The Construction of a Presidential Image

Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama can make all the promises they want, but words only get them so far in their race to the White House.

To help them get to the finish line, they need the help of analysts, strategists and consultants -- all those experts making decisions behind the scenes.

Political consultants Todd Harris, a Republican, and Mary Anne Marsh, a Democrat, let "20/20" in on some tricks of the trade when it comes to playing the presidential campaign game, and winning.

Lesson 1: Pictures matter more than words.

"It's always visual first," Marsh said. "You make your first judgment based on their looks -- right or wrong, but on their looks. Do I like this person? Do they seem friendly? That makes all the difference in the world."

Consultants say candidates images sometimes matter more than what they say.Play

Before Sen. Hillary Clinton gave her convention speech, cameras caught staffers holding up four different pantsuits to see how each would look on camera. Some might call that superficial, but Marsh called it smart.

"The pantsuit made a big difference," she said. "When she walked on that stage, it didn't look great. But on TV, it looked fabulous with that background. And then you listened to every word she said. That's smart."

Visual strategizing goes far beyond pantsuits.

"Campaigns have gotten very, very good at manipulating the picture," Harris said. "If John McCain is gonna give a speech about the economy and jobs, I guarantee you, they will put a backdrop behind him that is somehow reflective of that message, whether it's working people or a banner that says, 'Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.'"

"You could be sitting at home, cooking dinner with your TV on mute," said Harris, "but you're looking up, and you're seeing John McCain. And you're seeing over his shoulder the word 'Jobs.' And even if you're not paying attention to what he's saying, they're communicating that message to you."

Sometimes the most powerful messages aren't planned at all.

"One of the most compelling images of the entire Republican convention was when Sarah Palin's daughter, Piper, was sitting there with little baby Trig on her lap. And she was smoothing his hair," Harris said. "And then at one point, she actually licks her hand … to mat down his hair. I know so many people who, even though that has nothing to do with politics, has nothing to do with policy, they instantly fell in love with the Palin family."

Sometimes, images can do more harm than good.

Marsh remembered when George H.W. Bush was perplexed by a price scanner at a supermarket checkout counter.

"To average Americans, that represented he was out of touch," Marsh said. "They go shopping every day. They get their groceries. They scan their groceries. He had no idea what it was."

"Michael Dukakis, in the tank with the helmet," she said. "Again, out of touch. He tried to play military, even though he served. But it just didn't look right."

"No one said anything in any -- each one of those examples, not a word was spoken," she said. "But the pictures told the whole story."

Lesson 2: Voters want to hear the hard truth, except when they don't.

"Voters think that they want a truth-teller," Harris said. "They will tell you that they want someone who will tell it like it is. You know, 'Just give us the hard truth.' Except that they don't want that."

Harris pointed to the Republican primary in Michigan. The state had been losing jobs and McCain didn't sugarcoat his message to the voters, telling them, "I have to tell you that some of those jobs aren't coming back."

At the Republican debate, then-candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney shot back at McCain.

"I disagree," he said. "I'm going to fight for every single job."

"The truth is a lot of those jobs, most of those jobs probably aren't going back," Harris said. "But voters didn't want to hear that. But if you asked voters, 'Do you want a politician who will give you the hard truth, even if you don't like it? Or do you want someone who's gonna pander to you and tell you exactly what you wanna hear?', they're always gonna say, 'Give us the hard truth,' except when it comes time to actually hearing it. And then they usually don't wanna hear it."

"In Michigan, with an economy hit as hard as it's been hit," Harris said, "they didn't wanna hear the straight talk. They wanted to hear that those jobs were coming back. And Mitt Romney won the primary."

Lesson 3: Voters need to like you before they'll vote for you.

Who would you rather have a beer with: Obama or McCain? In some ways, that question matters more to voters than policy positions.

"That's the magic combination in politics, that people have to get to know and like you before they believe and trust you," Marsh said.

A big part of being likable is being relatable.

"You want to help that candidate show the average voter, 'I'm just like you,'" Harris said. "Voters will look at someone and say, 'He's just like me. She's just like me. Therefore, they're gonna understand my problems. They're gonna understand my challenges, so I'm gonna put my faith and my trust in them.'"

Candidates make themselves "just like you" by telling voters about their life stories.

"A campaign at its core essence is about a story. It's not unlike your favorite book or your favorite movie," Harris said. "Every policy position on a campaign, every speech that they give, they all contribute to that overarching narrative."

When voters hear that narrative, they feel closer to the candidate. That might be why we've seen so much passion from voters this campaign season.

"Just like people will cry in their favorite books, cry at the end of their favorite movies," Harris said, "a good political campaign tells a story that moves people, not politically, but emotionally."