WASHINGTON--()--Heading into the first Presidential debate, Mitt Romney’s best strategy may be to pretend that his opponent is not even in the room. That is to say, Romney must focus on himself and his own policies, and not President Obama. Americans are not persuaded by Romney’s attempts to portray this election as a referendum on President Obama. Instead, Obama’s effective messaging has led the election to be about a choice between the two candidates and a referendum on the Republican Party.
“Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”
These are conclusions drawn from a new Penn Schoen Berland (PSB) study of the successes and failures of each campaign’s messaging strategies. The study puts the twelve most-quoted and repeated statements from each candidate’s convention speeches and recent stump speeches to the test among a representative nationwide sample of likely voters. Using PSB’s proprietary message-testing tool – the Message Master™ – the messages are scored and ranked based on how much voters believe them, how they make voters feel about the candidate, and how they affect their votes. Obama’s messages performed significantly better than Romney’s.
The study’s key findings include:
- Romney’s messages are missing the mark and his efforts to portray the election as a referendum on Obama have not been successful. His focus on Obama and pessimism about the last four years are not resonating well with voters. Of the 24 messages tested, the top 8 were all Obama’s while the bottom 6 all belong to Romney.
- Obama is successfully turning this election into a referendum on his predecessor and the Republican Party – a remarkable feat for an incumbent president.
- Obama’s inclusionary, optimistic, and forward-looking messaging has helped him gain support among independents. Romney has gained some traction among independents with his recent messaging around foreign policy.
- Obama’s messages stack up well against corporate messages, while Romney’s stack up poorly.
“Pundits are wondering how a president with high unemployment and a low approval rating can be clearly ahead of his opponent. It’s simple: his argument to the American people is much more convincing,” said Billy Mann, Managing Director at PSB. “President Obama has pulled off a remarkable act of political jujitsu, making this election a referendum on the man who preceded him. What worked for Ronald Reagan is not working for Mitt Romney. He made his convention about the question ‘Are you better off?’, and it failed. If he makes that his closing argument, he will lose.”
Romney’s messages are missing the mark. As a significant part of his convention speech and his overall strategy, Romney has tried to turn the election into a referendum on Obama. In order to do so, the majority of Romney’s most-repeated messages mention his opponent and try to portray the last four years in a negative and pessimistic light. These themes do not resonate, and the most basic referendum question – “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” – is falling flat with voters.
Romney’s messaging has been out of touch with American voters partially due to the fact that they may not be as pessimistic as Romney thinks. In fact, the American Values Survey – released this past summer by PSB in conjunction with The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic – found that Americans are still optimistic about themselves. Romney’s Obama-centric strategy has also left the impression that he attacks his opponent rather than proposing alternate plans himself. For these reasons, making the election a referendum about Obama has hurt Romney more than it has helped.
President Obama’s messaging strategy has succeeded in turning the race into a choice between the two candidates and their policies rather than a referendum on the last four years. This study found that Obama’s messages are effective not only at framing this election as a choice but also as a referendum on Republican policies from the Bush administration. In fact, according to the Message Master™, his top two messages that most strongly resonate with voters position Romney’s policies as top-down approaches that have been tried by the Republicans and have failed.
Obama’s messages also have a greater impact than Romney’s on the all-important independent voters who will play a major role in deciding the outcome of this election. Obama has struck the right chord by using language that is inclusionary, optimistic, and forward-looking. Talking about “American jobs” – as opposed to Democratic or Republican jobs – getting “everybody involved” and the need for more than one party to make change has helped to position Obama well among swing voters.
Recent events have allowed Romney to gain some traction among independents on foreign policy. His message from the stump hitting Obama for calling events in the Middle East “Bumps in the road” is the overall strongest message from either candidate among Independents. Despite Romney’s recent success with foreign policy, Obama’s messages continue to be stronger overall among independents and voters in general.
Just how good is Obama’s messaging? PSB compared both candidates’ messages to corporate messages using Message Master™, its proprietary tool used to assess thousands of messages over years of research. The results show that Obama’s messages stack up well against the best from corporate America. In fact, they perform better than 58% of the messages PSB has tested for businesses. In comparison, Romney’s messages fall in the bottom 30%. If Mitt Romney is to try to stage a comeback in the weeks before the election, he is going to need significant change in his messaging strategy in the first debate.
About this Study
Between September 28 and October 1, 2012, PSB conducted a total of 1,003 online interviews among likely voters. The overall margin of error is +/- 3.1% and higher for sub-audiences. Each respondent was exposed to a total of twelve messages, six messages from each candidate in random rotated order. Respondents were randomly split into two equal cells in which one group saw messages from Obama first, the other saw those from Romney first. These messages were compared against each other as well as against thousands of messages tested for businesses using PSB’s proprietary message-testing tool: Message Master™ powered by Message Cloud™.
About Penn Schoen Berland
Penn Schoen Berland, a unit of WPP, is a global research-based consultancy that specializes in messaging and communications strategy for blue-chip political, corporate, and entertainment clients. PSB has over 30 years of experience in leveraging unique insights about consumer opinion to provide clients with a competitive advantage – what it calls Winning Knowledge. PSB executes polling and message testing services for Fortune 100 companies and has helped elect more than 30 presidents and prime ministers around the world. For more information, please visit www.psbresearch.com.