Friday, October 17, 2008

Politics: The Emotional Campaign

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Presidential elections in the United States pretty much have looked the same for my entire lifetime.

Party A has a nominee with a story to tell, a charisma that connects with many common people--just not the hard-core supporters of the other party. Maybe that candidate didn't start out well-known in a first campaign, but the more voters found out about him (and it always has been a "him"), the more comfortable they became with him. Party B may have nominated a competent and likable individual--perhaps even an incumbent--but that person had a clear charisma deficit compared with the other candidate.

As a result of that charisma deficit, Party A was able to start painting the candidate of Party B with a caricature and stereotype that started to ring true. If Party B decided to ignore the attempt to appeal to emotions and just stick to facts and actions, the media would start speculating that maybe Party A was right about the caricature, and it would start to stick. If Party B actually fought back against the stereotype, they would over-do it and their candidate would start to look unnatural and uncomfortable, because even if their candidate was not well-described by the caricature, neither was their candidate well-described by the opposite.

By one of the debates in the campaign season, the candidate of Party B would say something or do something that was clearly in line with the caricature of them that had been built by Party A. It didn't matter if Party B's candidate substantively won the debate; the average voter just noticed that Party A seemed to have correctly described the Party B candidate, so they stopped listening to the substance being presented by Party B. The image became the reality, and little else mattered.

Party A had plenty of money to spend, and gained more as it became clearer to big business that Party A would win the election. They needed to be backing the party that would be in power, after all. Party B hasn't exactly been bankrupt, with notable rich and powerful donors behind them, but had a harder time making a case to smaller, more independent donors and felt like it couldn't be as free-spending, and found itself on the defensive in battleground states, and ultimately losing.

In 1980, the Republicans were Party A, with Ronald Reagan clearly more charismatic than Jimmy Carter. After spending a campaign painting Carter as out-of-touch, Reagan responded to a detailed, wonkish answer about health care by his famous line "There you go again." The same scenario took place in 1984--without the power of incumbency, the Democrats as Party B lost in a landslide with uncharismatic Walter Mondale as a nominee against Reagan. The famous line there was less about a Mondale stereotype than Mondale's failed attempt to stereotype Reagan when the president responded "I want you to know also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."

The Democrats might have had a chance to be Party A in 1988, but they nominated Michael Dukakis, and even George H. W. Bush looked charismatic in comparison. Some went so far as to call him a "dead fish" and his unemotional response when asked whether he would support the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered, discussing the statistical ineffectiveness of capital punishment, confirmed that for voters.

In 1992, the Democrats finally turned the tables and became Party A in nominating Bill Clinton. The iconic moment came when George H. W. Bush looked at his watch during a debate, emphasizing the out-of-touch, tired stereotype. 1996 echoed 1984 as Bob Dole looked like a sacrificial lamb in a Republican Party B; this time, age was a factor and the memorable line came from Clinton: "It's the age of his ideas that I question."

The Republicans became Party A again in 2000 with George W. Bush, and Al Gore was taken so far out of his element in attempts to fight stereotypes that nobody was certain who he was--until the famous sighs during the debate that were interpreted as his being out of touch with the emotions of voters. And, who could forget how caricatured John Kerry became in 2004, doing himself the most damage in a debate with the infamous "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

In 2008, it appears we have observed the same old scenario, this time with the Democrats playing Party A with Obama as the clear leader in charisma. Early attempts to paint John McCain as angry and erratic didn't seem to be fully sticking--but it appears that attempts to paint him as negative did. Nate Silver on explained what happened in Wednesday's debate in detail--McCain accused Obama of going negative while trying to link Obama with John Lewis. Never mind the cognitive disconnect of the accusation--McCain was playing into the stereotype of being negative, and the audience seemed to turn against him. McCain had been making strong economic points to that point in the debate, but people seemed to stop listening to him at that point, and the snap polls after the debate strongly favored Obama.

2008 could have played out the other way. Republican attempts to paint Obama as inexperienced could have made them Party A if Obama had re-inforced them, and McCain had showed the charisma that he showed in the 2000 primaries. Instead, today voters aren't really sure if McCain is an independent maverick, or an angry old man.

Be watching for a very charismatic Republican to be nominated in 2012--otherwise, they may find themselves Party B two times in a row.

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