Now that the general election is in full swing, both campaigns are in the midst of a ceaseless push to articulate their message, engaging reporters on conference calls, on Twitter and in appearances with crowds and on TV, as each candidate jockeys to gain an upper hand in the press, and by extension, the media.
Campaign conference calls are one tool both parties use to offer up unchecked talking points and allow surrogates to tout their candidates’ message. But for Mitt Romney, those calls have often done more harm than good, either throwing the campaign message off track, showcasing a lack of preparation to field basic questions on Romney’s positions, or both.
Instead of trumpeting the candidate’s accomplishments and vision, the calls have to varying degrees shot the campaign in the foot.
• The Russians Are Coming
On Thursday, Romney’s campaign tried to pre-empt Vice President Joe Biden’s first campaign foreign policy speech by hosting a call featuring three of Romney’s national security advisers.
The Obama campaign has been saying for weeks that Romney has a “Cold War mentality” when it comes to foreign policy. Instead of countering that characterization, the call only reinforced Biden’s point.
Two of Romney’s surrogates dropped Cold War references when referring to Obama’s foreign policy failures. One said the White House has abandoned Czechoslovakia (a country that hasn’t existed since 1993) and the other said Obama wasn’t strong enough to prevent “the Soviets” from “pushing into the Arctic.” The outdated references revealed Romney’s advisers on foreign policy to be largely relics of the past - thereby proving the Obama campaign’s point.
• Hey Ladies, Listen To The Sound Of Silence
On April 11, Romney’s campaign scheduled a call to push back on Democratic attacks that Romney and the GOP are waging a “war on women” with legislative policies aimed at making abortions harder to obtain and birth control coverage easier to deny. The campaign call was intended to set the record straight, and even to put Romney on offense, so he could suggest it’s actually Obama who’s waging war on the nation’s females. But the Romney surrogates, when pressed, couldn’t explain how that war works or exactly what their candidate would do differently to help women get work and achieve equal pay.
The call’s most memorable moment was one the Romney campaign would like to take back: five painful seconds of silence following a reporter’s question on whether Romney supports the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first law signed by Obama aimed at making it easier for women to sue over pay discrimination. Romney was for days forced to awkwardly explain that he’s not interested in repealing the law, though he repeatedly refused to say whether he would have signed it.
Again the Romney message was knocked off track — rather than put Obama on the ropes, the call exposed Romney’s remaining weaknesses with women.
• Cool Is As Cool Does
On an April 24 call about the youth vote, a Romney surrogate served to reinforce his candidate’s disconnect with the kids today by saying that Romney’s hip to the youth vote simply by virtue of being younger than John McCain.
“My guess is you’ll see a dramatic difference in the youth vote this time — part of it is you have a younger, more dynamic Republican candidate,” a 72-year old former college president trying to do Romney a solid said.
Of course, conference call awkwardness isn’t reserved for Romney. The Obama campaign raised some eyebrows on April 10 when it hosted a call demanding Romney release the 23 years’ worth of tax returns he handed over to the McCain campaign in 2008 as part of the VP vetting process, but refused to answer a question about whether Obama himself would also be releasing 23 years’ worth of returns.
“We’ve gone back to 2000,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said after a long pause. “This is the standard Romney set when he was talking to McCain about the VP deal. We have been very clear about what we have laid out. We’ve done unprecedented transparency across government.”
Romney wasn’t able to capitalize on the moment thanks to his own reluctance to release his tax returns. Any chatter about Obama’s taxes would only keep his own finances in the spotlight.
Romney’s conference call issue hasn’t gone unnoticed. Republican observers watching the Romney campaign from the outside often question the campaign’s messaging choices, and the gaffe-prone conference calls so far have left them grumbling behind the scenes.