Hungarian immigrant and former Intel CEO Andrew Grove was perched atop the "wintel" world when he warned that one must be constantly paranoid to survive. Always, always be obsessed about your competitors' plans and potential. Always, always be driven nearly mad by the possibility of a disruptive technology that can lay waste to everything you have done.
One is only as good as the latest product, or position, or strategy.
Yes, Messrs. Plouffe and Axelrod pulled off one of the truly great upsets in US political history. It is not that Hillary lost by a sliver. Much has been written about why she lost, and, in a close loss, virtually every explanation is correct -- but for this one decision/gaffe/event/strategy, she would have won. Thus, everyone is correct.
At the same time, everyone is wrong. It should not even have been close. Her campaign had three parts: the aura of inevitability, a string of losses, and then a near comeback. How and why that happened is a case study in American politics, but the subject of a future article. Right now, all that matters is the lessons that can be drawn upon that will help the Obama-Biden ticket win the general election.
Now we are seeing national polls closing, Obama running behind the Democratic Party in general, and what do we hear from our leaders: "don't worry, the polls do not include many first time voters".
True. But, it violates Andy Grove's admonition. Too much is at stake to allow even such talk to go unaddressed. 'Paranoia' as Grove describes it is a few orders of magnitude above "we take nothing for granted; we know we have to work hard" that all organizations will espouse.
First, the polls' narrowing show the populations addressed by the polls, even if not totally representative of the voting population, have shifted. That does not mean Barack will lose, but it does mean that something may not be going right.
Second, the narrative the Republicans are telling about Barack has just begun. Since the Obama campaign is telling no narrative at all about McCain, other than in every speech honoring his service, the polls will continue to deteriorate. Moreover, the attacks thusfar have been relatively mild. As the Obama campaign continues to allow McCain to tell his own narrative about himself, the Republicans will escalate the viciousness of their attacks -- after all, with no response except denials or attacks against attacking at all, McCain pays no price.
Third, polls tell us that 27% of Hillary's supporters are still undecided. Work that percentage of a percentage into the polls, and Barack would be comfortably ahead even among the populations being polled. If that number does not plummet after the convention, a new strategy needs to be considered.
Fourth, while a large cadre of Barack's supporters, myself included, may feel even more juiced to climb the higher mountain created by falling polls, there is a much larger number who could easily get discouraged by the Rovian-McCain tactics. If that happens, as would be likely, then the compensatory votes that are not being counted in the polls will shrink.
Fifth, the primaries demonstrated the power of the narrative the other side tells about you. Despite her overwhelming advantages as a frontrunner, Hillary was losing because Barack had a positive narrative about himself and she had no real narrative at all about herself, believing inevitability was enough; she started winning ONLY when she began telling her narrative about Barack AND when Barack told no narrative about Hillary. That is, there is something akin to 'scientific' evidence that Obama's polls will continue to deteriorate without a change of course, and thus the gap required to be made up by the unpolled will grow.
Sixth, the general election differs from the primaries in many ways, one is that the winner becomes President and gets enveloped with the prestige of the office, thereby removing the stains of negative, even lying, campaigns. We have already seen the McCain camp deal in lies and scurrilous attacks. I do not suggest that Obama stoop so low, but that does not mean he cannot tell the truth about McCain that is different from what McCain invents about himself.
In the primaries the winner only becomes the candidate, and thus has to be concerned about how his conduct of the primaries will impact the supporters of the other candidates. Paradoxically, Barack handled that very well in the primaries, and even the ardent Hillary supporters acknowledge that there was very little 'blame' that Barack has for however they believe Hillary was mistreated. Certainly, he was far more respectful of her than she was of him. Yet, a victory-or-landslide denying percentage of Hillary's supporters remain opposed or undecided.
Whatever the strategy for the primaries, however, the general election requires a paradigm shift. As Drew Westen has pointed out, Barack will not win without telling a powerful narrative about himself AND his own narrative about McCain. He cannot allow McCain's narrative about himself to stand.
Moreover, Plouffe and Axelrod must fire all the conventional Democratic strategists so long as they are polling, developing a message based on the polls, and then spending tons of money on that message. Polls cannot tell you what people REALLY base their emotional decisions on because people themselves rarely are so in touch with their inner psyches to know, and it is those emotional decisions that determine peoples' votes.
There is a laughable event surrounding every modern election, exit-polling. It is very accurate in predicting the actual vote (the question being, for whom did you vote?), and purports to be accurate as to why ("I preferred my candidate's healthcare plan", or "he will do better on the economy"). Voters are never asked WHAT their candidate's healthcare plan is, or what they will do about the economy, and, if they were asked, 99% could not provide anything close to an accurate description. If they were then asked what the opponent's proposals were, and why his candidate's was better, that would stump them completely.
That, of course, does not stop the media from confidently "explaining" the outcome. What they miss is that voters (all of us, this is not a matter of knowledge or intelligence) invest in the person they trust to be on their side the greater likelihood of doing the right thing for them. Thus, they voted for a candidate because of his economic strategy or healthcare proposal not because they really know the differences, but because they trust that person more to have the healthcare program or economic strategy that is better for them.
Perhaps you think this is splitting hairs. It is not. The key is developing that connection with the voter that makes them believe you will have the better policies for them, and that you can deliver. That is, they will trust you to have the better policies.
It seems counterintuitive, does it not, that a voter would choose McCain despite the disastrous Bush administration that he supported 95% of the time, but it is ALREADY HAPPENING. It is not theoretical. McCain is sitting 15% above George Bush.
So, let us not be lulled into a false sense of security by the illogic, and by believing that once people "know the truth" they will switch. They already "know the truth", and it does not matter because they still trust McCain.
So, first, they need to know the truth about McCain. Before those 15% are going to link McCain closely enough to Bush so that their illogic disappears, and before the 27% of Hillary Undecideds (not to mention the 21% who say they will vote for McCain) will be weaned away to Barack, the Obama campaign has to convey that McCain is not what he's cracked up to be (i.e., not a maverick), that he is in this race not for the voters but only for his own personal ambition (as he wrote in his book, "Worth Fighting For", and see "McCain ['I Run for Personal Ambition'] Provides Obama Key Narrative for Victory: Will He Use It?, 8/22/08"), and that he is a radical rightwinger--a card-carrying NeoCon on foreign policy who will involve their children in additional wars, and member of the hard right on women's rights including abortion -- and, furthermore, that he understands little about the plight of the average person.
Unless and until those messages sink in, those 'illogical' supporters will assume McCain will do the right thing by them. And the only way for that message to sink in is to repeat it over-and-over-and-over-and-over-and-over again.
Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) provided help in crafting such messages when he said that McCain is "not a maverick, he is a sidekick" to George Bush. That resonates with people. Hillary's "twins in the twin cities" was another clever formulation.
But, the point is that a consistent and repetitive narrative about the real John McCain is critical to breaking through and turning this into a victory and then even a landslide.
Imbibing Grove's 'paranoia' is good for our electoral health.
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