07/10/2012 04:10 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2012

Mitt Romney and the Death of Mad Men Campaigning

Mitt Romney knows we know he's lying. Even the Wall Street Journal editorial page has noticed. The thing is, Romney doesn't care. He doesn't think he has to.

That's because Romney's campaign is the purest example ever seen -- a reductio ad absurdum, really -- of a strategy that dates to the Mad Men years of the 60s. Back then, the Republican Party discovered what television meant to politics: compared to a powerful image, the truth hardly mattered.

The trouble for Romney is, we no longer live in the age of Mad Men, and he doesn't seem to have noticed.

At first, television caught Republicans flat-footed. In 1960, the dark, dour, non-telegenic Richard Nixon lost to the bright, young, camera-ready John F. Kennedy. In 1964, voters' worst fears about the right wing hawk Barry Goldwater were taken over the top in a TV ad that showed a daisy-picking little girl facing a nuclear explosion.

Then Republicans set about mastering the new medium, and they left Democrats in their dust.

Starting with the 1966 Congressional campaign of George H.W. Bush, and ramping up dramatically with Nixon's successful rerun in 1968, Republican campaigns handed strategy over to TV advertising experts. The GOP's new Mad Men believed that by using TV effectively, they weren't limited to selling a real candidate. They could invent a new one.

One of the Madison Avenue pioneers was Harry Treleaven, who took a leave from J Walter Thompson to work for the underdog Bush campaign. He described his innovations in a report called "Upset: The Making of a Modern Political Campaign". Treleaven wrote:

There was a haziness about exactly where [Bush] stood politically... There'll be few opportunities for logical persuasion, which is all right -- because probably more people vote for irrational, emotional reasons than professional politicians suspect... Political candidates are celebrities.


Most national issues today are so complicated, so difficult to understand and have opinions on that they either intimidate or, more often, bore the average voter.

Treleaven's insights are quoted by Joe McGinniss in his essential The Selling of the President, 1968, published in 1969. McGinniss describes the campaign as directed by Treleaven:

Eighty percent of George Bush's campaign budget went to advertising. Fifty-nine percent of this went to television. Newspapers got 3 percent... On every television screen in Houston, George Bush was seen with his coat slung over a shoulder; his sleeves rolled up; walking the streets of his district... letting the voter know he cared. About what, was never made clear.

Running for a seat no Republican had ever held, Bush overcame an eight-point disadvantage to win by 58 percent to 42.

Treleaven then joined other Mad Men to guide Richard Nixon's successful rerun for the White House in 1968. As Nixon speechwriter Raymond K. Price said (quoted by McGinniss):

We have to be very clear on this point: that the response is to the image, not to the man... It's not what's there that counts, it's what's projected... It's not the man we have to change, but rather the received impression. And this impression often depends more on the medium and its use than it does on the candidate himself.

Ever since, the Republicans' Mad Men strategy has worked like crazy. There have continued to be candidates who were throwbacks to the old, reality-based days, such as Bob Dole, or John McCain, before he chose a reality show running mate. But the big winners have been figures like Ronald Reagan, a former actor, and George W. Bush, a pretend cowboy. Roger Ailes, a media consultant to the presidential campaigns of Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush, went on to run Fox News.

Meanwhile, few Democratic politicians seem to have fully understood what they were dealing with. There have always been some Democrats who know how to lie, of course. But the party as a whole has never abandoned its quaint attachment to the idea that facts matter. While the GOP became the party of TV, culminating in Fox, the Democrats remained the party of newspapers, culminating in, well, newspapers are in a lot of trouble.

Romney's TV consultant Stuart Stevens has said it well (as quoted in Politico):

"Voters are very sophisticated consumers of all these little signs and codes," Stevens told The Baltimore Sun [in 2002], referring to the firm's range of spots for [Maryland gubernatorial candidate Bob] Ehrlich that targeted working-class voters. "People may not read all that much, but they really know how to look."

And so we see the typical Republican vs. Democrat debate:

R: Obama's trying to turn America socialist with his Obamacare mandate.

D: But the mandate was designed by the conservative Heritage Foundation, as a way of protecting free market health insurance. It was a mainstream Republican policy -- until Obama adopted it.

R: And despite our best efforts to work with President Obama on bipartisan solutions, he insists on pushing the agenda of the most radically left-wing elements of the Democrat Party.

D: But it's a conservative idea! Romney promoted it as a "personal responsibility clause" in a health reform plan that was the model for Obama's!

R: So we will not rest until we have defeated the most left-wing president in our history, and saved America from a socialist nightmare.

Eventually, the debate ends with the all-too-familiar exploding Democratic head.

What the Democrat in such an exchange doesn't get is that the Republican is playing a game that only goes by the name of "debate". While the Democrat flails around, trying to maintain the thread of an argument, the Republican is simply projecting a series of images into voters' minds: socialism, Obamacare, radical, left-wing, America in danger. On TV, the Republican, resolute, free of doubt, looks like the winner.

So, to Republicans, it doesn't matter what the Heritage Foundation or Mitt Romney actually did. As the Mad Men taught them, all that matters is the image a viewer sees at any given moment. They know that the memory of that image fades so rapidly that after about a month, you might as well never have seen it. This is why TV ads are repeated over and over and over.

It's why Romney figures that once he's elected, he can just Etch-A-Sketch a whole new set of positions. And it's why he doesn't care if you catch him lying.

But -- surprise -- he should care. Why? Because TV is no longer our culture's dominant medium. It's 2012, and it turns out we've left the age of Mad Men behind.

Mitt Romney doesn't seem to understand this, and that's a big reason why he's going to lose. In so doing, he will mark the end of an era in political campaigning.

More on that next time.