Inside Washington's Headlines

by Ken Feltman

Radnor Inc.

May 2008

 

Legislative insight

Political intelligence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ken Feltman is Chairman of Radnor Inc., a political consulting and legislative relations firm in Washington, D.C. He is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists.

 

 

 

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"Obama doesn't like me"

I am neither bitter nor cynical but I do wish there was less immaturity in political thinking.

- Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Democrats seem intent on making it easier for Senator John McCain to win the November election. Most recently, Senator Barack Obama's comments at a private San Francisco fundraiser rumbled through the heartland. Next, Obama lost badly in Pennsylvania. Then his pastor spoke out again. If Senator Hillary Clinton is Obama's Freddy Krueger of the horror films, Jeremiah Wright is Krueger's evil twin. As his poll numbers slip, Obama cannot get away from either. More than that, suddenly he cannot get away from himself and his past.

People were taken back and even offended by what they sensed as Obama's condescending tone. Obama at first did not understand that he had a major problem. Finally, after proceeding through denials and restatements, he apologized and said he could have expressed himself better. John Kerry did not understand in 2004, nor did Al Gore in 2000.

These misunderstandings occur because the Democrats just keep picking candidates from too far left. The far left, it seems, does not have an ear for the vocabulary of the political center. Democrats may not be able to help themselves because the nomination process seems weighted to favor the left-wing of the party. Republicans have similar trouble with their right-wing. But after they consider far right candidates, Republicans usually settle on someone a little toward the middle. That takes the rough edge off.

What's in a word? Quicksand.

The Democrats say things and use words that middle Americans detect as condescending. Today, the word elitist is being used. The Democrats argue among themselves that the candidates' statements are not too extreme, not too elitist. That keeps the story in the news. Finally, like Obama in the Philadelphia debate, the Democratic candidate cannot advance his or her agenda because he or she is attempting to deflect criticism of what seemed at the time to be an innocuous little comment. Here is the latest:

"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them - and they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustration."

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Out of that statement has come a firestorm. What is wrong with it? The statement is almost a test: If you find a reason to be offended, or to understand how others might be offended, you are less likely to end up in the Democratic camp on election day. At the very least, there is an amateurish aspect to the statement. A seasoned politician would not say it, even in a group of like-thinking supporters who would never repeat it. The statement takes us to stage three of a four-stage process that ends with a decision not to vote for Obama. Listen to quotes from recent focus groups:

Stage one: "I like Clinton's ideas, experience (and) positions on the issues. I just can't seem to like her." "She's not warm and there's just something about her manner." "She's the nanny-state candidate." Given Clinton's lack of warmth, some voters looked elsewhere and found Obama.

Stage two: "Obama is charismatic, very likeable." "I like him." "Fresh." "Someone to believe in." "He reflects my thinking." "As I understand his ideas, I may not always agree but I'm for Obama. He's a change." Note that his personal qualities overcome some disagreement on issues.

Stage three: "Obama doesn't respect people like me." "What?" "He's turning out to be another Eastern-liberal candidate." "I'm not going to support someone who doesn't like me." Note that voters personalize Obama's remark.

Stage four: "I don't like her, but Clinton is experienced."

Stage four (alternate ending): "I do not like McCain much, but he's got experience and is willing to stand up to other Republicans."

Lesson one: Voters will vote for candidates that they do not like before they will vote for candidates who do not like them.

The comment took the voters, the Democratic Party and Obama into political quicksand. Suddenly, Obama was revealed as a man with an appealing style and acceptable ideas, but with a bad attitude toward the very voters he was courting. That made voters more receptive to negative interpretations of Wright's statements.

This happens to Democrats routinely. John Kerry did not know how to carry a rifle but he went hunting and posed for photos that let hunters everywhere know that Kerry would never be one of them. He was a windsurfer, flip-flopping in the breeze. Michael Dukakis posed in a tank, looking like Alfred E. Newman of Mad Magazine. Next, his campaign went into the tank. Al Gore violated George Bush's personal space during a televised debate and proved that he was self-centered, boorish and high-schoolish.

Unguarded moments

These candidates were not done in by bad luck, bad timing or bad policy positions. They were victimized by their own political immaturity. They failed to understand that you cannot say one thing to some voters but another thing to other voters. It's another form of flip-flopping. The nature of the Democratic Party's constituency - with diverse and often competing elements - tempts candidates to use different messages for different segments of the party. Unguarded (and even some planned) moments reveal personal traits or attitudes that the voters may have suspected. Wham! Those traits are uncovered for everyone to see.

Beside condescension toward the working class, what flaws did Obama's remark reveal? He conjured up images of Ivy League pretentiousness. The words opened a floodgate that Obama wanted kept closed. Clinton pounced. McCain pounced. Most importantly, the media pounced. The Philadelphia debate was only one example of the new media eagerness. Next, the media spread Wright's image and words, usually with an unfavorable interpretation. Coverage is shifting from the uplifting nature of Obama's campaign to the nitty-gritty of his record and his association with controversial people. The honeymoon is over.

Perhaps most devastating, the remarks raise questions about his authenticity. This is not the first time Obama has been involved in a flap over mixed messages. Following an early March debate in Ohio, the Associated Press and CBS reported that a senior economic policy adviser to Obama privately told Canadian officials to view certain Obama statements on trade policy as "political positioning." For those voters who thought that something about Obama did not ring true, there is now more proof.

Lesson two: Voters have trouble supporting a candidate that they do not trust.

The risk of offending Obama supporters

Much has been said and written about the possibility that the Democratic Party will suffer long-term problems if Obama is not nominated. The situation has heated up after Pennsylvania because (by some counts) Clinton has taken the lead in the popular vote. Clinton will head into friendlier territory after North Carolina and Indiana. If the Wright controversy damages Obama enough, Clinton will soon be on a winning streak.

Her supporters are stressing that fact as they pressure super-delegates. Will it work? Maybe.

Super-delegates will weigh the short-term risk that Obama will not do as well in November as Clinton might. They sense something that Radnor's focus groups have picked up: A large percentage of supporters of both Democratic candidates say that they will bolt the party or not vote at all in November.

When we dig deeper, however, the Clinton supporters say things that indicate that most will return to the Democratic fold in the end. But Obama supporters - especially thousands of young and minority voters - are less likely to vote for Clinton because they are so new to the process that they do not see themselves as regular Democrats.

Thus, if the super-delegates go for Clinton, they open the party to both long-term and short term risk. Backing Obama has only the short-term risk that Obama will not be able to win in November. So Clinton may be the better choice for November but Obama may be the better choice for the Democratic Party's future.


From focus groups we learned that many voters wonder how a candidate can claim that he will be a unifier when he says things that seem to deride the religious and cultural values of working class Americans. Some voters report feeling betrayed. They hear not unity but divisiveness. They do not want to give their vote to someone who does not respect them and their ways. They do not believe that they are "bitter" because they go to church, oppose gay marriage, own a gun, want the borders tightened, or pledge allegiance to the flag.

Has Obama given voters an excuse not to vote for him? Obama will not get the benefit of the doubt. Many voters will no longer think of themselves as bigoted when they turn away from Obama. Former Reagan Democrats - culturally conservative, blue-collar workers who could be a promising target for the Democrats - may find that they would rather vote for someone who likes them back.

Lesson three: Unsuccessful candidates give voters reasons not to vote for them.

Combined with the remarks of his pastor, that may be enough to turn a few key states from blue to red. Obama's words may not rekindle Clinton's campaign. They hurt in Pennsylvania, where working class voters constitute about 40 percent of the Democratic vote. They hurt because they undermined Obama's claim to understand and to identify with workers and middle-of-the-road voters. North Carolina and Indiana will tell us how much damage has been done.

They liked him

Like people in big cities, people in small towns want good jobs, good schools, good healthcare and the good times that they feel they are losing. But faith in small-town America is not faith in big government solutions. These voters have faith in their families, their community and their country - faith that does not translate into support for a variety of the big government programs that Obama has supported and advocated. He had the votes of many of these small-town Americans despite his more liberal ideas because these voters liked his message and the way he lifted them up with his stirring speeches. They liked him. Now these other things are crowding in and forcing them to rethink.

Final lesson: Seemingly "little things" like flag pins matter because they can put a candidate on the defensive more quickly than issues. If "little things" cause voters to reconsider their support, then the reconsideration will include big things as well. With Obama, one "big thing" is the fact that many thousands of voters have supported him despite their disagreement with him on key issues. Successful candidates do everything possible to eliminate the little things.

In their pursuit of super-delegates, Clinton supporters have stressed little things to argue that Obama has limited appeal beyond African-Americans and upscale Democrats - elites and latte liberals. That may not seem fair. But it is true. It may be too late for Clinton but McCain will benefit.

If Obama is nominated, Republicans have been handed a simple, easy-to-understand message. It will be delivered with subtlety and with bluntness. Get ready to hear this message morph into many forms: Starting with Obama may not respect you, it will become Obama does not like you.

 

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