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Ordinary

October 27, 2008
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Also posted at The Jamestown Project blog

Why is Barack Obama winning this election? Just over a week before the election, the Democratic nominee enjoys substantial leads in most polls, popular and electoral both. That is no guarantee of ultimate victory: the only poll that counts is November 4th, as Thomas Dewey found out to his cost in 1948, but nonetheless, right at this moment, the Illinois Senator is clearly ahead.

How did he get to this point?

There is an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine from this past weekend, looking at the inner workings of the McCain campaign and the five different narratives that they’ve tried to push to the American people since summer 2008. None of them have caught hold, leaving the McCain people scratching their heads. But what is absent from the article is any sense of WHY none of these narratives have worked. The reporter quotes the McCain as thinking that the media is in the tank for Obama, makes note of Sarah Palin’s horrendous inexperience, and indirectly points to McCain’s baffled and angry performances in the debates. But there is no sense that the Obama campaign may have played a role. The article imputes that it is the McCain campaign’s mistakes that are responsible. In this formulation, McCain is losing, rather than Obama winning.

I write this post to argue with that formulation, by focusing on one particular strategy of the Obama campaign. Before I talk about that, though, let me look at the larger, systemic factors that are hindering the Republicans this election cycle. First, the nation is undergoing a partisan realignment. In the 1970s and 80s, the South realigned from the Democrats to the Republicans. 1976 was the last gasp of the old Democratic “Solid South.” (Look at Jimmy Carter’s winning electoral map and imagine a Democratic candidate getting that layout today). The 2000s have been about the northeast and far west solidly realigning to the Democrats. In the 1950s and 60s, California was reliably Republican. Now, it is just as reliably Democratic. In the 1990s, more and more northeastern states have become reliably Democratic, to the point that a Republican Congressperson from a northeastern state is a rare bird, indeed (see Clinton’s electoral map in 1996). That partisan realignment is helping Obama. Also helping Obama is, of course, President Bush, who has the lowest approval ratings of any President in modern history, and has historians arguing whether he is the worst President ever or only in the top-5 worst.

More, Iraq has become firmly entrenched in the American mind as a disaster, and such a formulation takes a long time to dislodge. It took years after 2003-05 for the U.S. public to swing against the war, but once having swung, that public is not going back. This, despite the fact that American efforts in Iraq have substantially toned down the violence there. The public has decided and they’re not going to change their mind easily. Finally, of course, the financial crisis of the last few months have put a spotlight, as did Hurricane Katrina, on the venality, greed, and sheer impressive incompetence of President Bush and the disastrous economic polices of his administration.

With all that, however, the Obama campaign has run a strategically masterful and tactically smart campaign. I want to highlight one particular aspect of that campaign by looking at Obama’s personality. During the primaries, Obama built his image as a charismatic orator whose soaring speeches elevated and inspired. In this sense, his political persona echoed that of many early African-American figures, including Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King, Jr. But that image proved vulnerable to counterattack in several ways. First, the soaring rhetoric, for many white Americans, echoed the language not of Martin Luther King, Jr., but of Jeremiah Wright, an association that did not help Obama. Second, Obama’s speechmaking was different from modern Presidents who, if they were good speakers, have adopted a faux-traditional American style of “just plain folks.” Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, the two best post-1945 Presidential speakers, both used a conversational speaking approach that pushed the message that they were regular guys. Obama’s speeches did not. Since (fairly or not) Obama was also surrounded by a perception of alienness (both because he was African-American, and because he had lived outside the U.S. for a substantial period), that lack added to another of his weaknesses. Finally, Obama’s charisma opened the door for the McCain campaign to attack him as a shallow, inexperienced celebrity, the Paris Hilton of American politics, a line of attack that was resonating over the summer of 2008.

It stopped resonating, however because after his convention speech Obama changed his political persona substantially. The convention speech itself signaled the change by being both soaring and uncharacteristically wonkish. And in the three debates, there was little trace of the charismatic orator. Instead, Obama was sober, unruffled, and at pains to be deeply conversant with specific policies and policy ideas. The contrast was remarkable, and even more so when you consider that _McCain_ came off as the firebrand.

Clearly, the Obama campaign had realized the vulnerabilities listed above and decided to preempt them. What had worked to rally the base was not what was needed in the general election, and so Obama changed his strategy. Instead of charisma, the message was one of steadiness; instead of celebrity, it was of seriousness. Before the convention, Obama frequently appeared in suit and tie. After the convention, he almost always appeared in a suit without tie, or a tie without the suit coat. The message, as was the careful language and personality, was that Obama was a regular guy. Here he was not a working Joe, but a middle-class man with middle class concerns about family and health care and retirement. He was, in a word, ordinary. He was not alien, or strange, or other, but ordinary. And it is that strategic shift that has left the McCain campaign flailing, not merely their own mistakes. You can’t sell celebrity as the tag for someone ordinary. You can’t sell radical leftist for someone ordinary. You can’t sell terrorist for someone ordinary. None of the narratives that the Times’ article listed have resonated with Americans so far because they have seen the careful, measured Barack Obama for themselves and believe him, above all, to be familiar. That shift—not an easy one to make in the middle of a campaign—undercut every Republican argument against Obama and left them groping every few weeks for a new narrative. That shift—not an easy one to make in the middle of a campaign—was genius.

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