The Washington Post

What Big Bird tells us about the 2012 campaign

Twenty seven days before the 2012 presidential election, Big Bird is the biggest topic of debate in the political world.  


Even a month ago, the sentence above would have been much more likely to run in  the Onion than in mainstream media outlets like the Washington Post. And yet, here we are.

So, what does it tell us about the race and, more broadly, the state of our politics? Two things.

First, that we now live in a political age in which even the most outlandish moments in a campaign are quickly sliced and diced into shareable tidbits in hopes of reaching -- and influencing -- increasingly small slivers of the American electorate.  

Second, that every move each campaign makes is now national -- and even global -- due to the share-able power of the Internet and especially social sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Let's take the first point, well, first.

The Obama campaign's decision to take Romney's "Big Bird" moment -- can't believe we just typed that -- and turn it into a TV ad is evidence of the belief the campaigns have that they can reach tiny segments of the electorate with very targeted messaging. When we first saw the ad, we immediately knew two things: 1) It would draw huge amounts of attention and 2) The Obama campaign was spending almost nothing on it.

Both turned out to be true. Big Bird has become fodder for cable chat shows, blogs and even the candidates on the campaign trail. (The best development from all of this is the Fire Me Elmo Twitter handle.)  And, the Big Bird ad is running only on national cable channels, meaning that most swing state voters won't see it and the Obama team won't spend any real money on it.

Asked to explain the decision to run the ad at all, Obama insiders note that it was very carefully targeted toward late-night TV shows whose viewers, presumably, are the sort of young(ish) people who the president badly needs engaged in the election in 27 days time. (Worth noting: The You Tube version of the Obama "Big Bird" ad has already racked up 1.6 million views.)

The gamble here was simple for Obama's campaign: They could make a very targeted ad buy with minimal cost that could pay dividends among a hard-to-motivate segment of young voters  -- not to mention those voters who get their information about the election from non-traditional news sources. (Another potential target: Moms.)

Now, the second point. While the Obama team insists that most swing state voters never will see this ad, the Romney folks have done everything they can to highlight the fact that the President of the United States is running ads about Big Bird less than a month before the election. (Republicans leave out the fact that the ad is only running on national cable.)

Within minutes of the ad going on the air, Republicans were stuffing the Fix inbox, which is already overstuffed, with statements about how Obama's Big Bird commercial spoke to a lack of seriousness. 

"Four years ago, President Obama said that if you don’t have a record to run on, ‘you make a big election about small things,’" read a Romney statement on the ad. "With 23 million people struggling for work, incomes falling and gas prices soaring, Americans deserve more from their president.”

The Obama defended the use of Big Bird, insisting that the ad was about much more than a beloved children's character."When Mitt Romney was given the opportunity to lay out his plans for bringing down the deficit— he gave the same answer he has given dozens of times on the campaign trail which was to cut funding for Big Bird," said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "If that doesn't point out the lack of seriousness with his deficit reduction plan I am not sure what does.  The ad is an opportunity to highlight that."

What's clear is that both campaigns saw advantage in the Big Bird moment from the debate and seized on it.  That, of course, is nothing new in campaigns. And, we are plenty aware of the "paralysis by analysis" phenomenon. (Welcome to the Fix's whole life.)

But, the narrowness of the targeting from the Obama team and the speed with which the ad turned into a part of the national dialogue does strike us as fundamentally different in this campaign from those that have come before it.

It also seems that this whole Big Bird debate ultimately winds up being a loser for both of them.   Undecided voters tend to be the sort of people who believe politics is broken and that politicians focus on all the wrong things.  Could there possibly be any better evidence they are right than this Big Bird fiasco?

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.

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