Monday, March 26

Blundering Pundits: Etch-A-Sketch Candidates

Having worked on, reviewed, and analyzed hundreds of political campaigns and crisis communication scenarios, I'm among the first to admit that communication gaffes can be costly. But don't think for a moment that any loss of momentum by the Mitt Romney campaign can be tied to senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom's ill-advised analogy that the campaign is like an Etch A Sketch. There's more to it.

Most communication gaffes don't cause people to win or lose elections. They merely become a de facto moniker or brand that best sums up the weakness that a campaign team has been struggling with all along. For Romney's campaign, Fehrnstrom accidentally summed up the greatest weakness — people are still unsure whether Romney will do what he says that he will do. It's a matter of trust.

Communication gaffes don't kill candidates. They merely articulate any weaknesses.

There is no doubt that this single well-meant misstatement will go down in history as one of the worst, joining several others: the infamous picture of Michael Dukakis in an M1 Abrams tank during the 1988 presidential campaign; the "Dean Scream" by Howard Dean during the 2008 presidential primary after losing the Iowa caucuses; and Sarah Palin's inability to explain how Alaska's proximity to Russia gave her foreign policy experience during an interview with Katie Couric.

But while all of them are memorable, it's important to consider that it was not the gaffe but how the gaffe symbolized much deeper issues that made the difference. Dukakis, Dean, and Palin's gaffes didn't cost anyone an election. They only perfectly summed up deeper campaign problems, much like this one did.



If there is a lesson to be learned, it's as simple as this: never be so articulate that you make yourself a slave to your own message. And given that everyone is jumping on the Etch A Sketch comment, including the current administration, it seems pretty clear that this is one of those moments, but only if Romney's team cannot recover. There isn't much they can do to recover from it, except one little thing that carries a risk.

The Etch A Sketch gaffe is an opportunity to be humble, human, and approachable. 

Although he didn't personally make the remark, he might as well have. To date, the campaign seems unable to seize the moment, attempting to be too serious over a message meant to appeal to conservative and moderate voters.

Instead, Romney would have been better off defusing the moment by making fun of it. He should have shown up somewhere with his own Etch A Sketch, poked fun at the comment himself, and then used it as an opportunity to reinforce his positions — not with broad boasts of conservative ideologies or elaborate explanations that sometimes require Cliff Notes but with specifics that only a human can deliver. And that, right there, is why Romney faces competition. He has yet to be human enough.

On the bright side, Etch A Sketch sales are rising. I guess nobody realized how magical they can be.
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