Thursday, July 28, 2011

Trick Questions

I caught a bit of video this morning of Newt Gingrich holding up a Newt 2012 t-shirt.  He was set up, and nicely.    The ABC reporter got him to hold up the shirt, which he gladly did for the camera, probably figuring it for a harmless puff pic.  Gingrich is all about American jobs.  Turns out, though, the shirt was made not in the U.S. -- but in El Salvador.

Newt, you've been punk'd.
"I'll have to ask the folks who ordered this," Gingrich responded. "I don't order it and I don't do it." Campaign spokesperson Michelle Selesky said "That was a rush order made by some of the volunteers." Selesky noted the print work on the shirts was done in Atlanta. 
Okay, so Atlanta is kinda like America.  So that's something.

This is nothing new.  The traditional journalistic punking involves milk.

You may not know the routine, but reporters used to follow presidential candidates around as they try to portray themselves as caring about the common man.  And then you ask him or her: "So, what's a gallon of milk cost?"

They struggle for an answer.  They've been punk'd.

There more here than just catching a high rolling politico looking like a fool.  They can do this by themselves quite well (remember Michael Dukakis doing the bobble-head doll routine in a tank, or John Kerry in hunting gear?).  And then there was President George H. W. Bush being "amazed" by a grocery store scanner, something Americans see every day.  Turns out that story is false, but it fit the narrative of a well-heeled Bush who didn't really understand Americans in a time of economic downturn.

My point?

In what people know, perception is powerful.  We tend to see what we want to see and believe what we want to believe, but a powerful narrative that paints a candidate in a certain way, such as hypocritical -- as in the Gingrich t-shirt -- or as historically challenged -- as in Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin, has lasting impact on the public mind.  And they are hard to reverse.  Chevy Chase's biting imitation of Gerald Ford on Saturday Night Live may not have lost Ford the 1976 presidential race, but it certainly didn't help.

Research shows we tend to vote for presidential candidates based on two major themes: competence, and character.  Other factors in how a race is framed, such as war or the economy, also play a huge role.  But being perceived as a hypocrite or fool, those also can influence how people think about a candidate, and making every subsequent slip-up, even the most minor, seem huge by comparison.

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