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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Managing Political Photo-Ops

This little item at WaPo by Al Kamen got me thinking about political photo-ops, and more particularly the value of composing them carefully when possible. Political ad agencies test images for campaign lit and videos regularly, but I know of no studies that provide statistical verification of the relative importance of photo-ops in a campaign. Nonetheless, visual images have consequences in politics, one of the most oft-cited cases being Nixon’s beard stubble in his televised debate with JFK, which many believe was a significant factor in Kennedy’s 1960 victory.
The appearance of candidates gets a lot of attention, as Edwards’s famous haircut indicates. But I wonder how much attention campaigns are paying to the background in photo-ops, debates and candidate appearances. No doubt the sheer chaos of campaigns limits opportunities for composing photo-op backgrounds. But there are some occasions, such as debates when it becomes possible and potentially important.
In the July 23rd “YouTube” Democratic debate, Senator Clinton was centrally positioned among the podiums, wearing a bright peach-hued jacket among the dark suits (photo here). CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin cracked that the field looks “like Gladys Knight and the Pips.’ She also brought her ‘A game’, which added to the effect of making the others look like also-rans, in stark contrast to her Iowa concession speech, when she was flanked by Clinton Administration elders, a drab tableau, to put it charitably. I gather that her positioning at the YouTube debate was random, but it showed that a favorable set-up can have a beneficial effect.
I remember also watching a televised debate between Senator Max Cleland and GOP challenger Rep. Saxby Chambliss in ’02, and being struck by how downright “senatorial” Chambliss looked — straight out of central casting. He was all gussied up in an elegantly-tailored dark suit and crowned by a shock of perfectly-coiffed white hair (I think they pretty much all shell out big bucks for their doos, not just Edwards). But more interesting, Chambliss was positioned in such a way that the American flag was behind him, not the incumbent Cleland, who was a little off his game that day and looked tired. I’d like to think that Georgians would not be swayed by such superficial considerations as candidate appearance or a flag in the background, but Chambliss did win, so who knows? I strongly suspect, however, that somebody in the Chambliss campaign paid a lot of attention to the setting for that debate, and Cleland’s campaign probably didn’t give it enough thought. The same guy who managed the Chambliss upset is now running McCain’s campaign, as noted yesterday. So don’t be surprised by American flags in the backdrop becoming a staple of McCain image management going forward.
I’m sure it’s possible to over-do it, and photo-ops can look too ‘stagey.’ The Colbert Report certainly gooses a lot of grins out of the set’s flags and eagles slo-mo background, a goof on the networks. Flags or otherwise, it might be a good idea for Democratic campaigns to try and get some more inspiring backdrops for candidate photo-ops than their fading stars of yesteryear.

One comment on “Managing Political Photo-Ops

  1. sue on

    Backdrops absolutely do matter. Reagan proved that. So did George W. Bush, although I bet he’d like to take back that flight suit caper.
    You only need to see a split screen of Obama firing up a crowd, next to Hillary at a less stirring forum to see the difference between winning and losing. Now, take away the crowds and the frenzy and sit them down on a debate stage — no matter the literal backdrop — and you’ve got something quite different. That’s where Hillary shows her brilliance and competence and mastery of issues, along with her ability to make a concise argument, while Obama seems surprisingly muted after his usual rabble-rousing.
    I think the endless stream of debates last year is one of the main reasons Hillary led the race for so long. That’s all people had to judge the candidates by; the first Obama speech I ever saw was after his Iowa win, and I finally started to grasp the hype, if not totally buy it.
    Televised rallies like Obama’s are the real momentum-builders pundits are always talking about. Obama looks like a winner in these settings, which begets more wins. Meanwhile Hillary, who doesn’t exactly shine in this format — if you exclude the bumble-bee-yellow pantsuit — looks a little less triumphant.
    A debate, on the other hand, can be a momentum breaker if you make a gaffe or don’t excel in that format. That’s why Obama wants to limit further debates with Hillary — it makes him look like a mere mortal on stage, and makes a serious voter realize that there are actual issues, policies and seat-in-the-chair work that go into being president.

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