Tuned In

The General Election Kicks Off, With a Slow Jam and a Quick Pivot

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One of them spoke on cable news and one on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. One reminded America of its entrepreneurial roots and one jammed on stage with The Roots. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama both took the spotlight last night, the former to launch his general-election message in a primary-victory speech and the latter to pitch his student-loan policy in a Slow Jam the News segment at the University of North Carolina.

And the two differing media hits suggest a couple of different strategies the challenger and incumbent may take in the campaign ahead—Romney aiming to recast himself to woo the broad middle of the country after running to the right in the primary, Obama targeting specific audiences and elements of his base (in this case young voters) to boost his turnout in the general election.

The Slow Jam segment kicked off an all-POTUS edition of Late Night, with the odd spectacle of a deadpan Obama delivering dead-serious arguments against raising student loan rates, then sitting statue-still while Questlove and the house band played and Fallon interjected lines like “The Barack Ness Monster ain’t buying that.” The risk was undercutting a serious campaign theme by playing it for comedy—the height of it was Obama’s delivery of “I, too, want to slow-jam the news”—while the potential reward was getting that message out in a way that awakened the activism of voters in their twenties, whom he later sympathized with by saying that he and Michelle had paid off their student loans only eight years ago.

The interview itself was stronger on light personal-bonding moments than Presidential policy; the ever-eager Fallon was nervously welcoming and relied heavily on viewer questions to ask Obama about issues. (Including the usual “Will you legalize weed?” question and the usual “Sorry, no” answer.) Obama seemed to welcome the chance to get personal, laughing at a college picture of himself Fallon brought out (“Notice the afro”) but bringing his answers around to his campaign talking points; thus, a question about how nasty the campaign would get turned into a point against the Citizens United decision and Super PAC money.

It seems ridiculous to talk about the levels of gravitas among different late-night talk shows for a President, but the general tone was lighter and more hang-loose even than Obama’s past appearances on Tonight or Comedy Central. The Obama campaign’s calculation, though, was that this audience doesn’t see a contradiction between making a serious point and laughing at yourself while doing it (and that other voters turned off by a President joking around with Fallon would either be in bed before 12:35 or would not care much by November).

It was the kind of appearance, actually, that you might have expected in the past from a challenger in a Presidential election (President Clinton sax-jamming on Arsenio’s show the classic example)—loosening up, trying an unconventional format, reaching out beyond a politics-intense audience. But last night, Obama’s evident fall opponent, Mitt Romney, accepted a set of five primary victories and directed a message to America behind a more-conventional podium. (My colleague, Michael Scherer, has a full analysis of it—and its similarities to Obama’s 2008 themes—at Swampland.)

But what strikes me in contrast to Obama’s slow-jam, besides the lack of musical accompaniment, is that where Obama—a fixture in the news for four years very familiar to voters—was using media strategy to pitch to a targeted sector of an audience that’s very familiar with him, Romney seemed to be trying to use his speech to introduce, or re-introduce, himself to an audience that may not have been following the Republican primaries so closely. So after a brief reference to his primary victories and supporters, he pivoted to broad themes about “a better America” and Obama’s record, and offered to make a literal introduction: “It’s been a long campaign, but many Americans are just now beginning to focus on the choice before the country. In the days ahead, I look forward to meeting with many of you personally. I want to hear what’s on your minds.” In the process, perhaps, allowing him to present a message tailored to voters “just now beginning to focus” rather than to Republican die-hards.

I’m not sure I could ever see Mitt Romney slow-jamming the news as part of that re-introduction—though I would pay money to see that—but then it’s only April. For this, though, the candidates pursued two different strategies: one using the news cycle to re-introduce himself, and one using a news jam to reconnect.

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