigns promote a strong and unified message, as well as create a unique identity for the candidate, distinguishing him from his competitors. However, this year’s election has not only been an example of the importance of defining yourself, but also of defining your opposition. They say the best defense is a strong offense, and politics is no different; there is now a need to define your opposition early in the game before they have a chance to define themselves to voters.

In “Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell”, Dr. Jason Johnson, Politic365’s chief political correspondent, noted that there are five definitions you can use to describe your opponent if you want your political campaign to be successful: a competitor must be defined as either “out of touch, too old, incompetent, corrupt or inexperienced.”

In a similar article, Johnson said, “Defining your opposition in the proper way doesn’t guarantee you a victory come November, but it does have a significant effect. Definitions that set in early are almost impossible to change.”

From the beginning, President Obama’s campaign has run ads in order to paint an “out-of-touch” picture of Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Because many Americans vote weeks before the campaign ends, Obama’s campaign team has tried to define Romney early on. An article in the New York Times also cited TV commercial statistics from the political advertising monitoring firm Kantar Media/CMAG: Obama ran “about 347,000, nearly 270,000 negative.” Romney ran “about 121,000, more than 99,000 of them negative.” Since April, Obama has run almost three times the number of commercials that Romney has.

Frank Greer, a partner of Strategic Communications Firm and Advertising Agency GMMB, said the Obama campaign has worked more efficiently than any other he has seen. The first wave of Obama’s campaign was positive, highlighting his accomplishments, as well as the challenges he faced in office. The second wave of his campaign, he said, defined Romney as being for the rich and against the middle class.

“When you have that kind of upside down favorability, you are under water about how people feel about you, and it is very hard to climb out of that,” Greer said.

Romney, on the other hand, has focused the national debate on Obama’s record. Kevin Keane, communications director of former Wisconsin governor and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, said that in order for Romney to have a chance in the presidential race, he must persuade Americans that Obama has not delivered as president and will fail to lead the country forward.

“Romney can have the greatest ideas and greatest leadership qualities in the world, but he won’t win if he cannot succeed in this fundamental record-based definition,” he said.

However, Keane said that Romney has effectively defined Obama on his record and his rhetoric – casting doubt in the minds of voters.

“He’s done a tremendous job of completely erasing their faith in Mr. Obama’s ‘optimism,’” he said. “Romney has not only wiped out Obama’s ‘Hope and Change,’ but he has also defined the president as someone who has delivered on neither.”

In all, the majority of both candidates’ advertisements have emphasized flaws in their competition. According to Daniel West in a 2008 CNN commentary, “Negative attacks are as American as apple pie. Since the early days of the republic, candidates attacked with a vigor that contemporary strategists would admire.” However, West said that, despite these historical precedents, the 2008 campaign reached an “all-time low” in reaching out to the public with appeals that misrepresented the candidates.

But is campaigning more cut-throat than it used to be? According to the Washington Post, as of Oct. 24, 2012, 85 percent of Obama’s advertisements were negative, as were 91 percent of Romney’s this year. This trend in the election teaches a lesson in the significance of painting a negative picture of your competitor to the public.

In the last couple of weeks before the election, the Romney campaign increased its ad spending. Given that Romney did so well in the first debate, his campaign’s heavier spending plan may pay off. However, it is clear that much of its spending has been necessitated by the early onslaught of “defining” advertising by the Obama campaign.

“There is basically one rule in politics,” Greer said. “You have to define yourself and your opponent first; if you lose either of those races, then you are at an extreme disadvantage.”

The 2012 presidential race is bound to be a close one because both candidates have been successful in strategically defining the other to voters this campaign season.

Return to top of page