The race for the White House

As the presidential primaries draw closer, Ted McKenna looks at the communications strategies and messaging some campaigns are implementing to draw voters

As the presidential primaries draw closer, Ted McKenna looks at the communications strategies and messaging some campaigns are implementing to draw voters

Issues – that's what candidates always seem to say are what voters will judge: Where the candidates stand on healthcare, what they will do about ending the war in Iraq and protecting US citizens from terrorist attacks, and how they will bring more jobs to the shrinking middle class.

While segments of the voting public do indeed care about particular issues, who wins a primary race or the presidency itself comes down to more indefinable, intangible factors like personality or image, communications pros say.

Grassroots organizing skills are obviously important, given the nature of the primary voters in New Hampshire and Iowa, for example, where candidates really need to be there in the state in person knocking doors. “The expectation on the ground is that candidate will go and speak to people in person,” notes Hyde Park Communications CEO Jeffrey Sandman.

While an ability to market a candidate online is also certainly important since people do so much of their personal research these days on the Internet, Cone director of new media Brian Reich says that online outreach by the various candidates to date is really focused on fundraising. That's a critical ability for any candidacy, of course, but so much more could be done that isn't to reach out to voters online, Reich argues.

Instead, the true key to successful campaign runs, according to HDMK principle and longtime Republican political analyst Terry Holt, remains the ability to connect with the national media, since those journalists provide so much of the information that the general public sucks in on the candidates. What makes for a winner? “You have to be this magic combination of toughness, humor and imagination,” Holt says.

Image can be everything, as often noted in American politics. Clinton aims to appear as the inevitable nominee, though without seeming to “take anything for granted.” Obama emphasizes “change.” Giuliani stresses security. But sometimes images get muddled. McCain, for instance, no longer seems like the maverick he billed himself as in 2004, after backing Bush in the main election.

“There is a lesson for the other candidates in McCain's experience – don't tamper with the core brand attribute,” says Prime Group founding partner Greg Schneiders, who was deputy assistant to the president for communications during the Carter administration. “If Hillary stops looking ‘inevitable' or Obama stops seeming ‘new' or Giuliani stops looking like a ‘leader,' the bottom can fall out of those campaigns.”

Here then is a look at the messaging, communications tools, and the actual images so far of the primary candidates in the 2008 primary races:

The Contenders:

Hillary Clinton (D)

Comms team includes strategist Mark Penn, communications director Howard Wolfson, and online strategist Peter Daou

The message:
Progressive but mature, liberal but conservative, Clinton harks back (and frequently refers) to the Bill Clinton era, conveying essentially a centrist message. Platform includes ending the war in Iraq, universal healthcare, creating middle class jobs, and other ideas not much different than the other Democratic candidates. The campaign has sought to foster a feeling of inevitability to her candidacy, a sense that she is the leading choice.

The tools:
Careful cultivation of bloggers and other online influentials; top fundraisers, “the HillRaisers,” bringing in huge amount of cash; creation of student campaign outreach program; targeting of various groups, including Latinos, Christian evangelicals, and women's rights groups – all in keeping with Penn's long-time study of demographic “microtrends.”

The image:
Observers generally characterize Clinton as a “polarizing figure,” drawing both passionate supporters as well as detractors, whether fears of Clinton as president are irrational or not. Rather than run from the critics, the campaign uses them as a way to instill a sense of purpose among supporters.

“There's nothing about the attacks that people don't already know,” says Cone's Reich. “She's embracing the criticism not only because it validates that she's winning the race, but it's also basically making the other candidates look bad.”

Barack Obama (D)

Comms team includes advisors David Axelrod and Jim Margolis, communications director Robert Gibbs, and campaign COO Betsy Myers

The message:
Politics of hope, audacity to change – change, change, change. Opponent campaigns seek to portray Obama as all style, no substance, but Obama counters that he has “real world” experience: “I am not running for president to conform to Washington's conventional thinking,” he says in a video posted recently on his Web site. “I am running to challenge it.”

The tools:
Grassroots and online outreach to young voters, even those in high school, is a notable aspect of Obama's campaign. Also, gospel concerts and appearances at churches have played a part in an initiative to appeal to the African-American faithful set in South Carolina.

The image:
Great fundraising helped give Obama's campaign Howard Dean-like momentum, aided by a decision to include the sale of T-shirts and other campaign gear as contributions, generating excitement among supporters and respect in the media, notes Grassroots Enterprise CEO and president John Hlinko. But with recent attacks on Clinton, observers wonder whether Obama has fuzzied his image as someone above the political fray, and now seems more like a typical politics-as-usual type.

Still, if Clinton is Microsoft, then Obama is iTunes, argues Brodeur SVP Jerry Johnson. “Obama is betting on the messaging of the change agent— the iTunes that will forever transform the social dynamic,” he says. “So far, however, he's not gotten the same iPod adoption rate.”

John Edwards (D)

Comms team includes advisors David Ginsberg and Joe Trippi

The message:
Edwards aims to portray himself as an outsider, against “lobbyists in Washington” and other special interests that have led to what he says is the broken healthcare system, a yawning gap between the rich and the poor of America, global warming, and other societal ills. In 2004 during his previous presidential campaign and then vice presidential run, Edwards spoke of the “two Americas,” and this time around he continues to emphasize his blue-collar origins.

The tools:
Streaming online video and audio and text messaging are among the electronic tools Edwards' team touts, though online media experts question whether his campaign is any more digitally savvy than other candidates. With his anti-free trade rhetoric, participation in picket lines, and other strategic appearances, Edwards is courting unions as a big source of endorsements.

The image:
In his second go-round for president, the bloom seems to be off Edwards' rose, especially after the devastating “I Look Pretty” YouTube video showed Edwards lovingly prepping his hair. As for Edwards' campaign messages, Grassroots Enterprise CEO John Hlinko says labeling rivals as beholden to corporate interests doesn't carry as much appeal as it might seem. “Any time I hear someone call someone ‘corporate,' to me it's like calling them ‘doody head,'” he says. “It just doesn't mean much.”

But of late Edwards has drawn a new level of media attention as a result of an offense against the policies and pronouncements of Clinton.

“He's effectively stolen the ‘alternative' slot from Obama,” says Prime Group's Schneiders. “He seems passionate and committed. Whatever one thinks of his populist message, if Democratic voters sour on Hillary, he is a likely second choice.”

Mitt Romney (R)

Comms team includes communications director Matt Rhodes, advisor Alex Castellanos, press secretary Kevin Madden, and director of e-strategy Mindy Finn

The message:
A man of business acumen with experience leading private equity firm Bain Capital, overseeing the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and serving as a Republican governor in the left-of-center Massachusetts, Romney plays up his practical, executive experience. He's a family man, a successful businessperson, and a believer in strong moral values, as portrayed on the campaign trail.

The tools:
Heavy spending on advertising in New Hampshire and Iowa, including the use of a lot of his own money; Romney's sons and their “Five Brothers” blog target college Republicans; endorsement sought and obtained from various religious figures to court all-import religious right; team has made hundreds of thousands of calls to NH voters.

The image:
Respected for his crack fundraising ability and his polished campaign team, communications pros nevertheless always raise the issue of whether Romney's Mormon background is a turnoff for voters, which remains to be seen. Also, his political assertions in Massachusetts (which actually has a sizable Republican minority as well as a conservative Democratic voting base) present a target for opponents seeking to point to discrepancies in Romney's conservative platform.

Tony Blankley, EVP at Edelman and a former advisor to Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), says Romney's glib persona may actually breed suspicion among voters: “Like [Bill] Clinton, he's got to learn to pause when he speaks, to appear as though he's thinking through the answer. There's a distrust among the public that he has to overcome.”

Rudy Giuliani (R)

Comms team includes communications director Katie Levinson, director of strategy Brent Seaborn, and advisor Julio Rebull

The message:
Remember 9/11. Fight terror. Giuliani and his team have formulated a conservative policy platform on a range of issues, but most everything about the messaging of his campaign aims to remind voters of Giuliani's leadership in New York following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

The tools:
Eschewing more expensive TV ads, Giuliani has opted for direct mail campaigns and a series of radio ads in Iowa and New Hampshire. Fame from 9-11 aftermath has generated good earned media. Has been collecting various endorsements of late, including Pat Robertson and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

The image:
If the election turns out not to be about 9-11, Giuliani's candidacy will fizzle out. Family values issues may also hurt the former mayor, given his acrimony with his former spouse and his children. If Romney is like Bloomingdales, offering a department-store like range of issues from which voters may choose, Giuliani is more like Wal-Mart, says Brodeur SVP Jerry Johnson.

“Giuliani's strength lies in digits, not words: ‘9/11,'” Johnson says. “Like Wal-Mart and low prices, Giuliani's strength is a perception of being single minded and tough.”

John McCain (D)

Comms team includes campaign manager Rick Davis and communications director Jill Hazelbaker

The message:
“Courageous service. Experienced leadership. Bold solutions.” So goes the official line on McCain, a Vietnam War POW who led Senate censure of alleged torture tactics by US intelligence officers but has generally supported the Iraq war. Biggest splash of late was a gibe during a recent debate against Hillary Clinton's support for a Woodstock museum, and his campaign has sought to milk as much life from it as possible, showcasing it in a recent campaign ad.

The tools:
McCain reportedly drawing good crowds at NH town hall meetings and rallies. However, outreach to the religious right and online GOP influentials reportedly has not as effective as rivals. Rhetoric emphasizes his military and Senatorial foreign policy experience.

The image:
The Straight Talk Express had great momentum in 2004, but four years later seems creaky and much less anti-establishment, given McCain's support for Bush last time around. Momentum and media coverage were in his favor during the New Hampshire primary in 2004, and if Bush had not run such as great campaign in the South Carolina primary, McCain might well have won the nomination, says HDMK principle and longtime Republican political consultant Terry Holt. No longer. This time around, the churn within his campaign staff has drawn as much coverage as the anything the candidate does or says.

Fred Thompson (R)

Comms team includes communications director Todd Harris and deputy communications director Karen Hanretty

The message:
Thompson is a down-home, good old country boy who wants to stand up for regular folks against the slick politicians in Washington. “I've worked for minimum wages and salaries I would never have imagined,” he says in a video announcing his candidacy. “I've had dinners on the factory floor and dined with world leaders.” Thompson may be best known as actor, sure, but then so was Ronald Reagan in the beginning, argues Thompson's campaign.

The tools:
The former Tennessee senator has used his fame as a TV and film actor to generate a huge amount of media attention, though his scarce presence initially on the NH trail, and late organization of in-state campaign office, has led to questions about his commitment and energy. Biggest opportunity is seen in South Carolina, where he has a built a stronger in-state campaign team and at press time led polling.

The image:
After much anticipation, Thompson official entry into the race has produced much less in the way of momentum that might have been expected from all the media attention, observers say. Many media stories focus on his apparent lack of interest in campaigning.

The underdogs:

Mike Huckabee (R)

Comms team includes advisors Kristin Fedewa and Eric Woolson; press secretary Alice Stewart

The message:
Huckabee has executive experience and true conservative credentials, a combination his rivals lack, argues his campaign. Huckabee may be an underdog, but the come-from-behind experience of another former governor from Hope, AK, shows that being an underdog doesn't always mean being an also-ran.

The tools:
Campaigning heavily in person in Iowa with the aim of shaking as many hands as possible, Huckabee has gotten some great coverage of late as an underdog with appeal to conservatives. But weak fundraising may hurt his ability to counter Romney or Giuliani as the elections get closer.

The image:
Losing 50 pounds helped win some early attention, and then Huckabee began polling well in Iowa. If attracting the excitement of the national media is one of the key elements to successfully running for president, Huckabee may be doing the best of all the candidates so far.

“What sets him apart is the sort of optimism: he's conservatism with a smile and he appeals to fundamental values but has an executive resume, and I think he's comported himself well and done an awful lot with not many resources,” Holt says. “It's been an impressive demonstration.”

Ron Paul (R)

Comms team includes campaign manager Kent Snyder, press secretary Jesse Benton, and online director Justine Lam

The message:
Paul is a no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is advocate for limited government, low taxes, personal liberty, and other libertarian values. Hate the Patriot Act? Believe in the right to bear arms? Want to stop the run-up of the national debt. Paul has the solutions, according to his campaign.

The tools:
With youth accounting for a much higher percentage of supporters than any other Republican candidate, Paul has been a leader in online outreach, attracting tens of thousands to his Facebook groups, for example. A November 5 online fundraising event brought in more than $4 million, generating more buzz about Paul's online appeal.

The image:
Generating great excitement online early on in the campaign, Paul has been able to raise much more in campaign cash than would otherwise be expected for an anti-establishment member of Congress with such a (previous) lack of national recognition. But Paul's campaign, like Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert and his run for president, is more like a counterpoint than a viable solution for the electorate, says Cone's Brian Reich, given that primary voters ultimately base their selection partly on who they perceive can win the main election (as with John Kerry in 2004).

“Ron Paul is saying it like it is, the way all candidates are supposed to do,” Reich says. “In a medium where people are not getting what they want, they search out people to talk about issues the way they see it. It's sort of a way of joking in a time of tension.”

Bill Richardson (D)

Comms team includes communications director Paul Shipley, senior advisor Jeff Eller, and spokesman Tom Reynolds

The message:
Richardson argues that he has the best resume of any of the candidates, having served in Congress, as UN ambassador, New Mexico governor, and more. “I'm sure not the best looking or the flashiest,” as he says in his latest ad, “but I know who I am and I know how hard I'll work for you.”

The tools:
Through grassroots efforts like Mi Familia con Richardson, the only Latino in the race is courting the Hispanic vote, which is small but growing in New Hampshire and an increasingly large minority group nationwide. In Iowa, focus is on house parties, town meetings, and other face-to-face efforts as opposed to large rallies.

The image:
Richardson has not seemed aggressive nor particularly polished in televised debates, note communications pros. Four years ago, Richardson was widely seen as a top candidate for vice president. Schneiders says he'd rate the Richardson campaign so far as a “C” – he “has made no case for himself,” Schneiders says.

For ongoing news about the 2008 Presidential race, visit

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in