After tragedy, campaigning is a delicate question

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In the wake of a national tragedy, the question of when to resume a hotly-contested and largely negative presidential campaign is a delicate one.

It’s something both the campaigns of President Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney will have to grapple with over the next week after Friday’s mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado killed at least 12 people.  

“This will be done more on feel than on any sort of formula about how long you wait to resume the campaign,” says Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “There’s a natural period after a tragedy like this, where each side knows that to engage politically is simply inappropriate.”

In the aftermath of the shooting, both candidates halted their campaign efforts. The president offered remarks on the tragedy at what was supposed to be a campaign stump speech in Fort Myers, Fla. Romney did the same at an event in Bow, N.H.

“If there’s anything to take away from this tragedy, it’s the reminder that life is fragile,” Obama said on Friday, telling the crowd there will be “other days for politics. This, I think, is a day for prayer and reflection.”

“I stand here before you today not as a man running for office, but as a father, a grandfather, husband and American,” Romney said in New Hampshire, asking those gathered to “mourn with those who mourn in Colorado.”  

Both campaigns have also asked stations in Colorado to suspend the airing of their campaign ads for the time being—a request that could take as long as a day to fulfill depending on the station.   

“[Taking down ads] is not like a light switch, which frustrates clients some times,” notes Democratic media strategist Dane Strother.    

The question of when to resume the negative ad onslaught is an even touchier one given the fact that Colorado is one of 2012’s top political battlegrounds. Well over $20 million has already been spent on ads in the state between the presidential campaigns and third party groups supporting them with the Denver, Grand Junction and Colorado Springs media markets among the busiest in the country when it comes to political spots.

“There's no formula or protocol to follow with paid media and the timing to re-engage advertising,” says Rob Aho, a media consultant with the Republican firm Brabender Cox. “It's more a gut feeling of knowing when it's the right time to get back up on the air. Great campaigns know when their audiences are ready.”

While strategists predict the presidential campaigns will likely regain a sense of normalcy when it comes to their daily messaging well within the next two weeks, the impact of the shooting will likely remain right through the fall for competitive races down the ballot in Colorado.

Strother says campaigns should take extra care when it comes to the type of imagery they choose to employ in their ads.

“No one should feature guns in their ads the rest of the year,” he advises.    

Additional reporting by Erika Spicer.


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