4/02/2008

Barack and Bowling: A Political Gutterball

Last weekend Barack Obama went bowling in Altoona, Pennsylvania, with Senator Bob Casey. As an avid bowler myself (hence the name of this blog, The 7-10), this story is of personal relevance to me. Bowling alleys are normally places for raucous laughter, intense competition, and playful teasing. Unfortunately for Obama, however, this seemingly innocent campaign event may come back to haunt him.

Of course, Obama and his supporters probably thought the event was at least a modest success. After all, he got the chance to show his lighter side to voters and humanize himself. It showed him interacting with real regular people on their turf. And given the heated rhetoric, personal attacks, and overall negativity that often characterize politics, yukking it up with voters at the local bowling alley seems like a refreshing blast of fresh air.

Before going any further, I must qualify this post by adding a disclaimer. Bowling is both a game and a sport. Some people take it more seriously than others, and some people are better at it than others. Being a lousy bowler doesn't make you a lousy politician, just as being good at bowling doesn't necessarily mean you would be good at legislating. But again, in politics, perception matters. And that's where Obama runs into trouble.

Politicians rarely do anything just for the sake of doing it. So yes, the nonbowling Obama entered that bowling alley with a purpose. The political aim of this event was clearly to appeal to working class voters. These are the lunchbucket Reagan Democrats that are currently aligned with Hillary Clinton or are tepid John McCain supporters. To the chagrin of Obama, however, after his bowling match, it is quite likely that he did not make the sale to these Reagan Democrat voters.

To start, Obama finished with a 37. A 37. Speaking as a bowler rather than a political observer, let's put this in a bit of perspective. A perfect score is a 300. A professional usually bowls at least a 200. (My personal best is a 228.) You are seen as "a man" if you can bowl a 150. Scoring over a 120 entitles you to say you have at least some level of bowling competence. And 100 is the score everybody secretly wants to beat so they can at least say that even though they aren't good at bowling, they aren't terrible at it. (Keep in mind that it's impossible to score a 100 without at least one spare.) Even a 50 is socially acceptable for women. But a 37? Competent bowlers can get 37 pins after two or three frames. Even nonbowlers can get 37 pins after five or six frames. 37 after ten frames is a score reserved for small children who do not have the luxury of using bumper lanes. So in this regard, Obama probably would have been better off staying home and not embarrassing himself.

But in addition to providing fodder for the late night comedians and a clever April Fool's Day gag for Hillary Clinton, in the minds of male voters, especially those who weren't in Obama's camp to begin with, Obama did not look strong, authoritative, or tough when he stepped up to the lane. He looked effeminate. MSNBC pundit Joe Scarborough even called Obama "dainty."

Worse, the imagery of this event has been forever immortalized by the likes of YouTube and cell phone videos. People who hadn't even known about the so-called Altoona Massacre probably had this one thought when they saw Obama step up to the lane: Why is he still wearing a necktie?

Obama and his supporters could try and spin this as Obama letting his hair down and having fun, but he clearly looked out of his element and the gave some voters the perception that this bowling event was forced or unnatural. Perception matters. Michael Dukakis looked like a buffoon in his oversized Army helmet and tank. John Kerry looked like a clown in his hunting gear. And Barack Obama looked decidedly uncool in his bowling shoes-necktie ensemble. Regular people simply don't wear neckties when they're looking for strikes and spares.

Again, to Obama supporters, these criticisms may seem trivial, especially given the other more serious issues at the center of this election, such as Iraq, healthcare, and illegal immigration. But to a lot of voters out there who are swayed by imagery, Obama's gutterballs in Altoona may lead to gutterballs at the polls. Anytime you have a campaign event and more people talk about how poorly you performed (a 37!) and how unnatural you looked afterwards, there's a good chance that your campaign event did not go over too well.

As for a more serious potential political problem, more people have noticed as of late that underneath Obama's rhetoric and appearance, his actual politics smack of liberalism. I argued that Obama's support was inflated for this very reason back in February. This is politically dangerous because once the "liberal" tag gets stuck on Obama, it will be very difficult for him to shake it off.

There's nothing inherently wrong with liberalism, conservativism, libertarianism, or any ideology. However, politically speaking, "liberalism" is a damaged brand fraught with negative connotations:

Liberals drink lattes and imported wines instead of black coffee and beer. Liberals do sudoku puzzles instead of crossword puzzles. Liberals call raw fish sushi instead of bait. Liberals drive Lexuses instead of Lincolns.

And unfortunately for Barack Obama, in the minds of conservatives, Republicans, and a lot of Reagan Democrats that he needs to win over, liberals also wear neckties at bowling alleys.

15 comment(s):

Brett said...

A 37? I don't think I've ever bowled that bad in my life, and although I enjoy bowling, I don't really get to do it that often (maybe three or four times a year). I think the worst I ever bowled was in the 60s, and that's when I went the first four rounds with nothing but gutterballs (for some reason, my shots always curve leftward no matter how straight I try to line up my throw).

Although to tell the truth, it doesn't surprise me that Obama might seem "dainty" doing that. The guy is light, which I think is something you don't realize until you actually get close to him. I remember when he came to Utah and gave a speech, and I got to shake his hand; the man was as thin as a pencil, and not very tall (I don't know for sure, but I think I was a little taller than him - I'm 5'9").

Brett said...

To add something to my point, though, I probably would have gotten a really low score on my worst round (the one I described), but I managed to squeeze off a strike (very rare for me) and a spare (which seem to be common; I usually get at least 2-3 a game).

Does the video show the rest of the people at the alley? Are they wincing with embarassment at his utter lack of bowling ability?

Steve Johnson said...

Haha. I enjoyed this commentary. I have to say I haven't seen an analysis of the bowling fiasco that went this deep. I hadn't thought about it that way, but I definitely see your point. Democrats get themselves in trouble with these publicity stunts. You rightly pointed to Dukakis' tank photograph and Kerry's hunting gear.

Luckily for Obama, it's just bowling. As bad as it is, a picture of Obama bowling with a necktie on probably doesn't compare to the photographs of Dukakis and Kerry. Those images were worth a thousand words.

But anyways, I agree with your larger point. He probably should have stayed home or at least practiced.

Nikki said...

You hit the nail on the head with this one! And I am suffering some topic blockage on my blog and this was such a clever post, wish I would have thought of it..hehe. nice job :)N

Anonymous said...

Hey Anthony -

Yes, I was wondering if 7-10 was a bowling analogy. Thanks for clearing that up. And since Obama is gaining in the PA polls, maybe the ladies like the fact that he rolled 37. Maybe they're up for somebody dainty???

LEVBARG said...

You make a good point.

Will this become part of a continuing narrative, or will it slowly die in the collective consciousness as an isolated incident?

Time, and YouTube, will tell.

Reginald Harrison Williams said...

I hope that our nation is smart enough to realize that bowling proficiency does not equate with legislative proficiency. Doing so would push us back to middle school and the dialogue on who was a better basketball player.

Most of the people who were awful at sports (like me) are the leaders today, so I hope this is just a joke.

I wanna see McCain bowl and Hillary Bowl. I bet they are not so good as we think either, yet, I'm sure they would make pretty excellent leaders in the long run.

Superb Post, Anthony...Ingenious!

namaste said...

slam dunk on this post, anthony! i am a girl who when she first bowled a hundred years ago, scored 55, and not less than 150 now. i watched footage of obama bowling, he looked like a girl. seriously. he should be properly embarrassed. obama supporters may think this is petty, but to them i say, grow up! men want to see men act like men. period. so do a lot of women. and that means physical brute strength, competitiveness, intimidating, etc. not shoulder shrugging, giggling and going "oops missed again." most, myself included, would say, okay how can that girlie-girl protect me?!

btw, anthony, doesn't this post smack of the same kind of pettiness you accused nikki of when she wrote about obama appearing on the view and having the ladies gawk over his butt? im just saying. ;)

~m

Brett said...

It probably won't have relevance after the primary, but it has to do with one of those "subtle impressions" that people carry into a primary voting booth that influences their voting (but which they are generally unwilling to mention).

Anonymous said...

Liberals may do sudoku puzzles instead of crossword puzzles but America obviously needs somebody smart enough to complete an extreme trigonpuzzle!

Anonymous said...

A post about bowling? I think this one is a little out in left field.

Anthony Palmer said...

Namaste,

Personally, I could care less about Obama's bowling ability, the fact that he bowled a 37, or the fact that he bowled in a necktie. I'm not looking for a president who can bowl or look good while bowling. That's not important to me. I'm simply looking for someone who can make the trains run on time. The reason why this bowling event is potentially significant is because there are a lot of voters out there who are swayed by this imagery. These images paint subtle cues in their minds about what kind of person Obama is. This is not to say these voters are being superficial or that I am more discerning when it comes to analyzing a presidential candidate than they are. But it is what it is, and it's different things to different people.

BTW, the difference between this bowling event and Obama's appearance on The View is that it's pretty common practice nowadays for all politicians to hit the TV circuit. McCain was on Letterman recently while Clinton was on Leno. Gore, Bush, and Obama were on Oprah. Clinton was Tyra. When politicians hit daytime television, the audiences are primarily women. These women want to see the lighter side of these candidates. They want to see them be able to laugh at themselves a bit. You might not be able to control what Whoopi Goldberg and Barbara Walters ask you about your love life, but that's just how those shows are. If you ignore these kinds of shows, you will be branded as aloof and inaccessible.

In this case too, I could care less about what kind of rapport a presidential candidate can develop with Ellen Degeneres or how well he and Tyra Banks get along. And again, Obama's bowling doesn't matter to me either. But I encourage you to read the third paragraph of this blog post carefully. Perception matters in politics. Men don't watch and don't care about Oprah or The View, so Obama could let the hosts of those shows put bunny ears on his head and not care. But a bowling alley is a whole different story. And in some of their minds, Obama looked like a wimp because of his lousy score, and maybe even a liberal wimp because of the necktie.

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Brett,

I met Obama after a debate in South Carolina last spring. I also saw him at Congressman Clyburn's Fish Fry the next day. I thought he was rather tall and lanky. I wonder how heavy his bowling ball was?

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SJ,

I think it's unfortunate that some people base their decisions on who to vote for on this kind of imagery. But everyone has a right to set their own criteria. And you hit the nail on the head. He should have practiced or at least received a few pointers beforehand. I think this event was a wash. I'd like to see Obama vs. Clinton though. What if Clinton beat him?

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Nikki,

Topic blockage, huh? It happens. Part of the reason why a lot of bloggers seem stuck right now is because there simply isn't anything new that's going on. Just keep scanning the news and you'll find something! Or why not write about the Senate or ethics or something like that?

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Anonymous1,

The name "The 7-10" has a lot of parallels to politics. I should have made a post about that when I first started this blog over a year ago. I didn't just choose the name because I enjoy bowling, although that obviously helped.

Also, you could have a point about Obama with the women. I think, though, that a more likely explanation for the narrowing of the polls is the fact that Obama has so much more cash on hand and is outspending Clinton in advertising by a 5 to 1 ratio. But you never know, right?

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Levbarg,

I think this bowling fiasco will contribute to a different perception of him--the idea that he's not ashamed of his shortcomings and foibles. After all, he has admitted to not being able to give up cigarettes entirely, has been honest about his past drug use, and has not apologized for his pastor. Perhaps the fact that he doesn't take himself so seriously or doesn't feel the need to live a perfect life and immediately apologize for every shortcoming was only buttressed by his ability to laugh off his bad bowling?

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RHW,

If I ever ran for Congress or some other office, I'd love to create "Friday Night Bowling" or "Challenge Palmer at the Lanes" events or something. I'd even bowl against my opponents for fun in the spirit of bipartisanship.

I have nothing else to say about your comment simply because I agree with 100% of what you said.

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Anonymous2,

What is a trigonpuzzle? By the way, I enjoy both types of puzzles and think it's stupid when people criticize conservatives for driving pickup trucks and liberals for driving hybrid imports. People really need to move beyond denigrating each other's lifestyles and focus on what really matters. I'm sure you'd agree with that. I wonder how this nation even reached this point?

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Anonymous3,

Thanks for dropping by. This could all be much ado about nothing, but I think there's a very real chance that this matters to some people.

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And thank you all for the great comments. Keep them coming!

Thomas said...

I read an article about Michelle Obama in The New Yorker. They mentioned she was 5'11''. I assume Barack is at least a few inches taller than her. I just don't think that this country is ready to elect a man who is shorter than his wife, the so-called "Curse of Kucinich."

Thomas said...

Came across this tidbit in Maureen Dowd's column a few days ago:

Challenging Obama to a bowl-off, Hillary kindly offered to “spot him two frames.”

Freadom said...

I can see this event in a political commercial similar to that infamous anti-Dukakas add with him riding around in the tank. McCain might not steep to that level, but he could, or might if he gets desperate enough.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.