Wednesday, 29 October 2008

"Accidental genius" and the secrets of Barack Obama's success

The reasons for Barack Obama’s success – and John McCain’s failure – have been succinctly summed up by, of all people, George W. Bush.

[Before you say “yes, but Obama hasn’t won yet”, fear not – I learnt the hard way about the difference between political chickens and eggs, some 25 years ago. My point is, Obama is ahead and is clearly winning the official campaign.]

Over the weekend, the New York Times Magazine featured this fascinating article, by Robert Draper, on John McCain’s continuing failure to find a compelling narrative for his campaign. It focuses heavily on the role of his chief campaign strategist, Stephen Schmidt. He was in charge of rapid rebuttal on Bush’s 2004 campaign. Schmidt recalls a meeting with Bush at a stage of the campaign, when things weren’t looking too good. Still, the president remained very confident.

“There’s an accidental genius to the way Americans pick a president, Schmidt remembers Bush saying that day. By the end of it all, a candidate’s true character is revealed to the American people.”

A bit later, Draper explains:

“What campaigns peddle is not simply character but character as defined by story — a tale of opposing forces that in its telling will memorably establish what a given election is about.”

The gruelling campaign of 2008 has given both candidates plenty of opportunities to tell and to live their stories, so that the voters can work out or, perhaps more accurately, gain an intuitive sense of whom they want to see in the Oval Office.

In promising “change”, Obama has found the ideal narrative for a disgruntled, discontented electorate, whose demographics are changing and shifting. A post-baby boom, biracial first-term Democratic senator certainly represents a new face, a new direction, a new sense of possibilities. (For instance, he promises that an “Apollo project for energy independence” will be his first priority in office.) His “change” story meets the needs of the voters he seeks. Obama has stuck to his story all year.

Whatever has been thrown at him, Obama has held his nerve. Time magazine’s Joe Klein, has written an insightful piece on Obama’s campaign and why he is winning. He describes how Obama has developed over this year, becoming more confident and steadier in his gut instincts. Klein concludes:

“Obama has . . . remained levelheaded through a season of political insanity. His has been a remarkable campaign, as smoothly run as any I've seen in nine presidential cycles. Even more remarkable, Obama has made race — that perennial, gaping American wound — an afterthought. He has done this by introducing a quality to American politics that we haven't seen in quite some time: maturity. He is undoubtedly as ego-driven as everyone else seeking the highest office — perhaps more so, given his race, his name and his lack of experience. But he has not been childishly egomaniacal, in contrast to our recent baby-boomer Presidents — or petulant, in contrast to his opponent. He does not seem needy. He seems a grown-up, in a nation that badly needs some adult supervision.”

McCain, by contrast, has failed to present a coherent, consistent story. Is he the straight-talking, maverick Republican senator who used to travel outside his party’s comfort zone on issues like taxes and global warming? Or the true conservative, who did a U-turn on Bush’s tax cuts?

McCain should have had a better chance when it came to telling a story about “true character”. McCain’s personal story, the reckless flyboy who was a POW and then a courageous patriot, has been part of American folklore for at least a decade. But Draper explains in detail how his campaign has agonized --and failed -- over how to turn the McCain “metanarrative”, into a winning campaign story. Why America should elect (as opposed to simply admiring) McCain?

Draper dissects the five – yes, five - McCain campaign narratives over the last year and says:

“In constantly alternating among story lines in order to respond to changing events and to gain traction with voters, the “true character” of a once-crisply-defined political figure has become increasingly murky.”

The campaign has seen some big dramatic set-pieces in which candidates have been able to act out their “true characters” – their integrity, temperament and judgement.

First, their choices of vice-presidential running mates. McCain’s hasty choice of Sarah Palin demonstrated his weakness as a potential president. As Draper tells it, McCain’s advisers were looking for a media celebrity; they did not stop to consider her inexperience or lack of knowledge about the issues. McCain met with her only briefly and seems to have fallen into the same traps. By contrast, Obama’s decision to go with Joe Biden was made quietly and carefully.

Palin put McCain into the lead in the first two weeks in September. [click here]. But she is now a drag on the Republican ticket. ABC’s pollster Gary Langer reported yesterday that 52 percent of likely voters now say that McCain's selection of Sarah Palin makes them less confident in his judgment.

Second, the way the two candidates handled the financial crisis at the end of September. McCain suspended his campaign, threatened to scuttle the first debate and caught a plane back to Washington to work with administration and congressional leaders to resolve the crisis. McCain’s advisers promised that their man would thrash out a solution -- and thereby advance his “character” narrative. But McCain’s contribution was risible. Says Draper:

"Scene by scene, McCain failed to deliver the performance that had been promised. ... [Given] a chance to show what kind of president he might be, McCain came off more like a stymied bystander than a leader who could make a difference."

To the consternation of some leading Democrats, Obama insisted on debating, as well as participating in the financial talks. McCain demurred. Klein says that:

“Obama’s gut steadiness . . . won the public’s trust and quite possibly the election.”

[See my earlier blog on how the cool, calm and disciplined Obama faced up against the “hot” and frenetic McCain]

Klein may well be correct. The financial crisis appears to have been a major turning point in the campaign. The RCP Poll Average of ratings shows that, at the end of September (when the crisis broke), Obama was just 2 percentage points ahead of McCain. This followed a difficult summer and McCain’s brief ascendancy following his convention. Obama’s lead climbed all through the first part of October to reach 7 per cent, dipped a bit in the third week, and is now back to 6 points.

RCP also shows that, over summer, Obama’s net “favourable” rating was between 18 and 21 points. After slumping in the second half of September, it recovered at the end of that month and has been on the up for most of October. His net “favourable” rating now stands at a steady 22 points.

McCain also had a net “favourable” rating, of between 16 and 20 points, over the summer. But at the end of September it collapsed, to 11 points. McCain’s net “favourable” rating has kept on falling and now stands at just 8 points.

Last week, the ABC’s Gary Langer also showed how voters seem to have become convinced about Obama’s character and competence, whilst McCain’s negative politics has failed to have the desired effect. Yesterday, he found that likely voters give Obama a 4-point lead on whom they trust more to handle an unexpected crisis, compared to McCain’s 17-point advantage after the Republican convention. Obama also has a big lead for having the best personality and temperament to be president; but then he has had big leads on that one all year.

The “accidental genius” works in Westminster-type elections too – even though it may be called “comparative credibility”. And our elections are becoming more “presidential” all the time. In 1992, British voters sensed that Neil Kinnock and Labour were not quite ready to govern. Tony Blair was unpopular in 2005 but still more credible than the main alternative. The same test worked for Australia’s John Howard, at least twice. Howard lost in 2007 when he lost touch with the electorate on the big issues and the Australian Labor Party found a credible leader.

Big long list of policies, anyone?

[Thanks to my sister Louise and my friend Redmer for putting me on to the NY Times Magazine article]


CultureVulture said...

Interesting post, Neil. Relevantly, as many prominent experts these days have noted, Obama is a member of Generation Jones–born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and GenXers.

Here is a column by Clarence Page about GenJones in last week’s Chicago Tribune:,0,2775732.column

And this new 5 minute GenJones video features many top pundits (including David Brooks, Clarence Page, Dick Morris, Juan Williams, Karen Tumulty, Howard Wolfson, Michael Barone, etc.) specifically talking about Obama (and Palin’s) membership in Generation Jones, as well as the surprisingly big role that GenJones is now playing in this election:

Anonymous said...

Yes, five McCain campaign narratives over the past year. Does the narrative about Palin being a self-interested rogue who is more interested in 2012 count as a sixth?

Hi to Red.

Neil Stockley said...

Culturevulture -

Take your point about Generation Jones (but then I was born in 1962). The baby boomers are slowly ceding political power to that generation and GenX. UK politics and, for that matter, the NZ general election on 8 November are notworthy in that regard.

Jafapete -

The narrative on Palin may count as a side story; it's not aimed at electing McCain or defeating Obama this year. But a lot of people on the right are excited about her, as a prospect for 2012.