It's Silly Time!

Matt Lewis

1/1/2008 5:46:00 PM - Matt Lewis


A few weeks ago, I wrote this about Mike Huckabee's lack of money:
.... Huckabee doesn't have enough money to really respond -- or if he does, you might see one Huckabee ad for every five Romney spots attacking Huckabee.  By the time Romney is done with Huckabee, most Iowans will think he's Mike Dukakis ...
There is no doubt that whether you call them contrast -- or negative -- Mitt Romney's TV ads and voter mail pieces have effectively halted Huckabee's Iowa surge. 

Obviously, one of the worst things about not having money is that a candidate who lacks money is almost constantly on defense.  He must sit by and watch as his opponent continues to define him as a bogey man.

Or worse ...

A maxim in politics is that you are should respond to an attack in the same medium in which the attack came.  For example, if you're attacked in a newspaper ad, you should not run a TV ad to "set the record straight" (that would only serve to further the accusation by spreading the rumors to a larger audience).  Instead, you would respond to the ad with your own newspaper ad, etc.

But a candidate who has no money to respond in the medium in which he's attacked (in this case, TV ads), is forced to use "earned media" and public relations tactics to respond.  There are a couple of fundamental problems with this strategy:

1.  The media is not always easily manipulated.  If you pay for a TV ad,  then you control the message.  There is no filter.  But if you hold a press conference, you don't always get the story you hoped for.  Sometimes, reporters ask tough questions.  Sometimes they are cynical and resent being "used".  ... And sometimes ... things just backfire.

2.  It's easy to get "hooked" on press attention.  At first, it's free.  ... Until you're addicted to it, and you'll do anything to get the next media "hit."  Eventually, in order to get press attention, your story must be especially interesting and controversial (remember, it's "earned" media not "free").  The problem is that in order to be deemed "newsworthy," candidates often have to incorporate some sort of gimmickry (this may include going jogging in a yellow suit, going pheasant hunting, having the press follow you to a barber shop, or even holding a press conference to preview a negative ad that you decide not to run).  Often times, candidates cross the line and end up looking silly.  This is precisely what has happened to Mike Huckabee this last week.

Earned media is an excellent tactic for campaigns to take advantage of, and it should be incorporated in almost every campaign.   But it is one facet of a well-run campaign -- not the entire show.  A candidate who does not incorporate several tactics to advance his message is like a boxer who only has a jab, or a pitcher who only has a fast ball.

Because Mike Huckabee lacks the almost limitless resources Mitt Romney has, Romney has been able to define Huckabee in an unfavorable light.  Assuming it works, Mike Huckabee might lose Iowa, only to emerge from this race with his pride intact, a hero of the social conservatives, and a hero to the public who decries "negative" campaigning.

But because he has over-relied on earned media as a method to advance his message, Huckabee has come across looking foolish.  This is a self-inflicted wound that could harm his reputation in the long run, which would be truly unfortunate, as a defeated Mike Huckabee could still be a valuable asset to the conservative movement...