The Price of Civility

To supplement our podcasts, ChrossTalk will be adding written content to the site. I’ll be adding my work for the Progressive Policy Institute and Ross will be adding an occasional piece as well. Starting next Friday, we’ll have a weekly point-counterpoint style article similar to the Talking Points section of the podcast.

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Announcements aside, here is my piece today for the Progressive Policy Institute on civility and the Huntsman campaign:

The Price of Civility
by Chip Lebovitz

Recently released polls have shown disappointing returns for Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, whose percentage of the vote has hovered around 3 percent since early May, and received no noticeable bump from his June 21 campaign announcement. It gets worse: Only 42 percent of Republicans actually know of Huntsman, 20 percent less than the average candidate. Huntsman’s poll number plateau lends credence to Washington Post Columnist Dana Milbank’s view that Huntsman and his amicable approach were doomed on arrival.

In a “normal” presidential cycle, Huntsman should be polling much better. His ability to test the president in an area of strength, foreign policy, and position as the most moderate candidate should resonate with a larger niche of independent voters allowed to participate in early state primaries like New Hampshire. But campaigning on the moral high road in this Republican Party nomination contest may come with a hefty toll.

Huntsman is mired support levels similar to Newt Gingrich, and has one of the lowest positive intensity scores (the percent strongly favorable minus the percent strongly unfavorable and gage of the “intensity of support among a candidate’s base of followers.”) out of any of the candidates at (+2). The positive intensity score is critical to building up a volunteer base that is eager to engage in critical but mechanical activities like phone banking, and fight harder at early manpower-driven campaign events like the Iowa caucuses.

Herman Cain, who is more in line with the Republican base, has similar recognition levels but higher intensity numbers at (+25). Cain’s fiery rhetoric, not just his policy, drives his positive intensity levels. Herman Cain‘s bombastic language underscores his policy, and reinforces his firebrand image and in-line with the base policies. Huntsman’s politeness pledge lacks the wherewithal to aggressively contrast his positions with the other contenders, coming off as bland and out-of-synch with the Republicans.

Civil campaigns have a three-part cycle: an initial surplus of press, followed by a drastic drop-off of publicity, ending with the candidate languishing in obscurity. The initial glut of press at the onset of their campaign seems like a severance package to compensate candidates for the minimum attention they receive after the initial surge.

Beyond reducing visibility, limited press also restricts a candidate’s number of defining moments. Each moment carries more weight in marking a candidate’s personality – Huntsman’s desire for civility has labeled him boring and uninteresting. Furthermore, the nature of a campaign drives the media’s branding. Huntsman’s tough-guy motorcycle doesn’t help shake his nice guy image and all the connotations and lack of attention such monikers bring. Here’s a striking figure: only five percent of the 42 percent Republicans that know of Huntsman support his candidacy strongly. That’s just 2 percent of all Republican voters overall. Rising above the fray in politics is an honorable notion, but like most things, it comes with a price.

Huntsman’s low recognition is a by-product of his polite campaign. Conflict drives newspapers and the press drives identification. Politeness just doesn’t generate any headlines.

Check out the post on the PPI’s website.

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