The 10 Worst Media Gaffes Of Election 2012

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 28, 2012 – 12:10 am

Next Tuesday, millions of Americans will head to their local polling places to select the next President of the United States.

It’s about time. We’ve been subjected to a two-year campaign in which the candidates have been on our television screens for hundreds of hours. Most of those hours have been unremarkable—but a few memorable moments turned into PR disasters for the campaigns.

This post will highlight the ten worst media disasters of the 2012 presidential campaign.

You will notice that there are more Republicans than Democrats on my list. That’s not due to political bias, but simple math: There were eight Republicans competing for their party’s nomination, while President Obama ran unopposed. Republicans debated one another during the primaries almost two dozen times; President Obama debated no one on the Democratic side.

Therefore, Republicans were much more visible during much of the campaign, occupied a lot of the media airtime and headlines, and had more opportunities to make mistakes. For that reason only, you’ll see more of them on this list.


10. Newt Gingrich: I’m Going To Be The Nominee

Last December, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made a confident declaration:

“I’m going to be the nominee. It’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee.”


Mr. Gingrich’s time at the top of the polls quickly ended after he declared his intent to build a moon colony by 2020. He ended up carrying only one state outside his native Georgia.


9. Michele Bachmann’s Dubious “Mental Retardation” Claim

Michele Bachmann opposes a mandated HPV vaccine, which helps protects young women from cervical cancer. But she went a step too far when she shared an anecdote about a woman on the campaign trail who said her daughter “suffers from mental retardation” as a result of getting the vaccine.

Rep. Bachmann later defended herself by claiming she was just passing along a story without judging it as true. But her dubious medical claim put at risk people who decided to forgo the vaccine as a result of her misinformation.


8. President Obama: “The Private Sector is Doing Fine”

At a press conference in June, President Obama uttered a phrase he came to regret.

While speaking about the economy, he said, “The private sector is doing fine.” By some measurements, that may have been true. But by making such a declarative statement, he handed his opponents a perfect opportunity to paint him as an out-of-touch politician who was disconnected from economic reality.


7.  Herman Cain’s “Rolling Disclosures”

When faced with allegations of sexual harassment last November, Herman Cain responded in the worst possible way: with a series of “rolling disclosures.”

“Rolling disclosures” occur when a spokesperson fails to disclose everything they know from the start, opting instead to drip out information slowly. As a result, every time the spokesperson reveals a new detail—no matter how trivial—new oxygen gets pumped into the story. That approach has the net effect of extending the shelf life of the crisis while diminishing the believability of each new iteration of the story.

Herman Cain’s time at the top of the polls ended due not to the allegations—but his handling of the allegations.


6. Mitt Romney’s $10,000 Bet

When Mitt Romney turned to Republican primary opponent Rick Perry and challenged him to a “$10,000 bet,” he reinforced his image as an out-of-touch rich guy. It wasn’t just his $10,000 bet. He also told one audience that his wife drives two Cadillacs, told another that they should just borrow money from their parents if they’re short of cash, and told a radio host that although he doesn’t watch NASCAR, he’s friends with some team owners.



5. President Obama’s “You Didn’t Build That” and Mitt Romney’s “I Like Being Able to Fire People”

I’m judging both of these as equal gaffes—mostly because both lines were taken out of context by political opponents.

Opponents accused President Obama of saying that small business owners didn’t build their own businesses but that government did. (In reality, he appeared to be saying that business owners didn’t build the roads that led customers to their doors or the Internet they use to conduct business.)

Opponents accused Governor Romney of saying that he liked to fire people. (In reality, he appeared to be saying that he liked being able to cancel policies from bad health insurance companies.)

Regardless, both lines were damaging to both candidates. And it proves that in this media age, you can’t afford to commit the deadly seven-second stray.


4. Herman Cain Draws a Blank on Libya

We’ve all had that terrible moment when we’ve gone completely blank. Unfortunately for Herman Cain, his moment was caught on video. When he was asked why he opposed President Obama’s policy in Libya, let’s just say he struggled to come up with an answer.


3. Mitt Romney’s Secret “47 Percent” Video

At a May fundraiser, Mitt Romney shared his views of President Obama’s voters in a secretly filmed video that was later leaked to the liberal Mother Jones Magazine. In the video, Mr. Romney, said:

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it….My job is not to worry about those people.”


The video was a disaster for Mr. Romney’s campaign, taking them far off their desired messages just two months before Election Day.


2. President Obama’s First Debate

In terms of sheer political impact, little comes close to President Obama’s lackluster performance in the first presidential debate. As Mitt Romney attacked his record, Mr. Obama responded without any discernible passion, instead making meandering points full of “uhhhs.”

As a result, Governor Romney delivered a humiliating thumping to the President, who sank in the polls almost immediately. If President Obama loses next Tuesday, historians will cite this debate as a major reason why. If he wins, it will be a lot closer than it otherwise could have been.

This media disaster ranks number two for only one reason: This list is intended to look at short media moments, not entire debates. But this debate was just too impactful to ignore.

The video below is an edited compilation of some of Mr. Obama’s many “uhhhs.” It’s emblematic of how hesitant and unfocused he was throughout the debate.


1. Rick Perry’s Infamous “Oops”

During a Republican primary debate in November 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry confidently declared that he would eliminate three government agencies. Unfortunately for him, he promptly forgot what they were.

For 47 painful seconds, Mr. Perry tried to recall the third agency he would eliminate. He finally gave up, shrugged his shoulders, and lamely said, “oops.” That one moment likely sank any remaining chances Mr. Perry had of winning the nomination. In terms of an immediate and spectacular self-immolation, nothing came even close.


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Why You Should Study Reporters Before Every Interview

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 5, 2012 – 6:09 am

Whatever you think of his politics, Newt Gingrich is pretty gifted at delivering a strong media interview.

He appeared on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 in support of Mitt Romney recently, and Mr. Cooper had a few “tough” questions prepared. But Cooper didn’t ask a tough follow-up to at least one key question, allowing Gingrich to say only what he wanted to – and nothing more.

And that teaches you something about how to respond to difficult questions well.


Anderson Cooper: “Mitt Romney’s record, 47th in the nation overall [in job creation] when Mitt Romney left office [as Massachusetts Governor]. That’s obviously not a great number. Why, if Mitt Romney knows how to create jobs, was he not able to create more jobs as the governor of Massachusetts?”

Newt Gingrich: “Start with a point you made – they were at 4.7 percent unemployment. If we were at 4.7 percent unemployment right now, five-and-a-half Americans would be at work, but under Obama’s policies, they’re clearly unemployed. So I think it’s pretty hard for the Obama team to make the case that Romney did a worse job in Massachusetts. He clearly had a lower unemployment level.”   


Gingrich’s response didn’t at all answer the essence of Cooper’s question. The essence of Cooper’s question was about Romney’s poor job creation ranking as 47th among 50 governors, which paled in comparison to his peers – not about the unemployment rate itself. But Cooper didn’t follow up, allowing Gingrich to get away with his borderline non-sequitur.

Here’s the follow-up question Cooper should have asked (and how my former boss, Ted Koppel, likely would have asked it): 

“With all due respect, Mr. Gingrich, that’s not what I asked. During Governor Romney’s tenure in Massachusetts, 46 governors had a better record of job creation than he did. If he ranked only 47th out of 50 in Massachusetts, why should we have any confidence that he knows how to do a better job on a national scale?”


Newt Gingrich was able to sidestep Mitt Romney's record as a job creator

If a trainee answered the question the way Gingrich did during one of our media training workshops, I would have told him that it wasn’t a great answer since it failed to answer the essence of the question. But that brings us back to the title of this post, about why it’s so important to research reporters before every interview.

If you research the host and know you’ll likely be able to dodge tough questions without facing tough follow-ups, you might as well avoid the toughest part of the question and say something related to it instead. (You have to be careful not to go too far or do it too often, since a string of non sequiturs could alienate the audience.)

So research the host before your interview. If the host tends not to ask tough follow-ups, you may be able to answer tough questions a bit less directly. That may be bad for our national discourse – but it could be very good for you as a spokesperson.

Editor’s Note: I’m not accusing Anderson Cooper of never asking a probing follow-up question. He often does. But he didn’t in this case, and this exchange perfectly illustrates the larger point of this post. 

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Scorecard: February 22, 2012 Republican Debate

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 22, 2012 – 11:03 pm

Tonight’s debate – the 20th of this election cycle – came less than one week before the possibly decisive Michigan and Arizona primaries.

Coming into tonight’s debate, Sen. Rick Santorum had the national lead in most polls, was narrowly leading most Michigan polls, and was closing the gap in Arizona. Did he do enough to retain his new frontrunner status, or did he fumble the political football on his opponent’s ten yard line?

Here are tonight’s grades in order of best to worst:

RON PAUL (1st Place, Grade: B+)

Rep. Paul had one of his better debates tonight.

One of his best moments came on international policy, when he said the United States shouldn’t be talking about war with Iran. He told the crowd that although he recognizes that he won’t win the moral or constitutional argument in the short-term, he would win the economic one right away. He then offered a passionate plea to his opponents: if you’re going to lead us into war, at least get a declaration of war from Congress. “The obligation should be the oath to the office,” he said, “not the oath to the party.”

Dr. Paul also got a few digs in, shrugging his shoulders and laughing while calling Rick Santorum a “fake.” No other candidate could get away with such a direct attack, and Mr. Santorum offered a minimal defense, weakly telling Paul, “I’m real.”

Paul made a questionable assertion at the end of the night, when he was asked what the biggest media misconception about him is. He said it was “the media myth” that he couldn’t win. As a reminder, Ron Paul lost all 50 states in 2008, and is winless after nine contests this year. That makes him “0 for 59,” hardly a media myth and more an obvious electoral reality.

But he was right on the one word that defined him more than any other: “consistent.” Even his harshest critics would have a tough time making the case that his adjective of choice is anything but spot on.

NEWT GINGRICH (2nd Place, Grade: B)

Speaker Gingrich had a decent night tonight, but didn’t fundamentally do anything to help resurrect his flagging campaign.

As usual, he used strong language, lashing out that it is “utterly stupid to say the United States can’t control the border.” He also used evocative language, saying, “I’m inclined to believe dictators.” That line, of course, could be used against him in political ads – if his opponents determine that he’s relevant enough to be worthy of their attacks. I don’t expect they will.

Mr. Gingrich spoke of a “modern management system” in four answers. I’ve yet to hear a political base – especially one craving a strong emotional appeal – fired up about that kind of process-oriented language. A new “management system” may be good government, but it’s unlikely to influence tens of thousands of voters to suddenly change their votes.

When asked to define himself in one word, Mr. Gingrich selected, “cheerful.” It’s better than “strategery” or “lockbox,” but let’s hope he meant that one sarcastically.

MITT ROMNEY (3rd Place, Grade: B-)

It’s hard to know whether Mitt Romney had a good night or whether Rick Santorum had a bad one. Graded objectively, Gov. Romney didn’t do much to make himself look more likable or relatable tonight. But sometimes, the strongest candidate is the one left standing at the end of the battle as his opponents eliminate themselves one-by-one.

Mr. Romney did have some good moments, twisting the metaphorical knife in Rick Santorum’s side when Santorum started flailing. He derided one of Santorum’s answers, saying, “I didn’t follow all of that,” and reminded viewers that Santorum had voted for the infamous Bridge to Nowhere.

Somehow, Romney even managed to lay blame at Santorum’s feet for “ObamaCare,” saying, “Don’t look at me, take a look in the mirror.” His point, which contained a bit of twisted logic, was that because Santorum had supported moderate Republican Senator Arlen Specter over the more conservative Pat Toomey, Republicans lost a critical vote against President Obama’s health care law.

Mr. Romney had a few off moments, but they didn’t play terribly on television, thanks to the obviously pro-Romney crowd. He dodged the last question of the night, when he was asked about what misconceptions the public has about him. When reminded of the original question by moderator John King, Romney retorted: “You get to ask the questions you want, I get to answer the questions I want.”

And when asked to define himself, he used the word, “resolute.” That shows either a shocking lack of self-awareness or a brazen attempt to recreate his political past.

RICK SANTORUM (4th Place, Grade: C-)

This was a bad night for Rick Santorum.

As the new GOP frontrunner, he was predictably attacked by his three opponents. But instead of transitioning to safer ground, he spent most of the night on the defensive, trying in vain to explain his way out of corners instead of just moving to the center of the ring.

For example, during one particularly grueling answer on his support for No Child Left Behind, he earned the enmity of the pro-Romney crowd with a long, process-oriented answer, followed by a lecture that “politics is a team sport.” He ended his answer by boosting his credentials as a “home schooling father of seven.”

A better approach would have been to begin his answer with his home schooling bona fides instead of adding them at the end as an afterthought. He should have used that technique during the entire evening, beginning each answer with a strong, action-oriented headline instead of getting mired in explanations about the slow-churning legislative process.

It wasn’t all bad for Santorum. He offered a passionate defense about the importance of family, and delivered a strong retort to Ron Paul’s assertion that his voting record wasn’t conservative enough. He helped diminish the controversies surrounding his views on contraception by saying, “Just because I’m talking about it doesn’t mean I want a government program to fix it.”

He also got a good line off when Mitt Romney bragged about balancing the Massachusetts state budget: “[Former Massachusetts Democratic Governor] Michael Dukakis balanced the budget for ten years. Does that make him qualified to be president? I don’t think so.”

Overall, though, Mr. Santorum had a bad night at the worst possible moment for his campaign. Don’t be surprised if his poll numbers slip a bit between now and next Tuesday.

COMMENTS? Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? Please leave your opinion in the comment section below, but remember the blog’s comment policy – no ad hominem attacks or pejorative name-calling will be posted.

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Scorecard: January 26, 2012 Republican Debate

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 26, 2012 – 11:00 pm

I’ll admit it.

After 19 debates, I’ve become jaded. You may have noticed that if you read my review of Monday’s debate a few days ago. But tonight’s debate actually mattered, and it may prove decisive.

We may be able to look back to January 26, 2012 as the night Mitt Romney became the Republican nominee.

The candidates sparred energetically this evening, and the polls are doubtlessly going to shift after tonight’s performances. The question is in which direction they’ll move – and my scorecard below may help answer that question.

Here are tonight’s grades in order of best to worst:

RICK SANTORUM (1st Place, Grade: A)

If this Rick Santorum had shown up to each of the previous 18 debates, he’d probably have cleared the field already and been marching toward the presidential nomination by now. Yup, he was that good. 

Sen. Santorum’s finest moment came after a battle royale between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, when he passionately jumped in and scolded the two men:

“These two gentleman are out distracting from the most important issues we have by playing petty personal politics. Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies, and that’s not the worst thing in the world, and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard and he’s going out and working hard, and you guys should leave that alone and focus on the issues.”


The audience erupted at his line, showing how Santorum won Iowans over three weeks ago. But he wasn’t a one-trick pony tonight. He also took Mitt Romney to task for “RomneyCare,” saying, “Folks we can’t give this issue away in the election. It’s about freedom….Your mandate is no different than Barack Obama’s mandate.”

He had other fine moments, name-dropping the name of the Puerto Rican governor after an audience question (he had even gone to church with him), and knowledgably discussing Central and South America with great passion.

But his finest moment may have come when he was asked a throwaway question about what his wife would bring to the White House as First Lady. Unlike the other three candidates, he offered a truly heartfelt answer that likely melted the hearts of many a voter.

This is not only Mr. Santorum’s best debate, but it may be the best of any candidate so far this election cycle. Unfortunately for him, it may be too late. So any votes he picks up after tonight – and he will likely pick up many – will likely reduce Newt Gingrich’s total and pave the way for Mitt Romney to win Florida’s primary on Tuesday.

MITT ROMNEY (2nd Place, Grade: B)

Mitt Romney started the debate strong but had a couple of off moments that knocked his grade down a bit.

Early on, he schooled Newt Gingrich on the immigration issue when the former House Speaker accused him of wanting to send grandparents who had been in the U.S. illegally for years back to their home countries. “The problem is not 11 million grandmothers,” Gov. Romney said to great applause.

When Mr. Gingrich accused him of making money off of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Mr. Romney responded, “You also own mutual funds that invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.” Mr. Gingrich meekly said, “right,” and retreated. 

Mr. Romney hired a new debate coach recently, and it showed in his performance. He was much stronger, looked genuinely angry at moments tonight, and was better prepared.

But even a new debate coach couldn’t stop Mr. Romney from committing a few mistakes:

  1. 1. He denied putting an ad on the air about a quote in which Mr. Gingrich appeared to call Spanish “the language of the ghetto.” Wolf Blitzer quickly corrected him, saying that not only did he run the ad, but that it said, “I’m Mitt Romney and I approved this message.”
  2. 2. He responded to Newt Gingrich’s idea about a moon colony by saying, “I spent 25 years in business. If I had a business executive come to me and say they want to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say you’re fired.” Can he seriously not get through a public appearance without threatening to fire someone?
  3. 3. On health care, he told Rick Santorum, “It’s not worth getting angry about.” That line will likely be used against him for the rest of the week. 

Overall, thought, Mitt Romney may be the big winner tonight. His relative strength, combined with Newt Gingrich’s weakness and Rick Santorum’s master performance, may help seal his nomination.

RON PAUL (3rd Place, Grade: C)

Let’s end the fantasy that Ron Paul has a chance to be the next president. He’s running to get attention for his issues and broaden the movement – laudable goals, but not winning ones for 2012.

At this point, CNN may as well use one of its famous holograms to replace the actual Ron Paul and just press play. We know the old familiar soliloquies by heart by now, and they were there again tonight on Fannie and Freddie, monetary policy, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.

That’s not to say he didn’t have some terrific moments. When asked about his health, he challenged his opponents to a 25-mile bike ride in the Texas heat. On the colonization of the moon (yes, a real topic at this debate), Dr. Paul said. “I don’t think we should go to the moon. I think maybe we should send some politicians up there.”

Increasingly, he’s running as the libertarian Bulworth – less interested in winning than in being intellectually honest. That’s admirable. But to grade him as a serious contender at this point seems like a stretch. If he truly wanted to win, he wouldn’t go into Florida and offer a tepid defense of Israel.

NEWT GINGRICH (4th Place, Grade: D)

Tonight may be remembered as the last evening Newt Gingrich was ever viewed as a serious presidential contender.

He delivered a limp, restrained, and uncertain performance in which he wildly vacillated between offering truces to his fellow candidates and attacking them, often within seconds of each other. That he did so poorly after insisting upon a live audience (and getting it) made him look even worse. He simultaneously looked both defensive and unable to defend himself.

Not only did Mr. Gingrich lose this point to Mitt Romney, he also lost it to moderator Wolf Blitzer:

When Ron Paul later accused Mr. Gingrich of not balancing four budgets in the House as he’s been claiming, Gingrich responded that he had indeed balanced the budget, “Under the system that was used.” That’s right, folks, that perfectly parsed, Clintonesque line earned him the boos of the Republican crowd.

Finally, Mr. Gingrich said his investments are a "tiny mouse" compared with Romney’s “giant elephant." That may well be a perfect metaphor for the rest of this campaign.

COMMENTS? Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? Please leave your opinion in the comment section below, but remember the blog’s comment policy – no ad hominem attacks or pejorative name-calling will be posted.

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Scorecard: January 23, 2012 Republican Debate

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 24, 2012 – 12:05 am

After Newt Gingrich’s unexpected blowout in South Carolina on Saturday night, tonight’s debate promised to be a barnburner.

Instead, tonight’s debate – the 18th of this election cycle – was the most insufferably boring, and likely the least newsworthy.

Well, one thing was newsworthy. For the first time in 18 debates, NBC decided to mute the audience, ostensibly to lend much-needed gravitas to the proceedings. I appreciate their intention, which helped focus attention on the candidates instead of on audience misbehavior. But the silence managed to suck the life out of the debate – and audience members were reduced to being, as one former journalism boss once called them, “potted plants.”

This was supposed to be an exciting Republican debate in a suddenly tumultuous field. Instead, it was a tough-to-grade snoozer. How dull was it? One of the GOP frontrunners discussed the fine distinction between beet and cane sugar. Really.

Here are tonight’s grades in order of best to worst:

MITT ROMNEY (1st Place, Grade: B)

Gov. Romney had a much more sure-footed performance tonight than he has in the past few debates. It’s not that he came across as particularly appealing tonight (he was far too negative for that), but he at least wasn’t particularly unappealing tonight. That’s progress.

He came out of the gate by launching a frontal assault on Newt Gingrich. About the former House Speaker, Mr. Romney reminded viewers that, “It was Republicans who replaced him in the House, voted to reprimand him.” He twice said that Mr. Gingrich resigned from Congress in disgrace, and accused him of being a lobbyist for Freddie Mac.

He was steadier tonight on the now-predictable question of releasing his tax returns, but still refuses to put out 12 years of tax returns as his father did when he was a presidential candidate in 1968. I’m not convinced that releasing two years worth of tax returns will fully put this issue to bed. Nor did his conventional talking point, “The real question is not so much my taxes, but the taxes of the American people” work. A more gifted retail politician could have finessed it better; from Romney, the line looks scripted and insincere.

Mr. Romney had at least two off-pitch moments tonight. First, he again bragged that he put Ted Kennedy into debt during his failed bid for Massachusetts in 1994: “I didn’t beat him, but he had to take out a mortgage on his house so he could beat me.”

Second, he said that illegal immigrants are, “…going to find they can’t get work here, and if people can’t get work here, they’re going to self-deport to a place they can get work.” Critics are already seizing on Mr. Romney’s awkward phrasing of “self-deport,” saying it’s a ludicrous notion that people will deport themselves. It’s an unfair interpretation of his meaning – and he’s right on the facts – but that won’t prevent from some people trying to turn it into a, “I was for it before I was against it” moment. 

But the big picture tonight for Mitt Romney was generally positive. He didn’t deliver anything even remotely close to an inspiring performance – but at least he stopped the bleeding tonight.

NEWT GINGRICH (2nd Place, Grade: B-)

Speaker Gingrich clearly doesn’t do as well without an enthusiastic audience to play off of. He was oddly muted tonight, playing the role of “above it all” frontrunner and barely defending himself against Mitt Romney’s attacks. When the roles were reversed, Mr. Romney’s failure to strongly defend himself against Gingrich’s attacks didn’t work so well, so it’s curious why Mr. Gingrich would adopt the same strategy in reverse.

To the degree Mr. Gingrich launched any “attacks,’” they were meek. Alluding to Mr. Romney’s low tax rate, Gingrich said that he was prepared to call his tax plan the “Mitt Romney Flat Tax,” since he proposed to bring all Americans down to Romney’s tax rate.

He also defended himself badly against charges that he accepted $1.6 million from the unpopular housing lender Freddie Mac. At one point, he turned to Mr. Romney and challenged whether any of the money he had earned with Bain Capital was from the government. Romney said “no,” and Gingrich didn’t follow up. A candidate should know better than to ask a question to which he doesn’t know the answer and can’t follow-up upon.

His strongest moment came when, after being scolded by Romney for accepting money from Freddie Mac, Gingrich asked Romney how much money he made with Bain Capital. Romney seemed genuinely surprised by the question, stumbling a bit before saying he had earned a “substantial” amount.

In the end, he didn’t do much to hurt himself, and Mr. Romney’s punches didn’t land hard enough to change the state of the race. Still, I’m not sure Mr. Gingrich can afford to be so laid back in Thursday’s debate.

RICK SANTORUM (3rd Place, Grade: C)

Rick Santorum is languishing toward the back of the pack with no discernible path to the nomination. He did nothing tonight to change that.

Although Mr. Santorum did nothing wrong tonight, he didn’t do anything to stand out. And for a guy polling a distant third, that’s a losing performance.

RON PAUL (4th Place, Grade: C-)

After 18 debates, there’s little new to say about Rep. Paul. He meandered, attacked the Fed, and discussed monetary policy. Here’s a prediction: He’ll do the same in the 19th debate. And the 20th. But like Santorum, he did nothing tonight that will help him suddenly surge and win the White House – and he seems to know it, acknowledging that he doesn’t “daydream” about being President.  

COMMENTS? Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? Please leave your opinion in the comment section below, but remember the blog’s comment policy – no ad hominem attacks or pejorative name-calling will be posted.

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Why Mitt Romney Was Lucky To Lose South Carolina Tonight

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 21, 2012 – 7:01 pm

Newt Gingrich may have done Mitt Romney a favor by winning the South Carolina primary tonight.

If Mitt Romney had won, he would have become the de facto nominee earlier than any other presidential candidate in U.S. history, meaning that he alone would have had to endure more media scrutiny – for a longer period of time – than any of his predecessors.

Instead, he’ll now continue to share the media’s harsh glare with Newt Gingrich, a severely flawed candidate who will steal some of the limelight and help buffer Mr. Romney’s coverage. More stories about Mr. Gingrich’s angry ex-wife and messy leadership as House Speaker means fewer stories about Mr. Romney’s tax returns and Bain Capital.

If Mr. Romney had won tonight, he would have had to endure the media scrutiny alone for the next ten months. That would have been bad news for the Romney campaign for one reason: Mitt Romney does not wear well.

The more people are exposed to him, the more they dislike him. That’s not a personal view, but the conclusion of a Pew Research Center survey, which found that Mr. Romney is viewed favorably by only 33 percent of the public and unfavorably by 47 percent.

But now, Mr. Romney will have the advantage of appearing side-by-side in media stories with Mr. Gingrich, allowing voters to see a stark contrast between the two men.

Mr. Gingrich will be seen as an exciting politician who says unpredictable things that excite the base, traits that didn’t exactly rocket Pat Buchanan or Howard Dean to the nomination. Mr. Romney, who comports himself more like eventual nominees Al Gore, Bob Dole, and John Kerry, will likely be viewed as more presidential in comparison, likely helping to pave his way to the nomination. Of course, those three men eventually lost their general elections – but not before capturing their parties’ nominations first.

Assuming the wheels don’t fall completely off the Romney campaign, the comparison between the two men will help him and will shorten the length of time he has to endure the spotlight on his own.

I know some people will say a quick win would have been better for Mitt Romney since his campaign would have been able to save its money for a general election run. That’s true. But the bigger problem for Mitt Romney isn’t cash-on-hand. It’s likeability.

Note: For comparison’s sake, here are some of history’s earliest “clinch” dates:

  • January 27, 2004: John Kerry wins New Hampshire, becoming the de facto nominee.
  • February 1, 2000: Al Gore narrowly beats Bill Bradley in New Hampshire, becoming the de facto Democratic nominee.
  • February 5, 2008: John McCain becomes the de facto nominee after his Super Tuesday wins over Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.
  • February 29, 2000: George W. Bush finally becomes the de facto nominee after beating John McCain in Virginia and Washington.

COMMENTS? Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? Please leave your opinion in the comment section below, but remember the blog’s comment policy – no ad hominem attacks or pejorative name-calling will be posted.

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Scorecard: January 19, 2012 Republican Debate

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 19, 2012 – 10:47 pm

This might be the last debate that matters during this primary season.

South Carolina’s primary is this Saturday. If Mitt Romney wins, even Newt Gingrich admits the race will probably be over. If he doesn’t, we could be in for a long nominating fight.

So the big question coming into tonight was whether Newt Gingrich could capitalize on his well-reviewed performance in Monday night’s debate.

So, did he continue his debating success? Did Mitt Romney recover from Monday’s near-disastrous debate? And did the other two candidates do anything to change the dynamic of the race?

Here are tonight’s grades in order of best to worst:

RICK SANTORUM (1st Place, Grade: A-)

Rick Santorum had his best debate tonight. It won’t be enough to help him win South Carolina (or stay in the race), but he had a great night nonetheless.

Sen. Santorum has gotten much better at hitting his opponents with a cudgel while still managing to appear humble. His attacks on Mitt Romney’s “RomneyCare” landed strongly, as did his attacks against Newt Gingrich for supporting the individual mandate.

Mr. Santorum tried to establish himself as “old reliable” while simultaneously whacking Newt Gingrich’s perceived instability by saying:

“I don’t want a nominee where I’m going to look at the newspaper and wonder what he’s going to do next….Something’s going to pop and we don’t need that in a nominee. I’m steady, I’m solid.”

Toward the end of the night, Mr. Santorum was asked what about his candidacy he would have done differently. After thinking for a moment, he said, “I wouldn’t have changed a thing.” His answer was sincere, natural, and authentic – and it stood in marked contrast to Mitt Romney’s more calculated answer.

Mr. Santorum has a lot of political enemies. But even Dan Savage would have to conclude that Mr. Santorum is sincere in his beliefs.

NEWT GINGRICH ( Place, Grade: B+)

This debate will be mostly remembered for the very first question and answer, an exchange Speaker Gingrich used to castigate CNN Host John King. When Mr. King asked Gingrich about accusations made by his second wife, who claimed Mr. Gingrich requested an open marriage before divorcing her, he lit up:

“Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary, a significant question in a presidential campaign, is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine…you and your staff chose to start this debate with that.”


Although a lot of pundits believe he won the debate with that attack, but I’m not so sure. Mr. Gingrich already has the largest discrepancy between male and female voters in South Carolina (men support him more than women). Displays of anger typically turn off female voters, so I’m less sure how this will play in South Carolina.

Did that clip earn him a standing ovation? Yes. Will the moment be talked about? You bet. Will it yield him votes? Maybe not, especially if his ex-wife appears credible on tonight’s Nightline.

Two other moments warrant comment.

First, when Rick Santorum attacked him as “too grandiose,” Mr. Gingrich embraced the language instead of fighting it by saying we “need grandiose thinking.” I have a name for what he did – “media jujitsu.” It’s a terrific debating technique of taking your opponent’s negative language and spinning it into a positive.

Second, he released his tax returns at the very beginning of the debate. That allowed the attack on Mitt Romney to stick that much more – and that topic became Mitt Romney’s worst moment of the debate.

MITT ROMNEY (3rd Place, Grade: C+)

First, the good news. Gov. Romney had a better debate tonight than he did on Monday night.

But that’s hardly enough. Mr. Romney had yet another platitude-filled performance, using the same tired lines he’s used dozens of times in his stump speeches, such as: “Obama wants an entitlement society,” Obama “takes from some, gives to others,” America is the “hope of the Earth,” “I believe in free enterprise,” “I’m going to defend capitalism,” and “I believe there’s nothing wrong with profit.”

Those hackneyed lines make him look calculated and insincere, as if he’s simply regurgitating poll-tested lines that some focus groups liked. He needs to abandon the lines that are by now more familiar than a child’s pull-string doll and develop some fresh material. Stat.

Mr. Romney’s worst moment unfathomably came when he was asked, yet again, when he planned to release his tax returns. He had to know that question was coming – yet he bumbled and stumbled through his answers, earning boos from the live audience. In the end, he said he would release this years’ tax return in April, but refused to commit to releasing earlier years, as well.

Although it won’t do much damage, Mr. Romney displayed yet another lack of self awareness when he said that he, unlike Washington insiders like Newt Gingrich, has "lived in the real streets of America." Sure, real streets that have 11,000-square foot homes on them. He’s still trying to appear like an average Joe, and it backfires every time.

He did have a couple of good moments tonight: One when he was defending our nation’s obligation to veterans, and another when he was asked what he would have changed about his campaign. “I would have worked to get 25 more votes in Iowa, that’s for sure,” he quipped.

RON PAUL (4th Place, Grade: C)

When asked what one thing he wishes he had done differently in this campaign, Rep. Paul said he would work on the delivery of his message.

See, Ron Paul fans? You’ve attacked me for criticizing Dr. Paul’s debating skills, and even the candidate knows he needs to improve in that area! 

He’s right, of course. His wonky answers live in the weeds, and he lacks any of the soaring and optimistic rhetoric that voters demand from their presidents.

That’s not to say he had a terrible night. He gave a compassionate answer about our returning veterans instead of his typical non-government rant, and had a couple of terrific quips throughout the night, including one which rightly labeled Rick Santorum “over-sensitive.”

But Dr. Paul did nothing tonight to change the dynamic of his candidacy. He appears to be running as an issues candidate, not one who has a real chance at winning the White House.

COMMENTS? Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? Please leave your opinion in the comment section below, but remember the blog’s comment policy – no ad hominem attacks or pejorative name-calling will be posted.

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Scorecard: January 16, 2012 Republican Debate

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 16, 2012 – 11:46 pm

I know, I know. The Republican race is over, so why am I still covering these debates?

Well, although Mitt Romney will probably be the Republican nominee, he hasn’t earned the nomination quite yet. And it’s important to place this nominating race in a historical context:

  • In 2008, Barack Obama was “definitely” going to be the nominee after his Iowa win – until Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primary and complicated his path to the nomination for months.
  • In 1984, Walter Mondale (who eventually won the Democratic nomination), won the Iowa caucus before losing seven of the next ten primaries to Gary Hart.
  • In 1968, Ronald Reagan earned the most votes in the Republican primaries but didn’t win the most delegates, allowing Richard Nixon to become the party’s nominee.

My point? Weird things happen in politics, so it’s still just a bit too early to declare Mitt Romney the winner.

Here are tonight’s grades in order of best to worst:

NEWT GINGRICH (1st Place, Grade: A)

Recent polling shows Gov. Mitt Romney pulling away in South Carolina (which votes this Saturday), with Speaker Gingrich in a strong second place.

With time running out on his chances, Mr. Gingrich made the most of tonight’s debate. He had the single most dramatic and memorable exchange of this election cycle, during which he defended his attacks on President Obama as a “food stamp president.”

The moment occurred when moderator Juan Williams accused Speaker Gingrich of racial insensitivity – but instead of backing down, Mr. Gingrich doubled down. The strength of his reply – which led to a standing ovation – evoked President Reagan’s infamous 1980 “I paid for this microphone!” moment.

Mr. Gingrich’s response gets stronger as it goes on – it’s worth watching the complete clip as a memorable example of political rhetoric:

Mr. Gingrich looked weak when he went after Mr. Romney on his Super PAC’s incorrect ads; Romney confronted him by asking what he could do differently, and Gingrich admitted there was nothing else Romney could do.

But that didn’t matter. Mr. Gingrich won the night in a performance that is likely to play very well with South Carolina Republicans.

RICK SANTORUM (2nd Place, Grade: B)

Sen. Santorum remains an eager and effective attack dog.

In one notable exchange tonight, he put Mitt Romney on the defensive regarding whether or not felons should be able to vote once they paid their time (Santorum said yes). Romney’s Super PAC had attacked Santorum’s views on the issue, but Santorum attacked hard, backing Romney into a corner which had him fecklessly stumbling for the right answer.

He also put Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich on the defensive about their unambitious plans to curb entitlement spending.

Unfortunately for Mr. Santorum, Speaker Gingrich emerged as the conservative star tonight, likely diminishing his shrinking chances for an unexpected South Carolina victory even further.

RICK PERRY (3rd Place, Grade: B-)

Gov. Perry earned the second most enthusiastic applause from the local crowd tonight when he proclaimed that, “South Carolina is at war with the Federal Government.” He attacked the Obama Administration for going after South Carolina on right-to-work issues, and said it had declared “war on religion.”

Mr. Perry also scored pointed when he challenged Gov. Romney to release his income taxes, saying, “We cannot fire our nominee in September. We need to know now.” Mr. Romney limply replied with a non-committal and overly-cautious “maybe.”

The problem for Rick Perry is that this relatively good performance is too little, too late. He, like Rick Santorum, suffered from being outshined by Speaker Gingrich tonight, and as a result, Perry will likely have little impact on the remainder of this nominating contest.

MITT ROMNEY (4th Place, Grade: C-)

Mitt Romney started strong tonight, deflecting a few early attacks with agility and ease. His game plan coming into the debate was clearly to appear magnanimous. But when his opponents began attacking him – and most of them did – he began to look increasingly agitated, like a man who didn’t have any place to duck.

That’s not to say he didn’t try to duck:

  • He refused to commit to releasing his tax returns, suggesting he might release them in April but that “time will tell.”
  • When confronted by Rick Santorum about his views on whether or not felons who served their time should be allowed to vote again, he stalled for time, clearly calculating what the correct answer should be.
  • When asked if he’s hunted since he famously claimed he hunted “small varmints” in 2007, he said he had recently been moose hunting. The he corrected himself and said he had been elk hunting. 

Gov. Romney is still in the pole position, both in South Carolina and nationally. But just as Bill Clinton became known as “Slick Willie,” he’s at risk of becoming “Slick Mittie.”  He can’t continue answering every question by transitioning to a vague but patriotic-sounding and platitudinous talking point, and he should stop trying to “out-bellicose” Newt Gingrich – it ain’t going to happen. 

Finally, he had a curious moment when he proclaimed that “McCain-Feingold is a disaster.” Funny that the legislation didn’t seem to bother him when he proudly accepted John McCain’s in-person endorsement earlier this month. Overall, a lousy performance that could hurt his vote totals on Saturday.

RON PAUL (5th Place, Grade: D+)

What happened to Ron Paul tonight?

He started the debate strong, blasting one moderator’s question by saying, “Your question suggests that you’re very confused about my position.” He continued by giving a solid answer on the difference between defense spending and military spending, offering an effective analogy that, “The embassy in Baghdad is bigger than the Vatican.”

But Dr. Paul was awful during the rest of the debate, giving long and winding answers that lacked both energy and a central thesis. Overall, a bad night that may cost him a few votes in South Carolina, and one of his worst performances of this election cycle.

COMMENTS? Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? Please leave your opinion in the comment section below, but remember the blog’s comment policy – no ad hominem attacks or pejorative name-calling will be posted.

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    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

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