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Campaign Communication In US Presidential Race: Framing, Spinning, Bending The Truth? – Analysis

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By Senol Yilmaz

Now that the U.S. Presidential elections are over, it is worth looking back at how both teams, President Obama’s and Governor Romney’s, have employed communication tactics over the past few months.

The communicator’s cook-book includes numerous ingredients to suit the audience’s taste. Communication specialists on both teams seem to have made use of all communication techniques: framing, spinning, and sometimes bending the truth.

Romney’s Master-Frame: “For me, this is about jobs!”

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Framing means selecting and highlighting some aspects of a perceived reality while deemphasizing other aspects. Politicians frame issues all the time, and they do this in accordance with their own agenda or in a way that is in line with the majority of the electorate’s objectives, values, and interests. The overall aim is to promote a certain interpretation of reality and make it more noticeable and memorable relative to others. Romney’s advisers seem to have prepared him well in this regard.

In the first Presidential debate Obama and Romney discussed health care reform. Obama obviously highlighted the lower costs of buying health insurance and that insurance companies could no longer turn down patients on the grounds of pre-existing conditions – both aspects Obama knew were popular with liberal voters.

For his part, Romney could have emphasized traditional conservative criticism such as higher regulatory burden or a more central role of the government both of which would have struck a chord with conservative voters. He instead framed the issue in a way that was not only popular with his own conservative base but with the entire electorate: Jobs. According to him, President Obama spent “his energy and passion for two years fighting for Obamacare instead of (fighting for) jobs!” Besides these opportunity costs of passing health care reform, Romney also highlighted that the increased burden to small businesses prevented them from creating more jobs.

In a similar vein, the regulation of financial institutions, tax policy, environmental regulation, energy policy, gender equality, and U.S. leadership in the world were seen and interpreted with regard to their effects on employment in the USA. Even the revolution in Egypt was framed in terms of jobs (“Their aspirations are similar to young people’s here. They want jobs.”), rather than human rights violations, limited individual liberties and the endemic corruption prevalent under the Mubarak regime.

Obama’s “Tragic”-Spin

Another, spicier, ingredient is spin: the use of exaggerations and euphemisms, playing down or leaving out of information, the optimized timing of news releases, and taking comments out of context belong to the art of spinning. While frames highlight one aspect of a multifaceted reality, spins do exactly what they promise to do: they twist reality.

The Obama team spun one of Romney’s comments out of context. Romney said that withdrawing all troops from Iraq was “tragic” which was criticized in an Obama television ad, presenting the President as the one who ended the war in Iraq and brought American soldiers back home. In fact, the U.S. administration had tried to strike an agreement with the Iraqi government to keep a few thousand troops in the country, but failed. What Romney deemed tragic was the administration’s failure, which resulted in the complete withdrawal from Iraq.

In a speech delivered on 26 October 2012, Romney on his part claimed the White House had “promised the economy would now be growing at 4.3 per cent” which is substantially higher than the current rate of 2 per cent. However, fact-checkers from the Washington Post ascertained that the White House had actually not “promised” economic growth of 4.3 per cent. Rather, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) “forecast” this rate in their annual budget review of 2010. Similarly, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office made a comparable estimation (4.1 per cent).

In the very same document, the OMB also estimated an unemployment rate of 7.7 per cent for 2012 (a bit less than the current 7.9 per cent). However, in the third Presidential debate, Romney decided to use a different number from a different source. He claimed “the president said by now we’d be at 5.4 percent unemployment”. According to the Washington Post, Romney took the 5.4 per cent number from a report written by Obama advisers before the President assumed Office.

Beyond Bending the Truth?

The spiciest and most problematic ingredient is the promotion of factual inaccuracies of which both campaign teams seem to make use. David Plouffe, senior adviser to the President, claimed the following about Romney’s Governorship: “For every private-sector job created in Massachusetts by Governor Romney, six public sector jobs (were created).” – which is factually inaccurate.

One of the boldest claims that has been debunked over and over again is Romney’s assertion that Obama went on a world “apology tour” apologizing for U.S. misdeeds in the past. In fact, Obama neither “apologized” nor expressed “regret” in any of the speeches Romney mentioned.

Fair, or not?

With employment being a paramount issue for Americans in this election, one could argue that Romney picked a strong “jobs”-frame to promote his bid. The claim that numerous policy fields affect employment, some more, others less, may be true. However, looking at a policy from only one perspective and focusing on a single aspect is not helpful in promoting a holistic approach to good policy making.

The twisting of words and use of arbitrary sources to promote one’s own agenda as well as taking snippets out of context – without necessarily lying – are prime examples of spinning and both campaign teams seem to have mastered this art as well.

While the heavy use of frames is a fair tool and spinning seems acceptable, the deliberate promotion of inaccuracies is morally dismissive. Interestingly, Neil Newhouse a pollster on the Romney team, famously said they were not going to let their campaign be dictated by fact-checkers. Whether this is a good approach to winning the elections remains to be seen, notwithstanding ethical considerations. In combination with the huge number of negative ads denigrating the opponents, this election season could leave a bad after-taste.

Senol Yilmaz is Associate Research Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.


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