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Drew Westen

Drew Westen

Posted: June 8, 2008 09:57 PM

Nothing Went Wrong


In retrospect, finding flaws with the Clinton campaign seems the natural thing to do. How else could a man who was just a state senator four years ago have defeated one of the most competent, intelligent, well-connected, well-respected members of the Senate? The New York Times ran a series of op-ed pieces Sunday asking, "What Went Wrong?" Some said money. Some said sexism. Some said she took the low road in her campaign tactics. Some said her Iraq vote. Some said she was too establishment. But among the 13 political coroners who wrote post-mortems for the Clinton campaign, the one who put his finger on the hemorrhage that cost her the election was the one who knew where to look -- Bob Kerry -- because he had run against Hillary Clinton's charismatic husband in the 1992 primaries.

Nothing went wrong. Hillary Clinton was emotionally outgunned, just as Bill Clinton outgunned his rivals in 1992.

The pundits and pollsters had it backwards. People didn't vote for Obama because they preferred his message of change to Hillary's message of experience. They preferred his message of change because in their gut they preferred Obama. When all the other candidates scrambled to be the agents of change after Iowa, it didn't matter where they put their spare change because they weren't Obama.

As the first woman to have a serious shot at the presidency in our nation's history, who would have reversed virtually every decision George W. Bush made over the last eight years, Hillary Clinton could legitimately argue, as she tried to do after Iowa, that she offered the best of both worlds: change and experience. What she, her pollsters, and the chattering class mistakenly believed, however, was that Obama had somehow found the right one-word magical amulet, and that they just had to own a piece of the amulet. But that view neglects the fact that virtually every challenger in the last century -- including Bill Clinton ("change vs. more of the same") -- had used the mantra of change, and some won with it while others hadn't. John Edwards frequently spoke of "change -- big change," but he didn't win the nomination in 2008.

What is perhaps most remarkable in all the post-mortems to the Clinton campaign is how little we have heard what is both the most obvious to the naked eye and the best supported by data: It's the emotion, stupid. The reason Hillary Clinton opened a large early lead against her Democratic rivals and seemed invincible was not that she is phenomenally competent and intelligent, which she is. Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Bill Richardson are also phenomenally competent and intelligent. What launched her campaign were the emotional associations people had formed between eight years of the Clintons in the White House and eight years of peace and prosperity. I never heard her campaign complain loudly when journalists used the term "the Clintons," despite the firm conviction of many talking heads that Bill Clinton was a tremendous liability to his wife's campaign. They understood that she needed not just her rock-solid understanding of "the issues" but the power of association.

In fact, what led her to come roaring back -- too little, too late, it turned out --i n the last three months of the primaries was a failing economy that reminded blue collar and rural voters just how much their lives had improved during the Clinton years (reinforcing the emotional associations that had originally made her candidacy seem inevitable) and her relentless attacks on Obama. Those attacks drove her already high negatives up (a risk she had no choice but to take) but also drove his positives down and his negatives up (i.e., changing voters' gut-level feelings about him), and raising many Democrats' worries (fueled by the Jeremiah Wright story and his comments in "liberal San Francisco") about his capacity to lead, his capacity to win, and his capacity to defend himself against the attacks conservative groups will no doubt throw at him in what will likely be the dirtiest general election campaign in modern American history.

The survey data from the last forty years of presidential elections are crystal clear: "The issues" are a distant fourth as predictors of voting behavior. The best predictors are people's feelings toward the parties and their principles (which are obviously of less relevance in primary than general elections because the competitors draw on the same wellsprings of partisan sentiment). The next best predictors, and the ones of most relevance in the primaries, are the feelings the candidates elicit from voters. Next in line are voters' feelings toward the candidates' personal attributes. Among those personal attributes, the lowest on the list of predictors of voting is competence.

At base, Americans want to know three things about candidates: Do they share my values, do they care about people like me, and do I feel in my gut I can trust them to pursue those values and interests faithfully?

Hillary Clinton ran on issues and competence, focusing, like every Democrat who has failed to win the presidency in the last 40 years, on the factors least predictive of electoral success. She spent too little time creating a compelling, consistent personal narrative that could weave together her own life history with the state of a nation yearning for a different kind of leadership, and too little time attending to the negative stories told and retold about her during nearly two decades of savage Republican branding. She could have told the story of how she grew up in a traditional American -- and Republican -- home in Illinois; lived through the changes of the 1960s and learned the lessons we all learned as a nation, that we cannot be true to our national ideals while showing intolerance or prejudice toward anyone, whether women, African-Americans, or the conservative hate group de jure; but that she never forgot the traditional American values she learned at home that have been appropriated by Republicans but do not belong to them, such as hard work, personal responsibility, patriotism, and a commitment to our nation's security. A master narrative that wove together those elements would have provided a compelling alternative to the story of Hillary as triangulating, poll-driven opportunist that led many to distrust her.

Anyone who doubts that the same emotional dynamics that have, empirically, been central to the success or failure of presidential candidates over the last 40 years were central to Obama's defeat of the seemingly invincible Senator from New York should simply go back to the tapes of the Democratic primary debates and the Gallup polls from last summer through mid fall, when Obama was running a much more traditional, issues-oriented Democratic campaign -- as Hillary continued to rise in the polls, eventually breaking 50% among likely Democratic voters in October of 2007. But that all changed with his electrifying, game-changing performance at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa. There, he stopped campaigning like Adlai Stevenson and started campaigning like Barack Obama, and the rest was history. After that point, there was nothing Hillary Clinton could do but to go negative, which took him down a notch but reinforced her already high negatives.

It's not that issues don't matter -- her Iraq vote, her Iran vote (which came around the same time as Obama's transformation in Iowa, and played into the narrative that she had learned nothing from her Iraq vote) -- or that her campaign didn't make mistakes, most notably its failure ever to settle on a compelling, genuine, consistent narrative about who she is and what she stands for (a strong commander in chief and a stateswoman with gravitas, then a woman who wasn't afraid to shed a tear in New Hampshire, and finally Rosie the Riveter when a tough populism seemed to be the order of the day).

But people don't vote by considering every issue singly and then consciously weighing the constellation of policies each candidate supports to see which candidate maximizes their self-interest. They summarize their attitudes toward a candidate via a gut-level feeling (e.g., "I find him incredibly inspiring," or "I just don't trust her"). That feeling (or, more accurately, that complex set of feelings) aggregates not only their judgments about the extent to which the candidate will likely look out for people like them and honor their values but also their sense of whether the candidate is genuine; whether the candidates seems defensive or unwilling to admit mistakes (as Hillary did in her responses on Iraq, which did more to associate her with George W. Bush, and hence to sabotage her change message, than anything else she ever said or did); or whether the candidate, attacks on the candidate, events of the day, or media coverage stir largely unconscious but sometimes conscious ambivalence or negative feelings toward the candidate's race, gender, or other factors most voters consciously eschew as influences on their votes.

So what when wrong? Hillary Clinton had the misfortune of running against a candidate too much like her husband in his extraordinary capacity to inspire.

As Bob Kerrey, tongue-in-cheek, summarized her biggest mistake in his op-ed in the New York Times, "She and President Clinton should have moved back to her home state after they left the White House. By doing so, she would have been elected the junior senator from Illinois in 2004, thereby reducing the chances that Mr. Obama would have been in a position to run against her."

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University and founder of Westen Strategies, LLC. He is the author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, recently released in paperback with a postscript on the 2008 primaries.