The race to define your opponent

01:30, Sep 27 2012

Defining your opponent before they have a chance to define themselves has always been a brutal part of politics.

In New Zealand it has to be done largely through the media.

A classic example was Bill Rowling - from a farming family, a boxer and rugby player, the most capable Minister in the Kirk Cabinet. He was defined by Sir Robert Muldoon as weak; as a mouse; famously derided as "a shiver looking for a spine to run up''.

In the United States there is the added fuel of tens of millions of advertising dollars.

In the 2004 Presidential election John Kerry, a genuine Vietnam war hero, was seriously damaged by advertisements from fellow Swift boat naval veterans questioning his patriotism.

Mitt Romney, the lesser known candidate, has been the one under the defining gun in the 2012 presidential campaign.

Frank Luntz, a celebrated Republican and international pollster, argues Romney failed to define himself in the Republican primaries, winning by bringing down his opponents, rather than telling his own story.

That has left him wide open to the Obama campaign which has taken dead aim at his business career.

This is a critical battleground. Romney's case for the Presidency pretty much begins and ends with the argument that he has been a highly successful and capable businessman who is better placed than Obama to restore the USA's sagging economic fortunes.

The Obama campaign has tried instead to turn him into what has been widely shorthanded as a "corporate vulture".

The Obama advertising attack has mainly involved Romney's career at the restructuring company Bain Capital but he is also vulnerable on his tax record and overseas bank accounts.

One official Obama advertisement has Romney signing America the Beautiful (not very well ) while the text overlay first accuses him of outsourcing American jobs to Mexico, China and India then of having overseas accounts in Switzerland and the tax havens Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.

Another from an Obama-supporting PAC (political action committee) called "Stage", which has had over 2 million You Tube hits, features a personable worker at an Indiana paper plant describing how he and others  unknowingly built a stage for Bain Capital executives to stand on and announce the plant workers were all fired.

He accuses Romney of making $100 million "shutting down our plant and devastat(ing) our lives". He concludes "turns out that stage it was like building my own coffin and it makes me sick".

Luntz described the focus group reaction he saw to this ad as 'the loudest sound of all - total silence ... they were so stunned and so upset they couldn't speak.... It turned people against him''.  

Luntz tellingly concludes that the Romney team wanted to make the election a referendum on Obama, the Obama team wanted to make it a choice but the challenger's failure to define himself has instead made the election a referendum on Romney.

The 2008 New Zealand election was all about John Key.

It is an interesting hypothetical whether he could have taken this type of Kerry/Romney punishment.

Richard Prebble once described John Key as the "candidate from central casting". But arguably he wasn't as the world economy collapsed in 2008 and publicity about the greed and excesses from the financial world he came from poured out.

Labour failed completely to make anything of this in the free media. But millions of dollars of advertising  would have been another story.
There was plenty of "stage"-like material for advertising creatives to work with.

Merrill Lynch, where John Key made his mark,  was centre-stage in a lot of financial scandals - Enron, the dot com bubble, the sub-prime loans.

Tasty details emerged of the last CEO, John Thain, earning US$83 million the year before Merrill Lynch imploded and had to be rescued by Bank of America.

Thain was also outed for a million-dollar redecoration of his office just before the collapse which included a US$1400 wastebasket, an US$87,000 rug and a US$35,000 "commode on legs".

My guess is John Key would have come through.

The time for a change mood in 2008 was red hot. His easy manner then with journalists and voters and skilful marketing of reasonably humble beginnings put him in very different territory to Romney.

Romney is an awkward candidate who often clumsily plays into the negative stereotype of being super wealthy and out of touch.

But who knows? At the very least it might have forced the then-Opposition leader on to the wrong side of his "explaining is losing" dictum.

In 2014 David Shearer will be the relatively unknown quality. His impressive humanitarian career gives Labour has a lot to work with. Mount Albert voters in the 2009 by-election lapped up his life story.

National will almost certainly have to go down something like "nice guy but not the right man to be in charge of the economy in tough and volatile times" route.

2011 was a razor-thin win for the centre-right over the centre-left. All indications, whether polls or the iPredict market, point to another very close contest in 2014.

The battle to define David Shearer  will almost certainly decide the next election.