How Obama and Romney Will Frame Their Messages In The Two-Week Sprint To The Finish Line

Democratic wordsmith George Lakoff dissects the language used by Obama and Romney just before election day.

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Barack Obama and Mitt Romney pass each other in Boca Raton, Fla., after the third presidential debate.

In this week’s third and final presidential debate, the incumbent was full of zingers and the GOP nominee, who had cast himself as a conservative Republican with Tea Party appeal, was speaking the language of a moderate.

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George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley and a Democratic political strategist, says the language President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney used on Monday is the language voters should expect to hear throughout the two-week sprint to the election.

“For Romney, the softer language approach ... is the perfectly natural approach [just before the election], to tack to the middle,” says Lakoff. For Obama, he says, “Romney has been saying ‘you can’t coddle people, you’ve got to be tough. So the liberals’ response [now] is ‘I’m tough too.’

”Politicians have chosen their words carefully to frame their messages for at least a decade, and linguists like Lakoff advise candidates on what words will work best. Frank Luntz, the Republican party’s go-to wordsmith, goes by the slogan: “Got words? We frame the discussion.” It’s better to say “exploring for energy” than “drilling for oil,” Luntz advises on his web site. And it's “climate change,” not “globa lwarming."

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As Election Day draws nearer, Romney has increasingly relied on business metaphors, Lakoff says.          

“He’s been building on the metaphor of the government as a business, saying ‘I’m a businessman, and businesses create jobs.”

The linguist has also noticed Romney employ the metaphor of the government budget as a family budget. “We can’t keep on borrowing and spending massively more than we take in every year,” Romney said recently of federal spending on CNN, bringing to mind a family that has overextended its finances. 

From Obama, Lakoff says, voters will continue to hear attack language until voting day. On the campaign trail in Davenport, Iowa Wednesday, for example, the president came out with his favorite attack word of late: “Romnesia.”                               

“And we’ve come up with a name for this condition — it’s called Romnesia,” Obama said, comparing Romney’s shifting positions on some issues to amnesia, a medical condition where one’s memory is lost. “Don’t worry, Obamacare covers pre-existing conditions.”

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook or reach her at eflock@usnews.com.