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Robert Bennett: Message sent vs. message received: The impact this misinterpretation has on politics

Published: Monday, Oct. 22 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Oct. 9, 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

Associated Press

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Every expert in human communications knows "message sent" is not always the same as "message received." In illustration of this principle, I cite a cartoon where, in the panel labeled "What he said," a young man asks a young woman, "Will you marry me?" In the adjoining panel, labeled "What she heard," she thinks, "I will never have to diet again."

The difference between "message sent" and "message received" can be very impactful in politics. Often a campaign team sends a message they think will help their candidate only to discover that its impact on the receiving end is very different. We saw that in the convention fight here in Utah this past spring. FreedomWorks flooded potential caucus attendees with very strong attacks on Orrin Hatch's record to send a message that it was time for him to go. For a large number of people, FreedomWorks' attacks were received as a call to defend Hatch against an enemy who was playing dirty.

Which brings us to the presidential race. As Mitt Romney was fighting his way through the nomination process, Team Obama and many in the media watched his struggles and sent messages portraying him as an unfeeling rich guy who was out of touch, both with average Americans and the facts of how things really work. That didn't sway those whose political views are strongly rooted on the Republican side of the line, but it was "received as sent" by many undecided voters. Romney consistently lagged behind President Barack Obama.

Then came the first debate. We are now far enough away from it to look back and better understand what really happened that night. Yes, Romney won, but, far more importantly, his performance sent a message which was received as follows: The image of Romney built by Team Obama is wrong; the Obama campaign hasn't been leveling with us. Fortunately for Romney, the president's performance confirmed that impression.

That's why Romney's bounce has built rather than faded in the days following the debate. That's why Joe Biden's attacks on Paul Ryan, whatever their influence on the question of "Who won?" did not change the trend. That's why, even after the president turned in a much improved performance the second time around, Romney still kept moving up. The idea that "I can't believe the Obama ads about Romney because I've seen what he can do and want he's really like," planted in undecided minds, has changed the tenor of the entire campaign. Republicans are now touting the pollsters they once ridiculed while Democrats are saying such polls cannot be credited.

There could be a new event that changes the trajectory of the campaign back to the where it was month ago, with Obama in a position of strength. Even if there is not, Romney's current lead is very slim. It all comes down to two arenas.

One, the early votes. Having been cast before the first debate occurred, are they a reservoir of Obama support beyond the reach of polls and trends?

Two, the late deciders. Having kept their powder dry this long, will they get caught up in the trend and break for Romney?

History says the answer is yes to both questions. In past elections where a president was involved, the incumbent always held a lead among early voters and the challenger always enjoyed a break in the final days. Will this one be different because it takes place in the electronic age, where tweets and emails and social media will play a bigger role than ever before? We'll know in just over two weeks.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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