Let's skip over the issues for a moment and get back to the basics. Elections are transactions in which we buy the services of a candidate for four years. Like any other business deal, closing comes down to salesmanship.
There are two basic elements when buying a product or service.
1. Practical. "I need this product."
2. Emotional. "This product makes me feel good."
This is where the media plays its most insidious role, providing reassurance to Obama buyers that they are doing the right thing and damping their unease, while doing just the opposite for Romney buyers. The media can't compel someone to vote one way or another, but it can encourage bad decisions and discourage good decisions by providing false levels of confidence through their reporting.
Romney has the same problem as a company with a good product, but bad media coverage. The way to counter that is on two fronts, by providing practical consumers with the specifications to help them make informed decisions, and providing emotional consumers with the reassurance that they can count on him.
Practical buyers have built-in confidence about their buying decisions because they carefully research a product and match it to their needs. Emotional buyers, however, lack confidence and shop as a means of boosting their own confidence. Products have to project confidence for them to buy them. They don't buy products that lack a confident image, because they don't make decisions that make them feel more insecure than they already are.
In an insecure time, people buy the most confident brand. A brand that exudes confidence and which is recommended by others. Obama projected a false confidence, that some mistook for charisma, and used a media consensus to bring in these voters in the last election. Most of those voters are still worried and nervous, but they haven't made the change because they don't feel enough confidence in the alternative.
Attack ads can partly sway them by diminishing their confidence level in the existing product, but they have less effect than positive ads that make them feel good about the other product. An attack ad is just as likely to make them sit out the election as it is to make them vote the right way.
The secrets of the 3 two-term Republican presidents of the 20th Century is that they projected that confident sense that they knew what they were doing. Bush and Reagan both had it. Eisenhower had it to a lesser degree. Teddy Roosevelt had it in spades and nearly won a second term as a third-party candidate. Two-term Democrats like FDR and Clinton had the same skill. Regardless of their abilities and the consequences of their actions, they projected a confidence that swayed voters.
No matter how badly Obama performs, a sizable number of emotional voters are not going to drop him because he still makes them feel better about the future. Those voters may well be the difference between victory and defeat.
To win, Obama has to project confidence while his media apparatus sows doubt. The combination is lethal and toxic. It may not be as effective as it was four years ago, but it doesn't have to be. It just has to be effective enough.
Romney won by running a mechanical campaign that was heavy on attack ads. He ended up crossing the finish line on the sole positive of being the "most electable candidate". But voters in a general election are not going to elect him because he is electable, that's an internal strategic calculation. If they elect him, it will be because he makes them feel more confident about the future. And that's a tall order.
To win, Romney is not just going to have to attack Obama, he is going to have to make emotional voters feel good about going with him. It is possible to do both at the same time. Reagan did it well. Scott Brown just ran a commercial that does it pretty well too.
What makes the ad work is that it's an attack ad whose dominant theme is optimism. Rather than spending 2 minutes whacking away at Obama and Warren, it frames Brown as an American brand that transcends ideology, and frames Obama and Warren as small, bitter people who don't understand America and have no vision. The ad begins with optimism and ends with optimism. It implies that Obama and Warren are aberrations in the American journey. It links their pessimism to the poor economy. And it does all this subtly without having to spell it out.
Attack ads are weakening. They diminish the candidate making them. The best attack ads don't just diminish confidence in an opponent, but boost confidence in a candidate. The best attack ads are innately optimistic, they demonstrate fitness, rather than just unfitness. And that has to be the theme of a winning campaign.
To win, Romney is going to have to be that American brand. And it won't be easy. It's hard to argue with someone who has more airtime than you. The amount of money that Romney has raised is deceptive, because Obama will have a thousand times more free airtime from a government-media complex that does nothing but sing his praises.
Romney can run 30 percent more ads, but all the airtime in between will be unacknowledged ads for Obama. And not just on news networks or newscasts. Obama's people don't understand economics, but they do understand branding. Their goal once again will be to make Obama into the most familiar and recognized brand. They will embed him in every possible forum. When he isn't making personal appearances, cast members will mention him. If they aren't mentioning him, they'll be picking up talking points bashing Romney and his V.P. or volunteering for his campaign. A few months from now, that is what half the entertainment news will be about.
The goal of all this activity is to present a manufactured consensus in favor of Obama. That consensus boosts confidence in buying Obama because it's what everyone is buying.
Romney is not going to have a consensus on his side. Very few Republicans running for the big chair do. Only when their candidate is hopelessly weak and inept does the media shrug its shoulders and accept the inevitable. And only some of the time. But he's also going to have to resist the temptation of going negative all the time.
People already lack confidence in Obama. Even most Obama voters are not particularly confident or optimistic. What they need is to have confidence in Romney. And that is doable. The narrative already exists. The template has already been used by two Republican Presidents to win two terms within recent memory, and against overwhelming media hostility. But it requires optimism.
Even when all the facts are set out before them, people still need to believe. Optimism can give people the confidence to leap the buying hurdle. Optimistic people are more likely to buy. People are more likely to vote for someone who makes them feel better, rather than someone who makes them feel worse. Obama understood that in 2008, and he's still reasonably confident that this will work for him now. And it might.
Obama's optimism is fake, but in bleak times, people will take the ersatz flavor if they can't get the real thing. This election won't come down to policy debates. It will come down to Obama's failures and Romney's ability to sell enough voters on his plan for success. Much of it will come down to trivial things. It will come down to feelings.
Deep down most people want a change. What they need is the reassurance that they are making the right decision. If they get it, Romney will be in office for the next four years. If they don't, the next four years will be even worse.
It's not just about what Romney will do; it's also about how we approach the topic. It can be easy to fall into anger and impatience with people who don't seem to get it. But few people were ever swayed by being yelled at about their mistakes.
It is just as important to be optimistic about Romney as it is to be pessimistic about Obama. People are more likely to be influenced by hope balanced against fear, rather than fear pitted against hope. Most people, regardless of their political orientation, want things to get better. The message that will win is that they can make things better if they make the right choice.