This is an adapted version of Postscript to the Paperback Edition of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, to be released today, May 5, 2008.
It was July, 2006. A few weeks into writing what I thought was going to be a brief book, I took a weekend off for an annual family trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan. There, an old friend, a law professor, asked me what I was up to. I told him I was writing a book on politics and the political brain, which described how Democrats had been running for much of 40 years not only against the Republicans but also, in a cerebral way, against the brain. They had repeatedly tried to convince voters with rational arguments, facts, and statistics, while their Republican opponents offered principles and values. They had presented voters with laundry lists of policy positions, while Republicans had offered compelling narratives. Our ancestors used stories to pass knowledge and values from generation to generation for millennia before the rise of literacy, and our brains evolved to "expect" a certain structure to those narratives, usually including protagonists, antagonists, a hurdle to overcome, a resolution, and a moral of the story. Young children recognize this story structure, and over time they spontaneously generate it themselves when telling stories or describing events in their lives. It's difficult to remember laundry lists, which is why we have to write them down. But it's easy to remember narratives, such as Ronald Reagan's famous tale, embellished over many a political campfire for years and now deeply ingrained in the American political psyche, that Democrats are the party of "tax and spend."
The book was designed not just to offer a diagnosis of why Democrats have shot themselves in the foot so many times that the fossil records will likely suggest a party that hobbled on the stump, but also a prescription for how they might talk to the American public differently if they started with a more accurate vision of how the mind and brain of the voter actually work. The antidote to the "Tale of the Tax and Spend Liberal" is not a recitation of the facts--although it is a remarkable fact that Reagan himself drove up the national debt more than all the presidents who had come before him combined, and that the only president to have accomplished a similar feat since his time was his fellow conservative, George W. Bush. Facts like those can be very useful as part of a counter-narrative. But they are only powerful to the extent that they are embedded in a story as compelling and memorable as the one they are intended to counteract--for example, about a Grand Old Party that that has turned the greatest nation on earth into a debtor nation whose children will be indentured servants to the Chinese, or that has spent recklessly on an ill-conceived war in Iraq while blocking every effort to invest here at home where our bridges and health care system are collapsing and American jobs are our main export, or that gives massive tax breaks to oil companies while they pick our pockets at the pump, or that taxes the middle class and spends on special favors for special interests, or that has dismantled the legacy of the New Deal and replaced it with a Raw Deal for the average American.
Curious, my friend asked if he could see what I'd written thus far. A few hours after seeing the first set of chapters (clearly, law professors have too much time on their hands--one of the characteristics, no doubt, of the "liberal elite"), he asked if I would mind if he forwarded the manuscript to his friend Bob Kuttner, the co-editor of The American Prospect. The following day I got a call from Bob. I don't remember much about the specifics of that conversation, other than Bob telling me as we were about to hang up, "Hold onto your hat, you're going for a ride."
Two months later Bob was introducing me over lunch in a private dining room at an old Washington establishment, where I spoke for about two hours to a room filled with about 50 people. I was politically naïve enough that I didn't really comprehend the significance of the group he had assembled.
Bob had considerably more confidence in what would transpire than I did. In truth, I was expecting a lot more resistance to a message I thought many in the room might find offensive or simply wrong-headed: that Democrats and progressives had been talking to the wrong parts of the brain for the better part of four decades, and that if you want to win voters' hearts and minds, you have to start with the heart, because otherwise they aren't going to care much what's on your mind. The central thesis of the book, grounded in psychology, neuroscience, political science, and modern electoral history, was that elections are won and lost not primarily on "the issues" but on the values and emotions of the electorate--most importantly, on the "gut feelings" that summarize much of what voters think and feel about a candidate or party. Candidates who win the hearts and minds of the voters are those who can weave together emotionally compelling stories about who they are and who their opponents are and can make people feel what they feel. The available data challenged a series of deeply held cannons of Democratic campaign strategy and progressive politics: that a campaign is a "debate on the issues"; that if you just lay out your best policies and plans, people will vote with their rational self-interest; that if the other side is using a wedge issue against you, stirring up fear or hatred, it's best to try to change the subject or offer a slightly more benign version of what they're proposing to avoid being "soft" on the threat to Democratic masculinity or patriotism de jure.
That meeting led to dozens of others around the country. By the time the book came out in June 2007, I had already been on the road with one major presidential candidate and eventually had conversations with the other campaigns. I'm now working with some of the best progressive pollsters in Washington to test and refine the ideas in the book in the real world, and to try to convert the language of think tanks and esoteric policy prescriptions into the language of the living room and the kitchen table.
I finished the book at the beginning of 2007 but could not have manufactured a better set of case studies to illustrate its central arguments than what has happened in the primaries on both sides of the aisle in 2008. My goal here is to tell the story of the rise and fall and rise again of three candidates: John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.
In July of 2007, when McCain's candidacy was plummeting, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post, describing why McCain's campaign had turned moribund. The same principles that explain his fall from grace explain his campaign's remarkable resurrection.
In politics, the most important stories are the ones about who you are and what you stand for. What John McCain stood for--and what had earned him the respect of many Independents and even many Democrats who knew little about his record but liked the story of John McCain--was summarized by the name of his bus and his campaign theme: the Straight Talk Express.
That was his story. But many powerful voices in the Republican Party didn't like the plot, and McCain had seen them defeat him in 2000. So in 2006 he began to rewrite it. But it turned out to be impossible for McCain to bluff with an extreme right-wing hand when he didn't have a poker face and to embrace a President everyone he knew he despised (because he'd looked into his eyes in the South Carolina primary in 2000 and seen his soul). No one was buying his new story because it flew directly in the face of the narrative that had made him so compelling.
Precisely when McCain made his pact with the devil is unclear, but the signs of the bargain were obvious by the spring of 2006. In March, at a straw poll of the Southern Republican Leadership Council, he disingenuously urged those in attendance, "if any friends here are thinking about voting for me, please don't. Just write in President Bush's name. For the next three years, with the country at war, he's our President, and the only one who must have our support today." In April, he strained credulity even among the party faithful by calling George W. Bush "one of the great presidents of the United States." That was the same month he embraced Jerry Falwell, a dramatic about-face by a man who had labeled Falwell an "agent of intolerance" just a few years earlier at a time when doing so was a sign of his straight-talking courage. The new McCain was creating a new story, but not one he'd hoped for, and one that left his campaign in tatters: that he was willing to sell his soul for a lease on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The unfolding of that new narrative was clear on The Daily Show, as Jon Stewart struggled with what many in the center and the left struggled with as they watched a man they may not have agreed with on many issues but nevertheless admired lose the characteristic that had made him seem so admirable: "You're killing me here!" Stewart half-jokingly told McCain. "You're not freaking out on us--are you going into crazy-[conservative] base world?" McCain laughed defensively as he defenselessly responded, "I'm afraid so." In fact, McCain had recently voted to make Bush's tax cuts to the well-heeled permanent after having initially denounced them; supported the most draconian law ever proposed on abortion, a South Dakota bill that would have forced rape and incest victims to bear their rapists' babies; and expressed his support for the teaching of "intelligent design."
In March of 2007, Adam Nagourney of the New York Times reported on an extraordinary moment in Iowa, when McCain was asked a simple question while chatting on his bus with reporters: Did he support the distribution of condoms in Africa to fight the transmission of H.I.V.? McCain searched for words, glanced at the ceiling, paused awkwardly with repeated silences, asked his aides to tell him what his position was, said he'd never thought about it before, and hoped his physician friend, right-wing Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, could help him out. When asked whether he believed sex education in the United States should teach abstinence only (the imposition of the Bush administration on public schools that want funding for sex education, which has done nothing but increase the rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases), he answered after a long pause, "Ahhh. I think I support the president's policy." When a reporter followed up, asking whether he believed contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV, he answered after another long pause, "You've stumped me." An incredulous reporter followed up, leading to the only honest moment of the press conference, when McCain answered, with a defensive laugh, "Are we on the Straight Talk express? I'm not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I'm sure I've taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was. Brian, would you find out what my position is on contraception - I'm sure I'm opposed to government spending on it, I'm sure I support the president's policies on it."
McCain's response, "Are we on the Straight Talk express?", like his answer to Jon Stewart's question, revealed everything the American people needed to know about John McCain: He was no longer aboard his own bus.
That McCain was able to win his party's nomination reflected, in part, the years of positive associations most Americans had to him and their difficulty (and hence willingness to forget) his two-year foray into political cowardice and opportunism because it just didn't fit with the story of his courage as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Our brains search for order in disorder, and when a piece of information doesn't fit, people readily forget it or rationalize it away. But McCain was also the beneficiary of two pieces of simple good luck. The first, paradoxically, was that his poll numbers tumbled so rapidly when his Straight Talk Express took a sharp right off a cliff that his campaign ran out of financial fuel, and with it went the high-priced consultants who had helped him concoct a story about himself that was so manifestly untrue that no one was buying it.
The second was the absence of a strong Republican field. As a Democrat, the two candidates who worried me most in live-blogging the first Republican primary debate here with John Neffinger and Rachel Sklar--because of their nonverbal behavior, their comfort in their skin, and their ability to tell a story--were Romney and Huckabee. But Romney, who had been twice elected governor of Massachusetts, couldn't possibly have believed most of what he was saying on the campaign trail, and he had the misfortune of having to face television clips from his years running the most liberal state in the union that belied virtually every claim he was making to Republican primary voters about himself.
From the first time I watched Huckabee, he made me nervous, because I disliked most of what he said but I liked him anyway. The fact that many pundits found his victory in Iowa unexpected, even when his poll numbers started to climb in the weeks before the caucus, reflects what happens when you're reading the wrong cues in politics. Huckabee was the most politically intelligent of the candidates on the Republican side in 2008, with a sense of humor; a genuineness that Americans craved after eight years of the an administration that has made most of us wistful for the days when an honest man like, say, Richard Nixon, inhabited the White House; and a pastor's ability to deliver a sermon.
But Huckabee had two other characteristics that derailed his candidacy, one to his right and one to his left. On the right hand, he simply wasn't angry enough As I argue in the book, one of the biggest mistakes Democrats have made is to fail to distinguish the authoritarian fundamentalists whose political emotions center on hate, disgust, and contempt, and whose moral emotions render them antagonistic to everything Democrats stand for, from the large number of evangelical Christians who can be moved by demagogues to feel those same emotions but who are more naturally drawn to messages of love, compassion, and beneficence if someone leads them to their better angels. Huckabee was a natural for the latter but anathema to the former, as evident, for example, in his stance on immigration.
To his left, Huckabee was vulnerable because of a tendency to blurt out thoughts unbefitting of a man of his intelligence, and certainly of an American president in the 21st century, such as his disbelief in evolution and his suggestion that we change the Constitution to fit the Bible. The latter experiment has already been tried, and as far as most of us can tell, it doesn't seem to be working all that well in Iran (different book, same concept).
These factors, plus Rudy Giuliani's decision to enter the race once it was already over and Fred Thompson's decision to sleep through it, conspired to give McCain a second chance, and as soon as he put the wheels halfway back on the Straight Talk Express, it started rolling again. Just how little "issues" really mattered on the Republican side could be seen in exit polls on Super Tuesday, when Republican voters in state after state who endorsed the most draconian positions on immigration chose the newly straightened-talking McCain as their man, despite his being the Republican candidate least likely to pander to the extreme right on one of the defining issues of the Republican debates. The tension for McCain for the general election is that precisely what he needs to say to bring his party's base to the polls for him is what flies in the face of his personal story and will alienate the moderates whose votes he would need to win the presidency. It isn't just that pastor John Hagee, whose support he actively courted, thunders about "the Great Whore" (by which he means the Catholic church) or appears to hold the belief, shared by millions of others in this country who look forward to the rest of their fellow Americans burning in a fiery inferno, that our foreign policy should be used to bring on the apocalypse. It's that his party, and under the Bush administration, the federal government, is now dominated by people with equally abhorrent views (Pat Robertson has called not only the Catholic Church but the Methodist and Episcopal churches "the spirit of the anti-Christ"), who have weekly conference calls with the White House, officiate at the Republican convention every four years, and vet every federal judicial appointment. Democrats need to challenge McCain and every other Republican on contraception, their position on the kind of rapists' bill of rights proposed in South Dakota (the right of every rapist to choose the mother of his child), and the range of other Manichean positions that have led the modern GOP to stand for a degree and kind of government intrusion that would repulse many moderate and conservative Americans alike if someone would just tell them the story.
On the Democratic side, 2008 was an embarrassment of riches, at least in terms of substantial candidates with the knowledge and gravitas to lead, including many, like Dodd and Richardson, who might well have fared well in a different field. Hillary Clinton showed herself early to have an extraordinary intellect and a firm grasp on virtually every issue confronting the nation. No reporter, no matter how motivated with a "gotcha" question, could catch her on virtually anything (except her dogged refusal to acknowledge that her Iraq War vote was a mistake).
Our strengths and our weaknesses tend to flow from the same wells, and Hillary's commanding debate performances were emblematic of both. She made stronger appeals to voters' values than traditional Democratic campaigns, and by late January of 2008 she was a different candidate on the stump. She couldn't match the natural charisma of Obama, but after seeing what emotion could do for her in New Hampshire, she became emotionally much more "present" as a speaker and was moving away from the megaphone-like speaking style and vocal tone that had worked poorly for her on the stump and detracted from her debate performances. And her decision to bring her daughter Chelsea out to campaign for her, first with her and then on her own, was helpful in appealing to young voters, as emphasized by traditional punditry. But more importantly, Hillary's obviously loving relationship with her daughter flew in the face of the narrative with which she'd been successfully branded for so many years by the right, that she was cold, uncaring, and "unfeminine."
Yet even at her best, she seemed determined to run the kind of relentlessly issue-oriented campaign that offers a 10-point plan for every problem--and that has led to the defeat of Democrats in election after election over the last 30 years--with the singular exception of her husband, who appealed instead to the American people with a charismatic style, a message of hope much closer to Obama's, and just enough policy to make clear that he was no lightweight. Although both tough and agile in her debate performances from the start, she failed to recognize, until her voice cracked in New Hampshire and signaled to voters that there was a person hiding inside that pantsuit, that what she needed more than anything was not another plan for another issue but a story of who she was and what she stood for--and a way to make a dent in the central story the right had branded her with since the early 1990s.
Her Christmas 2007 campaign ad in Iowa illustrated in microcosm the problems with her message--and with the message of Democratic campaigns at virtually every level of government for much of the last three decades. With Carol of the Bells playing in the background, a pair of scissors cuts through wrapping paper, and a pair of hands places gift cards on a series of presents. The camera focuses sequentially on the cards, which bear the inscriptions, "Universal Health Care," "Alternative Energy," "Bring Troops Home," and "Middle Class Tax Breaks." The candidate then appears on the couch amidst the pile of presents she's been wrapping, looks around the room for something missing, and asks herself, as the music stops momentarily for effect, "Where did I put 'Universal Pre-K'?" Suddenly, she finds it, and a big smile appears on her face as she utters the words, "Ach! Here it is!" and looks admiringly at the gift she imagines giving it to the American people. The music then resumes.
What's wrong with this picture? Everything except the music. Perhaps most centrally, it only reinforces the story Ronald Reagan told most forcefully about Democrats, which has been repeated by Republicans ever since: that they never saw a tax that didn't want to raise or a social program they didn't want to create. Here was Hillary Clinton telling the people of Iowa what she wished for them: more government programs. The problem isn't that any of those programs, taken individually, wouldn't be worthwhile or provide real solutions to real problems that would enrich millions of people's lives. The problem is that what she was offering the people of Iowa was a bag full of issues and a bag full of government solutions, with the message, "Merry Christmas!"
Campaigns aren't won with bags full of anything. They are won by candidates who can convince voters, through their words, intonation, body language, and actions that they share their values, that they understand people like them, and that they can inspire the nation or save it from dangers. Policies and plans should be indicators or examples of what candidates care about, which tell voters whether they share their values and would approach the nation's problems in sensible ways. Hillary's Christmas ad, like so many Democratic ads and campaigns, required voters to work too hard to know where her heart was, to find the yarn that tied together those seemingly disparate packages.
Contrast this with Barack Obama's message to Iowans that same Christmas. His ad began with a shot of the Obama family in front of their hearth, with a fire burning, stockings hanging above the fireplace, a large Christmas tree in the background. Michelle and Barack Obama are sitting next to each other, her arm wrapped around his leg, and a child in each of their arms. Michelle begins, "We'd like to take a moment to thank you and your family for the warmth and the friendship that you've shown ours..." Then Barack: "In this holiday season, we're reminded that the things that unite us as a people are more enduring than anything that sets us apart... So from my family to yours, I approve this message" (turning to his older daughter, who says with a broad smile): "Merry Christmas," followed by the little one chirping, "Happy Holidays." The ad ends with the obviously proud parents joining their children with a warm smile, a picture-perfect family portrait of the Obama family in their home.
The ad had barely any "content" (other than Obama's signature theme of unity), no "issues," no policies, no plans. Yet it was remarkably effective. I've watched or shown it to audiences a dozen times, and by the end, I simply can't suppress a broad smile on my face, nor can anyone I've seen watch it. In part, that simply reflects the way our brains work: Smiles are literally contagious (when they're genuine), because they trigger neurons in our brain that not only detect emotions in others but lead us to experience directly what they are feeling.
But the ad was effective in several other ways as well. Most importantly, it fostered identification with Obama, something essential for a candidate whose race threatened to stand between him and the white Iowa populace. It conveyed a simple message: "I love my family, I love my wife, and I value families, just like you do."1 It is difficult to watch the ad and not come away thinking, "You know, they're just like us (and their kids are really cute)." The ad erases their differentness from white Americans. And it adds a new dimension to Obama: an image of a strong, warm, loving father--just the kind of image that reassures voters in troubled times.
Although I do not know if this was intended, the ad also quietly conveyed something else very important about Obama: that he is Christian. That mattered for two reasons. First, Obama's Christianity breaks down a barrier between him and many white voters, particularly in the South. The ad implicitly says to the majority of Americans, "We worship the same God." Second, for a year the Obama campaign had let a story fester about him, largely on the Internet, that took many forms: that he was Islamic, that he put his hand on the Koran when taking his oath of office in the United States Senate, that he refused to say the pledge of allegiance, that he was trained at anti-American Islamic schools in Indonesia as a child--in a word, that he was not only Islamic but foreign, not like "us." Right-wing pundits were calling him Osama Obama and B. Hussein Obama, to make the associations to terrorists as well as to everything un-American or anti-American. This smear campaign laid the groundwork for his opponents (both on the right and then in the Democratic primaries) to weave later events into the narrative--his not wearing a flag lapel pin, his wife's comment about pride in America, his pastor's fiery statements, his "elitist" comments in San Francisco.
The attempt to label Obama as foreign, different, mysterious, unpatriotic, unable to understand average Americans (particularly white rural and working-class Americans) and potentially dangerous (and by the way, did you notice that he's black?) did substantial damage, even before Jeremiah Wright entered stage left. By the winter of 2008, it was impossible to attend a focus group with swing voters anywhere in the United States without hearing a substantial minority describe him as Muslim or repeat with conviction the stories about the Pledge of Allegiance or his taking the oath of office with his hand on the Koran. It took nearly a year before Obama began to address this stealth attack directly, one of the few serious mistakes his campaign made. Unfortunately, the lore in Democratic campaign circles is that it's best not to address these kinds of attacks directly for fear of fanning the flames. As I argued in the book, however, for reasons that are as much neurological as political, a candidate should never allow the public to form negative associations toward him for any length of time, and certainly not a year, because the more ingrained the associations, the harder to eliminate the feelings they elicit, even when voters no longer consciously believe the original story.
Until recently getting thrown off message (in part by external events such as Reverend Wright's self-resurrection a week before the Indiana and Pennsylvania primaries, and in part by his own missteps, which are inevitable and amplified in campaigns in the cable and Internet era), the Obama campaign has in many respects been brilliantly orchestrated. This can be seen both in its ability to make its message of unity in divided times "stick," and in what political insiders call its "ground game" (e.g., getting people to the polls, understanding the complex machinery of caucuses, organizing people and events), something Obama and his lead strategist, David Axelrod, knew remarkably well how to do, with their background in community organizing. But what political pundits often forget about the Obama campaign was that it was not always electrifying, and its progress was uneven. Obama's standing in the polls was slowly but steadily slipping within a few months of the stunning speech that began his candidacy in front of the state capitol in Springfield Illinois in January 2007. His steady decline in the polls continued through October of 2007, when Hillary Clinton broke the 50% mark in the national polls with Democratic voters despite a still crowded field. And as with McCain, the same principles that explain Obama's decline account for his extraordinary turnaround.
In late June of 2007, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post, on the day the Obama campaign announced a record-breaking fundraising quarter, called "Who Turned Out the Electricity?" I argued that if he continued to weigh down his campaign speeches and debate performances with 14-point plans to compete with the Democratic Joneses, losing his inspirational message in a morass of policies and positions instead of using his proposals as examples of where he wanted to take the country that fit his uniquely inspirational style, he would see a continued steady downward slope in the polls. Not only was the land of 14-point plans Hillary Clinton's home turf, with her encyclopedic knowledge of every issue, her years in Washington as both the most involved, accomplished First Lady in American history, and her record as a Senator, but it was a no-man's land filled with the bones of fallen Democratic candidates, who had repeatedly lost to Republicans who stole the hearts of the American people while Democrats competed for their minds.
The article drew less than enthusiastic responses, given its incongruity with the news of his record-break fundraising quarter, although the donors who had been so enthusiastic about him were already beginning to express concerns privately about his lackluster debate performances and his inconsistent, sometimes professorial stump speeches. Their concern turned out to be well founded: For the next five months, his poll numbers did, in fact, drop steadily, as Clinton's fortunes climbed. In the June article, I described why I thought the campaign needed to change course:
On the stump, Obama can be electrifying. And behind all that electricity is a first-rate intellect. But if you have electricity, the last thing you want to do is pull the circuit breaker and start explaining the fine points of transistors, electrons, and electrical engineering. Yet that's exactly what Obama has done in his recent debate performances. Whether the decision was his, his senor strategists', or some combination of the two, he seems to have decided to check his charisma at the door, avoid the moving imagery and oratory that electrified the electorate from the first time they saw him on the national stage, and talk about issues, positions, "marginal tax rates" (as opposed, for example, to "your taxes"), and the fine print of his health care plan.
His campaign was obviously trying to put some meat on the policy bones of his positions, in part to allay concerns about his inexperience and in part to pacify the wonk wing of the Democratic Party and the political pundits and editorial boards who had demand from Democratic candidates that they obsess on precisely the level of detail that predicts failure in general elections. I concluded in June that rather than following the traditional Democratic strategy of focusing on the minutiae of policy details and rolling out plan after plan for issue after issue, "Obama would do a lot better to take a leaf out of Reagan's book than to retrace the journey of the long list of Democrats who have drowned on the dispassionate river: Let Obama be Obama."
Months later, his campaign did, in fact, change course. At the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa, the Obama who had been watching Hillary Clinton's stock rise for months as he sold his own stock short stepped up to the podium and electrified the audience in a way that sent shock waves through the political world--and ultimately led to his victory in Iowa and the cascade of primaries and caucuses that followed. Newspapers in cities all over the country ran headlines such as "Obama Finally Finds His Voice," and his voice grew more confident and inspiring as the months proceeded. By the time he had racked up twelve straight primary and caucus wins after Super Tuesday, Hillary Clinton had no choice but to go negative against him because she simply couldn't out-inspire him.
Clinton's negative campaign against Obama succeeded in breaking his momentum on March 4th in the Texas and Ohio primaries, particularly when combined with a strong positive message about what she would do to get an ailing economy out of a second Bush's recession--a message that strongly reinforced voters' positive associations to Bill Clinton's stewardship of the economy over his eight years in the White House. But what transpired in Texas and Ohio and over the ensuing days speaks to one of the central messages of the book, and to the way Obama's strengths and weaknesses on the campaign trail, too, flowed from the same wells: You can't win an election by ceding half the brain to the other side.
No one has ever won an election by harnessing only positive emotions. Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton were all remarkably inspirational leaders, but none of them shied away from sharply criticizing their opponents (primarily on issues of ideology, not personality), particularly in the general elections, where such criticism doesn't risk damaging their own party's chances in November and leave voters with negative associations to the attacker. Kennedy attacked the character of his opponent in the general election (Richard Nixon) because his opponent in fact had problems of character relevant to his fitness for the presidency, as history would bear out. Successful campaigns are campaigns that both inspire and raise concerns about the opposition. And as I argue in this book, that's exactly what they should do, because an election is a choice, not a referendum, and because positive and negative emotions both drive voting behavior, but in psychologically and neurologically distinct ways.
Obama's relentlessly positive message of rising above politics as usual left him open to attacks that tied his campaign in knots: If he attacked back, it would threaten his master narrative, that he was above the fray and intended to set a new tone in Washington. If he didn't, he would suffer the same fate as Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and every other Democrat who refused to respond to a strong attack with a stronger counterattack. The success or failure of his campaign would hinge on whether he could stop the bleeding after Ohio and Texas and find his way to a response that would reinforce his own story--that he had come to Washington to clean it up--while reinforcing the story that had dogged Hillary Clinton for 15 years and worried Democratic voters about her electability, that she was unlikable and opportunistic. It wouldn't have been difficult to craft a message that cast every attack she made as yet one more example of the divisiveness that Obama had pledged to clean up as president.
He began to do that after Texas and Ohio, but only intermittently. Whether voters ultimately perceive that as a net plus, reflecting his genuine intention to do things differently in Washington, or as a sign of weakness--the narrative the Clinton campaign has most recently been reinforcing about him, through comments in successive days about Hillary not being a "pansy," her having the "testicular fortitude" to be President, and her needing to lend Obama one of her cojones for the two of them to have a full complement--remains to be seen. With the kind of race-baiting we can expect from the Republicans in the general election if he goes on to be the nominee, his willingness to throw a punch against his Republican opponent may well be the decisive factor in who wins the presidency. What Obama needs to bring white rural and working-class voters back in November if he wins the nomination is not just his message of hope and change but a strong populist message, a narrative about his own biography--about a man raised by working-class white parents and grandparents who later worked with churches in Chicago to help people who'd been displaced from both their jobs and their dreams--and the willingness to throw a punch. That willingness is, for many Americans, including the demographics the chattering class has been chattering about, not only central to their conception of manhood but also something they want to see in their commander-in-chief. But Americans like Obama, and they want to like him. Every time he has taken a hit in recent weeks, his polls numbers have dropped, but they've also returned over the next few days once Americans have heard his response to whatever fueled the latest media feeding frenzy. People respond to his presence as they have responded to few other politicians in recent history, and try as the GOP will to brand him as unpatriotic, liberal, and different (and to activate latent negative associations to his race), he just isn't easily cast as a villain.
There is, however, another lesson in the recent success of Hillary's attacks, at least at staving off the inevitability of the delegate math: the fact that much of what influences voters occurs outside of conscious awareness. Voters reported in overwhelming numbers in exit polls on March 4 that they thought Hillary's attacks on Obama were unfair. But precisely the same voters gave her popular-vote victories in two large battleground states. The same was true in Pennsylvania. People can't tell you in polls and focus groups what really influences them because they don't know. Voters may have thought Hillary went over the top, but in their guts, she had not only established herself as a fighter in an era of economic uncertainty and populist outrage but had sown the seeds of doubt about Barack Obama. And in politics, it's the gut that's ultimately decisive.
None of this is to suggest that emotion is the only factor that accounts for the rise and fall and rise again of three extraordinary politicians, or of elections more generally. As the country has moved into a recession while mired in a deeply unpopular war, John McCain has an enormous cross to bear, especially after accepting it from his unpopular predecessor to win the nomination, although he is now trying to tell a new story and distance himself, by speaking to audiences in Selma, Alabama (although only white people seem to be showing up for his speeches--something the media keep forgetting to mention in describing his "historic" visits), or by gaffing his way through New Orleans. The media had always loved McCain and his story, and their lack of scrutiny of both his record and his weekly gaffes at the same time as they have been parsing every word of Clinton and Obama have uttered has been extraordinary. On the Democratic side, the media have had a substantial influence as well. Clinton and Obama undoubtedly benefited early from a media transfixed by the idea of a race between a black man and a woman. As a consequence, candidates such as Joe Biden and John Edwards, whose performance in debates was routinely superb, never really got a hearing. Later, when Clinton became the prohibitive front-runner, the media coverage was savage, followed by an equally brutal mugging of Obama once he had taken a commanding lead.
But if there's a central message in the primary campaigns of 2008, it's that whatever accounts for who became or becomes the nominee on either side has little to do with "the issues." John McCain could certainly speak with more authority on military issues as a veteran than Mitt Romney, but their policy positions were virtually identical. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were about as similar as two candidates could be in their voting records in the Senate. Yet in the Wisconsin primaries, for example, voters who reported in exit polls that the most important issue to them was health care--Hillary Clinton's signature issue--broke for Obama, just as militantly anti-immigrant Republicans routinely voted for McCain.
Issues--the economy, the Iraq War, energy, immigration, health care, whatever they may be--play a major role in elections. But as every presidential election since the advent of modern polling has shown, successful candidates are the ones whose personal stories, principles, ways of talking about their values and concerns for the nation, and personalities capture the imagination of the public (or create enough doubt about their opponent to win despite a less than compelling story of their own, as in the Bush victory of 2004). Successful candidates are those who set the emotional agenda of the electorate.
Drew Westen, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, and a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post.