Mitt Romney is employing a strategy to reach voters first at stops around the country ahead of the president's appearances.
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Mitt Romney is employing a strategy to reach voters first at stops around the country ahead of the president's appearances.

Story highlights

Paul Waldman: Mitt Romney has been using campaign strategy of "pre-buttal" and "bracketing"

He idea is to undercut Obama's speeches around the country by getting there first with remarks

Strategy, called "bracketing," forces media to cover Romney first; Obama as afterthought

Waldman: It's smart campaigning in a nation that still gets most campaign news from local TV

Editor’s Note: Paul Waldman is a contributing editor at The American Prospect and the author of “Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success”. Follow him on his blog and on Twitter.

CNN —  

We’ve all heard that the news cycle has accelerated to the point where it’s less of a cycle and more of a constantly flowing river of pseudo-issues, feigned outrage, charges and counter-charges. But what if a campaign could not just respond instantaneously to what its opponents are saying, but actually go backward in time to respond before their opponents can even open their mouths?

Welcome to the “pre-buttal.” It may seem like just more campaign silliness, but there’s a method to it, one that, like so much of today’s campaigns, is all about the media.

In a pre-buttal, a campaign — let’s say Mitt Romney’s — tells reporters that a speech he’ll be giving is actually a response to a speech President Barack Obama is about to give. Romney’s campaign has even decided to (at least part of the time) follow Obama around the country “bracketing” Obama’s speeches by making sure that Romney or his surrogates go to the same places as the president both before and after an Obama appearance, to offer both pre-buttal and rebuttal.

Reactive though it might be, this is pretty smart campaigning. Political scientists have known for some time that candidate appearances actually have a significant impact on the outcome of elections. It’s probably because when a presidential candidate comes to a town, the result is a wave of positive media coverage over a period of multiple days.

Paul Waldman
Courtesy of Paul Waldman
Paul Waldman

Beforehand, the news is filled with stories about the preparations for the big event; then the big event happens, and there’s more glowing coverage about how the candidate (or the president) himself was right here in our town. Because so much of it happens in local papers and on local television news (still the news source more people use than any other, believe it or not), that coverage reaches lots of people who aren’t following John King’s Twitter feed.

The kind of low-involvement voters for whom the campaign is little more than a distant echo may not pay close attention to the race until October, but if the candidate gives a speech or tours a factory where they live, they’re likely to hear about it.

So if Obama comes to Saginaw, but Mitt Romney was there two days before, the Romney campaign can mitigate the effects on Michigan voters. The pre-buttal strategy is also an attempt to influence the coverage the eventual event gets. If one campaign gives a speech that has already been pre-butted, reporters are more likely to work the content of the pre-buttal into their coverage of the speech.

Not only that, casting your speech as a pre-buttal makes it seem slightly less dull than everything else you’re dishing out, since it gives it a little extra flavor of conflict and gamesmanship. It’s important to understand that reporters on the campaign trail suffer through a unique combination of frenzied, endless work and complete boredom. They have to rush to get to multiple campaign events every day, where the candidate will say … pretty much the same thing he said the day before.

And these days, not only do those reporters have to file a story about the speech, they may have to write more than one to keep their news organization’s website fresh, not to mention tweeting about it and perhaps talking about it on camera. So when a campaign says, “This isn’t just a speech, it’s a pre-buttal,” it may not make it the most compelling thing in the world, but at least it’s something.

Of course, you can’t pre-empt what your opponent is going to say if you don’t know it. Fortunately, candidates on both sides are predictable enough that this isn’t hard to do; it isn’t like someone’s going to come out with a new proposal on the economy that shocks everyone with its innovative thinking and departure from the traditional party line.

For all the changes in communication and the refinement in voter identification techniques, we already know almost everything both candidates are going to say between now and November. Which means there will be plenty of time for pre-buttals, rebuttals, and post-buttals.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Waldman.