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Hullabaloo


Sunday, September 09, 2012

 
The "Don't Break Up With Me" Election

by David Atkins

There's been a great deal of kvetching--or morbid celebrating, depending on one's side of American political aisle--about the supposedly dramatic impact that jobs and unemployment will have on the election. Pundits across the spectrum are convinced that the entire election will hinge on the economic numbers and their revisions for the remaining months of the campaign.

But belief in that theory requires belief in two things: 1) that economic tallies that were basically irrelevant in shifting presidential poll numbers through the rest of this year will suddenly become relevant now, despite an extremely static and seemingly immobile electorate so far; and 2) that both the Obama and Romney campaigns and their allies are filled at the top levels with political incompetents who can't take the pulse of the American people.

Let's take a brief look at the ads the Republicans are running. The first one ends with:


"He tried. You tried. It's OK to make a change." That's interesting. The second is stranger:


"Tell us why you're breaking up with President Obama."

More tellingly, the entire RNC Convention was designed almost as a dating profile for Mitt Romney, extolling his supposed virtues as a human being, a family man, a responsible businessperson, and so on. It wasn't so much a political convention as a first date introduction.

And what of President Obama? A careful listener can hear the same message, but in reverse:

So you see, the election four years ago wasn't about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens — you were the change...

If you turn away now — if you turn away now, if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn't possible, well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void, the lobbyists and special interests, the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are trying to make it harder for you to vote, Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry or control health care choices that women should be making for themselves. (Cheers, applause.) Only you can make sure that doesn't happen. Only you have the power to move us forward.

You know, I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention. Times have changed, and so have I. I'm no longer just a candidate. I'm the president.
That isn't so much the speech of a man seeking election to higher office as the speech of a man asking the American people to focus not on him, so much as on their relationship and the future that they committed to, if only they will persevere in the relationship.

Trained focus group moderators have enough experience taking answers in focus groups and crafting nuanced messaging conclusions from them that it's not difficult for us to watch advertisements and work backward from them to guess what respondents had said in the research environment.

In this case it barely takes training. It's quite clear that both campaigns understand that this election isn't being driven by facts, figures or economic data. The American people understand that the economy is doing poorly for most working people. Another set of poor numbers won't change that any more than a set of good numbers will.

Especially for persuadable voters in swing states, both campaigns know that this is a purely emotional moment for voters. Voters like the President on a personal level more than they like the job he's doing. They understand that the bad economy is much more George Bush's fault than Obama's. Voters feel like they made a commitment to the President to see things through to recovery. They're irritated by the slow pace of progress and change, but feel guilty for thinking of throwing away the commitment they've made. And they wonder if the other suitor is worth leaving Obama for, and the heartbreak that would entail.

The Romney campaign understands this: it cannot hit the President too hard, or voters who like Obama personally and still feel this "relationship" with him will themselves be insulted. That's why the campaign itself and Karl Rove are softpedaling their attacks. But they can't control their surrogates and the angry hysteria of their conservative media empire and its rabid base. That in turn is damaging Mitt Romney's chances of wooing persuadable voters. More than that, Mitt Romney's message of "you're on your own" isn't exactly a warm, fuzzy or likeable start for a man attempting to win the heart of a person in a teetering but committed relationship. It's a trap from which Romney and his team have a difficult time escaping, and it shows.

The Obama campaign, meanwhile, knows that to preserve the President's station requires reminding the American people of the commitment they have made not just to him but to one another. It's a message that ties in naturally with progressive economic and social values, and it's a message that unites and binds voters against the predation of the other side's heartless Lotharios.

None of this has much at all to do with specific policies or tidbits on the news.

All elections are driven more by emotion than by reason. They are almost always about values, likeability and relationships. This one just happens to be very personal. On Facebook it might be called "complicated." But that complexity has little to do with to do with facts and figures.

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