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Jeffrey Feldman Headshot

Ripped Paper and Robocalls

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This week, the Democratic primary arrived on my doorstep and did so in a way that vividly demonstrates the choice we face this Tuesday.

It is a difficult choice for many reasons, but amidst all the media hubbub and advocate bickering, there is in the end a crystal clear distinction between the campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

The distinction takes the form of two anecdotes -- two brief stories about how the Obama and Clinton campaigns each made contact with me. Which campaign got to me first? What form did this contact take? How did I react to each episode?

I share these stories not by way of endorsing one candidate over the other. I have not given any money to either campaign, nor do I advocate or work for either campaign.

Rather, I believe understanding the distinction I lay out will help 99% of Democratic voters to quickly make up their minds.

Anecdote #1: Ripped Paper
A few days ago, I was walking to my neighborhood grocery store and I saw a photocopied piece of paper, partially ripped, taped to a lamp post. It was an announcement for meeting to be held in a few days time for anyone interested in helping Barack Obama win votes.

I walk to this grocery store just about every day, and when I saw this piece of paper on the lamp post I took notice. It made a strong impression on me not because of what it said or how, but because it was a visible, raw impression of political participation. It was also the first sign that the primary season had arrived in my neighborhood. I had seen candidate signs in windows and bumper stickers, but this simple, ripped piece of paper was a clear mark of organizing.

I came home that night and spoke to my wife about having seen this poster -- not so much about going to the meeting, but about the fact that it was there. We are a politically engaged household and spend a great deal of time talking about the elections, but that night we focused on the two candidacies -- on the difference between Obama and Clinton. That sign, that piece of ripped paper had a direct impact on our lives that evening.

Several days later, I notice a pamphlet for the Obama campaign fastened to the bulletin board in our apartment building mail room. I smiled. It was the day after the Obama meeting. The volunteers must have decided that the next course of action was for everyone to take a pamphlet and pin it to a bulletin board in their building.

I took the pamphlet down from the board and read through it, and then pinned it back up on the board exactly as I had found it. The pamphlet was nothing I had not already seen. What struck me, however, was not the wording in the flier, but that it was pinned to the board with one pin, crookedly -- the same kind of raw mark of participation that I saw in the initial ripped, photocopied poster a few days before.

Several days later, I noticed that someone had taken down the pamphlet, ripped out just the back page calling for people to vote on Super Tuesday, and pinned it back to the board. The flier had been turned into a ripped campaign poster.

Anecdote #2: Robocall
A few days ago, my phone rang while I was working at home. As usual, I looked at the caller ID and since I did not recognize the number, I let it ring through to voice mail. I looked up the area code (703) and discovered that it was a call from Virginia, where I have friends and family. So, I immediately called my voice mail to listen to the message.

It was a robocall from Charlie Rangel -- my Congressperson -- stating that he supported Hillary Clinton's campaign for president encouraging me to vote for her on Super Tuesday.

From the moment I heard Rangel's voice, I smiled. I am a fan of Charlie Rangel, but the reason I smiled is because it was a robocall. There was nothing negative in the call, no mud thrown at any candidate. There is just something about listening to a recorded voice on the phone that makes me giggle. Robocalls are one of the great contradictions in American life. They are calls, but they are not really from a person -- and yet there is something personal about them, something intimate.

Later that night, I mentioned the call to my wife. There are no signs for the Clinton campaign in my neighborhood, no announcements for meetings, but that robocall was the first time that primary season had reached us inside our home. It was the first time the campaign had found its way into our personal space.

That night, talk about the candidates again filled our conversation at the dinner table.

Choice #1: Personal vs. Personalized
Now, certainly there are many ways to interpret these two anecdotes. In my mind, however, the two experiences demonstrated a difference between the personal as a hallmark of the Obama candidacy, versus the personalized as the mark of the Clinton candidacy.

Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses, but they are very different.

The outreach of the Obama campaign gave me a sense that an actual person in my community had been involved in the effort to reach me. I do not know who this person is, but I do know that they are someone familiar with my building, my neighborhood, my immediate world. Their political participation took place right in the middle of my daily routine -- on the route I walk to buy milk and to collect my mail.

The outreach of the Clinton campaign gave me a sense of impersonal efficiency and of the political system itself taking interest in my support. It was not personal interaction, but the fact that it was Charlie Rangel's voice did make a difference to me. I do not know Charlie Rangel personally, but I do support him and believe very deeply that he is a good Congressperson for my neighborhood and for the people with whom I share my daily world.

Choice #2: Sloppy vs. Formal
The second choice is between the sloppiness of the Obama candidacy and the neatness of the Clinton candidacy.

As much as the ripped paper of the Obama outreach touched me, it also gave me a sense that the Obama volunteers were lunging forward with an almost frenetic sloppiness. The sign on the lamp post could not have lasted more than 24 hours. The pamphlet in my mail room was not backed up by a stack of pamphlets that my neighbors could take to read and discuss in their own homes. It was excitement with frayed edges, participation held together by poorly sewn seams.

The Clinton robocall was formal and efficient, even as it made me think relatively negative thoughts about mechanized politics. Getting me to think positively about Hillary Clinton was all the robocall really wanted to achieve,and it did it. If a campaign volunteer had called me instead, forcing me to spend 10 minutes on the phone, it would not have had an impact that was better or worse. It was organized, but it was also hermetically sealed. It reached me, but also left me with a slight impression that I was a name on a list.

Choice #3: Growing vs. Constant
The third clear choice is between the sense that the Obama campaign is spreading and the sense that the Clinton campaign is constant.

From the moment I first saw the Obama sign on the lamp post, I have not been able to shake off the thought that the Obama campaign 'arrived' in my neighborhood. It was not there before, now it is here. This sense that the Obama campaign is spreading across the country -- like a wine stain on a tablecloth -- is a powerful impression made by the most mundane of instruments (e.g., a single photocopied piece of paper).

The robocall from the Clinton campaign left me with the sense that the Clinton campaign was constant and unflappable. Clinton is my Senator, and is always 'here' in some sense, but the robocall was a forceful, well-timed reminder that her campaign is here. Nonetheless, it did not leave me with a sense of 'taking off' or growing enthusiasm or any impression that the Clinton campaign has become more or less what it was from the start: big, strong, all over the board.

Choice #4: Participation vs. Broadcast
Now, for me this last distinction is, perhaps, the most meaningful. The ripped paper sign of the Obama campaign, and the pamphlet in my mail room, left me with a sense that he Obama campaign is about participation. By contrast, the Clinton campaign's robocall left me with a sense that Hillary's campaign is about broadcast.

Again, these terms have an upside and a downside for each candidate.

'Participation' is inspiring, but it can also be overwhelming. For all the volunteers pushing the Obama campaign forward through endless, small gestures, there is also an 'in club' aspect of the Obama campaign that often leaves people feeling excluded. The Obama campaign has inspired so many people to participate for the first time, but few of those new participants have done so out of common concern for a particular policy. The result is a community of participants bound together by a shared belief in a very vague idea of change -- a model of politics that includes people, but excludes in depth conversation. Excitement, but also discomfort.

The ability of the Clinton campaign to 'broadcast' its message has been powerful, but at times alienating. The Clinton campaign has shown incredible acumen at using big platforms to push their message out to as many people as possible at the same time, but in so doing they have given the impression that the campaign is dominated by just a few, very high profile figures, rather than thousands and thousands of energized volunteers. The result is a sense that there is really is no community of Hillary supporters to join, even if one wanted to -- a model of politics that includes people in its message, but leaves people with the impression that their boots on the ground are not necessary. A conversation, but one way.

Conclusion: Give Value To Your Experiences
I do believe there are some, clear policy distinctions in the Democratic nomination this time around. But in the end, I believe this is a choice between two very different styles of doing politics clearly distinguishable in the efforts to get out votes.

The Obama approach is personal, but sloppy, growing, but rough-edged, about participation, but at times alienating. An Obama presidency would likely bring all these characteristics to our national politics -- the good and the not so good.

The Clinton campaign is personalized, but at times too formal, constant, but lacking in enthusiasm, capable of immense broadcast capability, but lacking a sense of citizen participation. A Clinton presidency would likely bring all thee characteristics to our national politics -- the good and the not so good.

These are very clear and balanced choices exemplified in a small, but significant moments observed in my neighborhood, on my doorstep, and inside my home.

As voters, we should inform ourselves through the media and other resources, but we should also give value to our own experiences.

This weekend, I hope that more and more Americans will turn away from what they see on TV and think about what they have seen around them.

Endorsements are important, but the clear differences we find in our own experiences can be even more helpful.

Cross-posted from Frameshop