6/28/2008

How Obama Can Lose the Election

Voters' trust is the single most valuable commodity any politician can have. Trust is what prompts voters to donate their hard earned cash to a candidate's campaign, give a candidate hours of their precious time by working at a phone bank or voter registration drive, and win their support at the ballot box. But once this trust has been lost, it is impossible to get it back. A politician who displays sufficient contrition or humility might be able to recover some of the trust that was lost, but the bond will never be as strong as it once was.

Earning voters' trust has been Barack Obama's main strength, as he has successfully tapped into the hearts of millions of voters who want to believe that he can usher in a new chapter of American history that is brighter than what characterizes the nation today. This trust is manifested in millions of small-dollar campaign contributions, viral videos on YouTube and Facebook, and record-breaking attendance at his campaign events.

Having defeated a cadre of talented rivals who boasted much longer track records of public service and accomplishments, Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee for President. His focus has shifted from keeping John Edwards from overtaking him to muscling past Hillary Clinton to putting Hillary Clinton away for good to keeping John McCain out of the White House. Of course, as a nominee's focus shifts from the primaries to the general election, it is common to make a strategic move towards the political center. Partisan bases may win primaries, but crossover appeal wins elections.

Barack Obama understands that this type of political posturing is essential for his success this November. However, as he makes his transition to general election mode and gets used to his status as the frontrunner instead of the insurgent, he runs the risk of damaging his political fortunes far more than anything the Republicans may throw at him.

Obama's campaign slogan is "Change we can believe in." Unfortunately for Obama, his post-Clinton campaign has provided several warnings that he should be cognizant of, lest he risk permanently damaging his brand and the commodity of trust I mentioned earlier.

For example, John McCain has extended several invitations to Obama to have them conduct town hall meetings together for ten consecutive weeks. However, Obama has rejected these invitations for various reasons. John McCain is to be commended for proposing these town halls because they allow voters to engage the candidates directly and without the presence of obfuscating campaign spokesmen and staffers. In an age where so many politicians are scripted and message discipline and gatekeeping are par for the course, informal town hall debates seem like a bit of fresh air.

The Obama campaign cites a desire to reach a broader audience as its primary reason for refusing to participate in the town hall debates. However, that would seem to contradict his popular campaign anecdote about the "fired up" woman from Greenwood, South Carolina, and how "one voice can change a room" and how "one room can change a city, etc." The reason why Obama is not participating in these town halls has nothing to do with reaching as many people as possible; it's simple politics. Frontrunners typically want to avoid debates because they don't want to elevate their opponents or give them a chance to inflict lasting damage. Underdogs typically want to have more debates so they can have more opportunities to increase their exposure and share the stage with their better positioned rivals. Not participating in town halls with John McCain over the summer is about preserving his lead in the polls and not giving McCain any opportunities to cut into that lead.

How politically convenient.

A second threat to Obama's campaign concerns public campaign financing. Obama's reversal on public financing is another issue that is not particularly newsworthy when taken on its own, but has a bit more significance when taken in the context of what his campaign is supposed to represent. Obama has spoken out about the need for "getting special interests and big money out of politics." He was a strong advocate for the public financing of presidential campaigns and transparency in government. But when he decided to renege on this commitment, he cited the need to defend himself against "opponents who have become masters at gaming this broken system."

Public financing of campaigns is a bit too archaic of a political issue to really engage voters. So it was a calculated gamble for Obama to sacrifice a few days of bad press for a few months of being able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. John McCain and his surrogates have attacked Obama for violating his word on this issue, but these attacks were likely not so effective because McCain is not exactly innocent when it comes to public campaign financing either.

However, Obama's supporters may have looked at his decision to opt out of public financing and wonder if the "candidate of change" is really doing nothing more than changing his political stripes. While partisan Democrats may relish the idea of their candidate being able to have a major cash advantage heading into the general election, a lot of new voters who responded to Obama's message of hope, staying positive, ushering in a new kind of politics, and "change we can believe in" may have some newfound reservations about him. He had one position when he didn't have so much money and was behind in the polls, but he had another position after he found himself becoming the most prolific fundraiser in American political history.

How politically convenient.

Public financing and ducking the town halls with John McCain are probably far more damaging to Barack Obama than his contortions on the Second Amendment or foreign policy. As I mentioned earlier, all politicians must tack to the political center for the general election. But this political posturing involves simple ideology. Voters can accept that as part of what politicians have to do for their own political survival. However, Obama's decisions regarding public financing and the town hall debates with John McCain constitute political posturing that involves civics. Ideology is about abstract and impersonal ideas, but civics are about actual voters. Voters don't like to be taken advantage of, and they will react harshly when they feel their trust has been violated.

Obama's political history is too short for him to have a deep reservoir of goodwill among voters. So he has to be very careful not to taint this well with his own gestures of political expediency. Republicans are right to bring this up in their attacks on Obama, but when his actual supporters start asking these very same questions, Obama will be in serious trouble.

If the November election is a referendum on President Bush, the Republican Party, the economy, jobs, or the overall state of the nation, Obama will win this election by a comfortable margin. But if the election is a referendum on Obama himself, John McCain may very well pull off one of the biggest upsets in political history.

15 comment(s):

Brett said...

This really pushes the ball into the Republican court. I doubt the instances of political convenience on Obama's sake alone will break the support of many of his supporters; it hasn't broken yet in spite of several of these incidents. Like the months-long flip-flop on "unconditional diplomacy", the above on public financing, his open shift in position on NAFTA, or the current cave-in on NAFTA. Heck, even Olbermann, who has spent several months and at least one Special Comment on why the FISA bill was bad, started spouting weaselly justifications as to why it was a good thing for Obama to refuse to condemn the bill.

I don't know if they can pull it off, though, and it's not just the money disparity. Obama is a master of controlled public appearances; with only a few slip-ups, he's generally been almost flawless at rallies and the like. His weakness lies in debates, where he can't control the circumstances and has to respond quickly and credibly, and McCain is no doubt trying to exploit that - but it doesn't work unless a combination of media pressure and McCain can force Obama into vulnerable debates, and that hasn't happened. Yet.

More or less, though, you are right. What Obama is doing is treacherous; while I doubt many of his supporters would defect to McCain, they might stay home rather than donate or volunteer. While a candidate has to move to the center in a general election, this is particularly tricky for Obama, who has built his campaign's success of near-fanatical devotion from his idealistic volunteers (in particular, youth) and the devotion that leads to large scale donation (although this might been changing with Obama's acquisition of "bundlers" from Clinton and other places).

Brett said...

CORRECTION: "current cave-in on the FISA bill", not NAFTA.

Thomas said...

I think the bigger problem for Obama is what happens after he is elected. I think he is showing now that when he has to make a choice between something convenient to him and overall change, he chooses the convenient path.

I don't mind this personally as I am more of a pragmatic sort who doesn't respond well to calls for change. I don't think change is a good thing or a bad thing. It is neutral. I think most people agree that George W. Bush changed how things were done in Washington. Heck, Mitt Romney said he was for change at the end of his campaign.

But Obama's supporters are counting on him to stay true to the change message. They like thinking that Obama is a Washington outsider who will change everything about Washington. But I don't think Obama has ever been an outsider. He has had patron saints along his route to where he is today. He was a superstar in law school. People like him don't go unnoticed.

We can point these facts out to Obama's supporters now. But they are so crushing on him that they won't hear what we are saying, Anthony. I guess they will have to have their hearts broken at a time and a place of their own choosing.

S.W. Anderson said...

In 2000, Al Gore bested George W. Bush in most of the debates. In 2004, John Kerry, a skilled, experienced debater, so far outclassed Bush there was no comparison. Bush did noticeably better in one debate than in his other outings, but it would be a stretch to say he won.

What good did making a better showing in the debates do the two Democratic candidates? Little if any.

Perhaps Obama is concerned about Republicans loading up the town hall audience with ringers prepped to ask him what they intend to be embarrassing questions, or to ask questions that are really statements damaging to him. For example. . .

Questioner: Sen. Obama, I read on the Internet your half brother in Africa is involved with an al Qaeda operative and that you have a professor friend who is a terrorist sympathizer. How is it you have so many connections to terrorist-friendly people?

It may be that Obama wants to engage larger audiences because, as he's said, when people see and hear him in person they become more comfortable with him. Having to repeatedly prepare for town halls could play havoc with his plans to compete in all states and meet large numbers of people in person.

As for campaign finance, I continue to be amazed at how little positive media reaction Obama has gotten for his bold moves at reform. He has run his own campaign free of lobbyist and PAC money. Then, he ordered the DNC not to accept lobbyist and PAC money. That's a big deal. Yet, Obama didn't get one-tenth the media buzz for doing that compared to all the carrying on about his decision to not restrict his campaign to public funds.

Regarding the FISA makeover, Obama is an attorney and has served in two legislative bodies. He understands you often must accept a compromise if anything is going to get done. Keyboard commandos can beat their chest and write angry posts and comments about Obama (and other Democrats) caving in all they want. Sometimes, it's necessary to score some incremental gain rather than accept gridlock.

Obama is a politician undertaking the hardest political challenge in our system, and doing it for the first time. He isn't a saint or Superman. He can't please everyone all the time while always averting mistakes.

On balance, I think Obama is doing remarkably well.

Thomas said...

Another thing that bothers me about Obama's campaign is that when he flip-flops on an issue, his people say, "Well, McCain flip-flops too."

Um, so. Barack Obama is supposed to represent a "new kind of politics." If that is to be so then he can't be judged against other "Washington insiders." We all know that "Washington insiders" don't have any core beliefs and don't stand for anything. Is it enough that Barack Obama fares well when compared to a crook like Tom DeLay?

Again, no. Barack Obama created a new standard for himself. He needs to live by it.

Anonymous said...

He who stops oil speculation wins White House!

Brett said...

That's the problem, though, Anderson; the FISA bill was (as Glenn Greenwald, who was also a long-time lawyer, pointed out) not a "compromise to get something done"; it was a complete cave-in on Obama and the Democrats' part. The actual people pushing for the full bill are jumping for joy at it passing the House - hardly the signs of a compromise. It reeks of that old Democratic "strategy" from 2002 that basically consisted of "If we give the Republicans everything they want and out-macho them, then they can't criticize us by calling us 'soft on terror'!" It was capitulation.

As for the rejection of the town halls, while I think it is a lost opportunity, I'm not criticizing him for it. Choosing tactics on your advantages in order to win is every politician's prerogative, and Obama is no exception. He can afford to more or less "shell" the McCain campaign from a distance over a wide area because of his money advantage, to which McCain has a hard time responding. Why should he put himself in a position where his advantages are negated?

Anthony Palmer said...

Thomas,

You are describing what I've seen termed as "Obama Letdown Syndrome." This is the uneasy sensation you get when you take a critical assessment of Barack Obama a few days after a big rally or inspiring speech and wonder if the platform can really live up to the hype.

If you think about it, however, Barack Obama is really at a disadvantage because most politicians like to stay away from substance and wonky policy details and convey their messages in broad strokes. However, because Obama is so skillful at giving speeches, it magnifies the chasm between his soaring rhetoric and the meatiness of his actual policies. So perhaps Obama is too talented for his own good?

Anthony Palmer said...

Brett,

Politics is a dirty business. At what point does purity become politically self-defeating? A politician must attack his opponent to change the dynamics of the race. A politician must raise lots of money to ensure that he won't be at an inherent disadvantage. A politician must change his position sometimes in order to be on the right side of public opinion at times. The problem for Obama is that he has branded himself as post-political when you never can really take politics out of politics. Now he risks looking like a hypocrite every time he does something that makes him look like...well, a politician. Imagine that.

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SWA,

You bring up a good point about the debates. But were Gore and Kerry's defeats more attributable to their weak political skills or the lack of pragmatism among voters? Bush's main selling point in 2000 was "restoring honor and dignity to the Oval Office." People weren't really thinking about conservatism in terms of the economy or foreign policy. They were thinking about someone who wouldn't embarrass his office by getting caught in a lewd act or lying to the public. To liberals and Democrats, this seemed like a pretty stupid reason to vote for someone because a politician's views on the economy seemed more important to their day to day lives than whether he cheats on his wife.

I saw the debates with Bush and Kerry and I thought Kerry won all three debates. I think he was about to close the sale in the final debate until he brought up Cheney's lesbian daughter. But even then, the election should not have been that close, given the pessimism of the nation at the time. But all votes and voters have the same strength and the same voice at the ballot box, so even though almost all indicators currently suggest Obama should win in a rout when it comes to policy, the personal connection a politician makes with voters matters too. But I do think that after the Bush years, voters may be a little more inclined to vote on policy than on more superficial stuff like a bad soundbyte taken out of context or a middle name.

(By the way, I can't access your site because Google says it's blocked for having malware on it. You might want to check the code of some of your advertisements and widgets because your site's visitors might be getting infected.)

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

i see your perspective. But there is another possibility. One related to how he deals with K street

Schenck said...

Don't care about public financing... Obama'd be a fool to shut down the juggernaut he has created. Tell you what, though, I haven't donated since April, and now...

FISAFISAFISAFISAFISAFISAFISAFISA

Not to mention faith-based initiative and refuting Clark's comment...

He's pushing away the very netroots that helped to raise him up. Teh internetz is very, very angry.

I want Gravel back :-(

S.W. Anderson said...

Many good points and insights, AP. I sincerely hope you're right about people being less inclined to vote for whoever seems better to have a beer with, the one who manipulates their insecurities or is more skilled at character assassination.

Regarding my blog and the Google warning. I became aware there was a problem a week or so ago. I followed instructions given to root out the problem, and I did.

I found my index file had been hacked, with an iframe inserted. The best I can figure out, the purpose of the iFrame was to make it possible for people to locate what are known as warez (think black-market software, porn, etc.) for downloading by accessing a cached version of some of my blog pages on Google.

There didn't seem to be any mechanism to it to infect visitors' PCs. Also, the iFrame was invisible and located at the very bottom of the page. I think what it affected was Google's caching of pages.

Anyway, I removed the iFrame code. I then submitted a request to Google to re-evaluate my blog. The form warned it could take quite awhile for them to get around to it.

Apparently, the warning sticks until Google gets around to re-evaluating. Meanwhile, a Google bot crawls my pages daily, just as always.

What Google is doing has merit, because I had no idea there was a problem. But the way they're lumping sites/blogs together regardless of the nature of the problem and then delaying clearing sites/blogs that have taken corrective action is a disservice to everyone.

If you're having trouble accessing my blog, I guess you must be using Google toolbar or a Google RSS widget. If you save a bookmark or shortcut for my blog there should be no problem.

S.W. Anderson said...

I'm with Schenck on Obama refuting Clark's entirely reasonable statement. Not that I'm enthused about his FISA and faith-based positions.

Arianna Huffington has a particularly timely and appropriate op ed at RealClear politics, of all places: Memo to Obama: Moving to the Middle is for Losers

S.W. Anderson said...

Uh, by "his" in my preceding comment, I mean (and should've written) Obama.

Anthony Palmer said...

Schenck,

Welcome back. Haven't seen you around for awhile. Regarding FISA, Iraq, and guns, Obama has definitely tacked to the center. This could be interpreted in at least three different ways:

1. Obama is a flip-flopper. He was for troop withdrawals before he was against them. He was against FISA before he was for it. You can never trust this guy to say what he really thinks. So he's a typical politician.

2. Obama is a smart politician who is doing what he must do in order to broaden his appeal. The left alone will not win elections, so he must adopt a few more centrist positions to help him in light blue and purple states. Conservatives should be happy about this because he's embracing some of their issues. Would conservatives rather have a liberal ally on an issue or a liberal foil they can kick around in the press?

3. Obama is trying to take away one of the Republican talking points that he is a far left liberal. People on the far left don't embrace the Supreme Court gun decision. People on the far left don't support FISA as it's currently written. So this would be a brilliant chess move by Obama and shows that he has a much stronger political antenna than John Kerry.

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SWA,

Your blog seems open for business now. I haven't seen that virus warning or anything strange since I checked about two days ago. Glad it's up and running again.

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