Preface this by noting that I’m no political analyst and some would say that my abilities as an analyst of human nature are lacking as well. In spite of those insufficiencies, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s kept Barack Obama from breaking through with a wider swathe of Democratic voters.
Needless to say, given a formidable, well-funded opponent who started with the support of the party establishment and massive name recognition, he has done remarkably well. In spite of a suboptimal result on Tuesday, he’s still got the inside track on the nomination, and he has raised a ridiculous amount of money so far. The people who support Obama really, really support Obama. He does well among independents, but never seems to be able to get more than half of the self-identified Democrats to support him, and I have a theory of why that’s the case.
What strikes me about Obama is that as a politician, he seems unwilling or even unable to campaign based on negative emotion. I mean something different here than negative campaigning, which is usually defined as trying to drive up the negative impressions voters have of your opponent rather than trying to drive up the positive impressions they have of you.
Obama always wants to appeal to our hope for a better America, and to the idea that if people work together, they can effect change. What he seems to avoid is playing to fear, envy, greed, and the other negative emotions that are the refuge of the demagogue. Every once in awhile he’s willing to tap into indignation, but that’s about as far as he’ll go. The medical insurance flier that his campaign produced that tries to scare people about Hillary’s health care plan is notable mainly for the fact that it’s unusual. Most politicians serve voters a daily diet of this stuff.
The problem for Obama is that these are the kinds of appeals that are most effective with a large number of voters. They want red meat. John Edwards based his campaign on setting working people against corporations and rich people. Hillary Clinton is trying to dispatch Obama by making people afraid that he won’t keep America safe, and afraid that they won’t have health insurance if they don’t vote for her. She’s also worked hard to make Democrats afraid that Obama’s national security credentials make him an unable to beat McCain. Why is Hillary more compelling than Obama on NAFTA? It’s because she’s willing to play on people’s fears of foreign workers taking their jobs. President Bush’s entire political strategy has been to keep people in fear.
Because Obama is unwilling to go that route, he gives away the votes of people who respond most passionately to those emotions. That’s my theory, anyway.