Word Lab: "Bracketing"

The new science of winning campaigns
Sept. 3 2012 11:45 AM

Word Lab: "Bracketing"

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HANNIBAL, MO- AUGUST 4, 2004: Innovations in bracketing: a Bush supporter makes the point that John Kerry flip-flops and waffles on the issues outside a Kerry rally in Hannibal, Missouri. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

TERM: Bracketing, to bracket

WHAT IT IS SUPPOSED TO MEAN: The communications tactic of scheduling local press events before and after an opponent’s appearance in a given media market to dilute the influence of the opponent’s message and earn coverage for one’s own.

HOW IT IS USED: To describe just about any form of communication—from policy-heavy conference calls to low-grade heckling—designed to directly counter an opponent’s scheduled event.

IN CONTEXT: “Republicans plan to bracket Democrats’ Charlotte, N.C., convention with an unprecedented counter-convention right outside the gates of the Time Warner Cable Arena.” —Jonathan Karl, ABC News, last Friday

ORIGINS: The tactic has its origins in a 2002 meeting held in the White House Mess, between Bush political director Ken Mehlman and RNC regional-media director Kevin Sheridan.  The two were looking for ways to meddle in the Democrats’ presidential-primary season, and settled on the practice of making news in a local media market immediately before and after a Democrat’s stop there to counter the opposition.  It’s unclear who gets credit for the specific term bracketing, but it seemed to evoke a tactic of hard-edged containment—as opposed, perhaps, to the flabbier parenthesizing.

Bracketing became part of Sheridan’s RNC job description during the 2004 cycle, and his colleague Dan Ronayne assumed a parallel portfolio on Bush’s campaign.  (Both now work for Romney.)  They scheduled surrogates and held press conferences in local media markets around Democratic campaign schedules, and also dispatched the van of young staffers in dolphin costumes who trailed John Kerry and the supporters who heckled his rallies by waving flip-flops.

WHERE YOU SEE IT: Bracketing is just about everywhere that campaigns, parties and outside groups want to make their speeches, press conferences, and ads sound like part of a sophisticated media strategy.  A reading of Politico’s indispensable Morning Score newsletter testifies daily to the fact that the term of art has, over the last four years, spread across the partisan divide and is used as frequently now by Democrats and their allies. “Post-Jerusalem Bracketing,” Score’s James Hohmann reported after Romney’s summertime Israel trip: “The highest-profile Jew in the Obama administration, White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, will address the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York this morning. He's Orthodox.”

HOW IT LOST ITS MEANING: The Republican National Committee have expanded its definition to describe a whole series of man-marking activities, like sending a mid-level press staffer to stalk Joe Biden on a campaign trip to the Naples Spaghetti House. (“Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who was there, said the human bracketing didn't bother Biden much,” The Columbus Dispatch reported.)  “No question the word has been bastardized,” says a Republican bracketing pioneer who asked that his name not be used for fear of disquieting a current employer. “A lot of it is Press Secretary 101.”

Bracketing now seems to exist only to cloak low-concept election-season trash talk in the garb of technical sophistication. “Nice work @DeanHeller campaign on this wonderful bracketing job,” RNC political director Rick Wiley tweeted in mid-August, along with a photo of Nevada Democratic Senate challenger Shelley Berkeley at a press conference surrounded by signs for her opponent. “All you kids out there learn from this.”


Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.

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