Chris Christie’s Fall and Extreme Messaging

27 Feb

How Superstorm Sandy Blew Away a Conservative House of Cards

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File this one under S for Speculative.  But today’s NYT report this week about just how far New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has fallen out of grace with conservatives, brings up an interesting messaging question.

Christie upset many conservatives before the November presidential elections by publicly applauding President Obama’s efforts with respect to Superstorm Sandy.  The issue this raises for messaging is “why were they so upset” or rather “why did it matter so much?”

The standard responses are that Christie had: (1) endorsed Romney; (2) given the keynote address at the Republican National Convention; and, (3) gone so far as to (correctly) predict that Romney would clean the floor in the first debate.  Therefore, by embracing Obama’s response to Sandy, he was throwing Romney under the campaign bus.

I take issue with this analysis, and think the significance lies elsewhere.  After all, at its basest level, Obama was just doing his job.  Is it so extraordinary for the governor of a state to thank the President for organizing an efficient response to a disaster?  Additionally, this was a storm affecting states that were all clearly going to Obama anyway – only if the President had horrifically bungled the FEMA response was there any real political capital at stake.

From a messaging point of view, the real problem is that Christie’s back-patting was contrary to the image repeatedly portrayed by conservatives that Obama was the worst president in history.  It wasn’t just that Obama’s viewpoint was different, that he was taking the country down the wrong path, etc., an image was built that Obama was truly the worst.

And when he had a discrete task to perform (coordinate a disaster response), the fact that he did it well – and a Republican said so – shattered the veneer of incompetence and uselessness that had been so steadfastly built.

Like I said at the beginning, this is a more speculative “thought experiment.”  And it’s clear that many other factors were involved in Obama winning re-election (e.g. Mitt Romney).

But you have to think carefully about the messages you create.  Often times it makes sense to give people a clear A vs B choice.  But the more extreme the distinction you present between two choices, the easier it is for something outside your control to unravel that dichotomy and suggest that it’s false.  And once your audience doubts a central tenet of your message, it becomes much harder to maintain the same people’s unquestioning belief of everything else you’re trying to say.

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