Presidential politics is an increasingly exact science. Words are carefully chosen, poll-tested and fine-tuned before being used, and every catchphrase, slogan and sound bite is designed to maximize the campaign’s appeal to their target audience.
This appeal takes place on two different levels- one conscious and one subconscious. While the term “subconscious” alludes to subliminal advertising, it generally only means appealing to implicit attitudes that are not consciously processed (although subliminal ads have entered presidential campaigns before). The best way to think of the distinction between the two is to consider what a candidate says as a conscious appeal, but how the candidate says it, or the choice to say it in the first place, a subconscious appeal.
Following the 1980 Republican Convention, Ronald Reagan launched his general election campaign with what have since become boilerplate GOP talking points. Here’s an excerpt of what he said:
I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.
On a conscious level, what Reagan said was fairly innocuous. But how did he say it? The speech was framed around Regan’s “[belief] in states’ rights,” and was delivered in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the same place where three civil rights workers had been killed for attempting to register African-American voters.
The Reagan campaign chose the location under the advice of Strom Thurmond (who, ironically, was later found to have fathered an out-of-wedlock child with his African-American housekeeper), and used the frame and location of the speech to make an appeal to the “Dixiecrats” of the South. Jimmy Carter failed to call Reagan out for the implicit racial appeal, and Reagan went on to cream Carter, winning every Southern state which Carter had won in 1976, except for Georgia, Carter’s home state.
Fast-forward to 2012.
Mitt Romney is the front-runner for the Republican nomination but has showed signs of weakness with rural voters, particularly in the South. Many Republican strategists are worried that Team Romney will not be able to generate enough enthusiasm to win crucial states such as North Carolina and Virginia. Moreover, the rhetoric necessary to generate such enthusiasm among the GOP base will likely alienate independents in Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio. How has the Romney campaign attempted to confront this dilemma? With a catchy, multi-faceted slogan:
The black guy “isn’t working” – get it?
As Tommy Christopher of Mediaite notes:
When I first saw the banner…the multiple meanings were clear: President Obama‘s policies aren’t working, the Obama presidency isn’t working, President Obama…isn’t working, as in, doing any work. That’s not a nice thing to say about any president, but like it or not, it becomes a more loaded accusation when leveled at our first black president.
Subconscious appeals are called dog-whistles for a reason: Three different people can read the above phrase and get three very different messages. “Obama Isn’t Working” has economic connotations for some and racial connotations for others. For the surprisingly high amount of Americans who hold implicit racial biases, the phrase also can trigger negative subconscious associations regarding President Obama based on the color of his skin, aka racism.
Because of the slogan’s multiple meanings, the Romney campaign has plausible deniability when its racial component is brought up. However, given its history, the GOP has forfeited its right to the benefit of the doubt when it comes to race. Considering the level of scrutiny placed on every word used by a presidential candidate, and the emphasis Romney is placing on this new slogan (in addition to appearing on stage, it has its own website), I find it hard to believe that the racial connotations of “Obama Isn’t Working” went unnoticed before the phrase was unveiled.
Moreover, considering the benefit Team Romney gains from being able to trigger implicit racial biases without getting taken to task for it on a conscious level, it is far more likely that the creation of the slogan was a deliberate play to America’s dark, but very real, subconscious biases and prejudices based on race.