Feeding The Movement-Conservative Marketplace Beast

My book-learned brother writes today, astutely, about why the Romney campaign seems to be constantly throwing itself at ridiculous stories that are only useful within the movement-conservative marketplace (which he kindly cites me on).

What he writes is all correct. It also seems to be true that Romney and his advisors -- or at least the ones who win internal arguments -- have a completely misguided sense of what types of message might resonate with the persuadable middle voters. This happens in campaigns, despite all the data they are blessed with. They get really convinced, for example, that average persuadable voters will be really, really shocked at what Obama said to Joe the Plumber; or they get really, really convinced, as the Charlie Baker campaign did, that voters will base their choice on the Commonwealth's structural fiscal deficit.

But there's another piece to what the Romney campaign is doing, and that many major Republican general-election campaigns engage in: feeding the marketplace beast.

There's a common wisdom, in high-profile campaigns, that you need to "feed the beast," meaning the media, with things to write about -- or else they will go out looking for things, which might not be things you want them to write about.

As a Hillary Clinton media person said to me in New Hampshire in 2007, "I know [New York Times reporter] Adam Nagourney is going to be eating breakfast down the street tomorrow morning, and if I don't walk in and give him something, the Obama or Biden people will."

That also applies to the movement-conservative marketplace, if not moreso. They have all day to fill up with radio gab and blog posts and twitter banter and so on. It's actually not that easy to keep the audience hooked hour after hour. To keep it fresh and have people tuning in and calling and tweeting back, they constantly need things to be outraged about. And the truth is, campaigns tend to be a lot of the same thing over and over most of the time; fresh new outrages don't always track to the lifespan of the last outrage.

It's vitally important for, say, the Romney campaign to keep the movement-conservative audience engaged, to keep their interest up so they will turn out to vote in big numbers.

But it's also important that the movement-conservative marketplace not go veering off into dangerous looney-land. And that's really, really likely if you're not feeding that beast. If you're not giving them something reasonably safe to be outraged about, they're likely to go looking for outrages in, say, the latest press releases from the Gun Owners' Action League, or the latest book from Regnery, or worse. 

For a fun look at how I came to understand this phenomenon, I recommend my posts from the RNC warroom at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Late in the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, I was kind of amazed to discover that a certain local conservative talk-show host was unaware that the Kerry Healey campaign monitored shows like his to determine when they needed to push a new controversy. It's part of the game now.

So that's a big part of the reason why, for example, the Romney campaign (presumably) dropped an old Obama "I believe in distribution" clip on Drudge the other day -- not because it's useful to the overall goals of the campaign, but because they needed to give the movement-conservative marketplace something to focus their outrage on, before they either start losing interest in hating Obama, or start talking really, really, crazy batwankery.

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