The race for the Repub­lican pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion is heating up and com­mu­ni­ca­tion style will play no small part in deciding a winner. We asked Richard Katula, pro­fessor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies and expert in polit­ical rhetoric, to explain why com­mu­ni­ca­tion is so impor­tant and ana­lyze the com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills of the 2012 GOP pres­i­den­tial candidates.  

How impor­tant are com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills to pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns and elections? 

Sadly, but truly, money and orga­ni­za­tion come first in impor­tance. The last four U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tions (Clinton-​​Dole, Bush-​​Gore, Bush-​​Kerry, and Obama-​​McCain) were won by the can­di­date who spent the most money and ran the smoothest campaign.

Theory and strategy come next.  Whichever cam­paign has the right theory and a strategy to match, will win. Having a theory and a strategy that gov­erns the cam­paign from start to finish is critical.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is the key to both of these. Can­di­dates must appeal to voters not only to vote for him, but also to sup­port him with money. Mon­e­tary sup­port solid­i­fies a vote and gives a can­di­date the where­withal to put his mes­sage out. Sharp­ening cam­paign mes­sages so that each one con­forms to the theory and strategy of the cam­paign is essen­tial. Each can­di­date must speak in sound bites (short, pithy remarks that the media can repeat) and avoid get­ting “off mes­sage” by making a mis­take. Words are a com­modity in cam­paigns and so they must be chosen care­fully. We teach our com­mu­ni­ca­tion stu­dents to con­trol the mes­sage, because by so doing, they per­suade most effec­tively and most efficiently.

Of the Repub­lican pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, who do you con­sider to be the most effec­tive com­mu­ni­cator? Why?

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion involves both style and con­tent. Style is the way you say it, con­tent is what you say. All of the can­di­dates except Perry have sharp­ened their styles in the debates and in Iowa or New Hamp­shire. Perry, by stum­bling and making errors, is the only one who has elim­i­nated him­self simply because of style. That leaves six still standing: Romney, Gin­grich, Paul, Bach­mann, San­torum and Huntsman. Because they are second-​​tier can­di­dates, Bach­mann, San­torum and Huntsman have directed their mes­sage at Iowa (San­torum and Bach­mann) or New Hamp­shire (Huntsman) voters. This strategy is based on the fact that they have to do well in Iowa or New Hamp­shire to stay in the race.  If they don’t do well in the early states, their money and their cred­i­bility will dry up. So Bach­mann and San­torum, for instance, focused on shoring up their reli­gious cre­den­tials and their family values in their com­mu­ni­ca­tions because Iowa caucus-​​goers are 50 per­cent evan­gel­ical, values voters. They are addressing a spe­cific audi­ence on char­acter issues and, to a lesser extent, on sub­stan­tive issues.

Romney, Gin­grich, and Paul are run­ning national cam­paigns because their num­bers in Iowa and New Hamp­shire and their cam­paign trea­suries assured them of remaining viable beyond these first two states. Thus, they have attacked Barack Obama in their ads and in the debates, and gen­er­ally addressed a uni­versal audi­ence on the bigger, more sub­stan­tive issues of the cam­paign. On the sub­stan­tive issues, Romney seems the most artic­u­late, but they have all heeded the first rule of the art of com­mu­ni­ca­tion: You per­suade insofar as you say the right thing to the right audi­ence at the right time.

How does Romney com­pare to Obama?

Romney com­pares well to Obama. Both are highly artic­u­late, and both look pres­i­den­tial.  In terms of style, they are both for­mi­dable com­mu­ni­ca­tors. Because of the debates, Romney is get­ting tougher at with­standing attacks and main­taining his com­po­sure. This will be a big advan­tage in the pres­i­den­tial debates. Both Al Gore in 2000 and then George Bush in 2004 lost their com­po­sure and appeared arro­gant in the first pres­i­den­tial debate. Gore never recov­ered, and Bush regained his com­po­sure, but both can­di­dates lost their edge by losing their cool in the first debate. Be on the lookout for this with Obama.

Both Romney and Obama have sharp­ened their talking points on the sub­stan­tive issues of the cam­paign to make them ambiguous enough for their base con­stituents and for Inde­pen­dent voters in the swing states, the ones who will decide this election.