The media has currently made a big deal out of recent South Carolina polls that suggest Barack Obama is losing white voter support in South Carolina. If this trend persists, it very likely means the end of his campaign on February 5th.
The standard explanation by the chattering classes is that the Clinton’s have been effective at making Obama the “black candidate.” Through the strategic use of code words like “cocaine” and “slumlord,” the Clintons have been able to remind voters of race and thereby make him a marginal figure. This explanation is wrong.
To buy this, you would have to assume that voters have just come to realize that Obama was African-American. He was just as Black in Iowa as he is in South Carolina. While race is powerful as a predictor of vote choice, I think the media is over blowing its significance in this campaign. A simpler explanation for Obama’s drop in the polls among various groups is that the Clinton’s are winning the framing war.
Framing is a term used by social scientists to talk about the ways in which people interpret events. Good politicians understand that the meaning attached to an event is more important than the event itself. It is becoming a tired cliché that political persuasion is more about emotion than about reason, more about language than about argument. Each news cycle presents a new way to tap into voter emotions. The Clinton campaign has won the framing war in four distinct ways.
Hard Working Mature Woman Getting a Raw Deal (As Usual): Hillary Clinton’s “welling up” moment in New Hampshire has been viewed as the key turning point in the campaign for her. The standard explanation is that it showed her human side. But what made this event important is not simply that it made her human, but that it tapped into a distinct frame of the earnest, hard-working, mature woman in a struggle to get what’s rightfully hers against a younger, male, up-start with fewer experience or qualifications. I suspect her overwhelming support among women over 45 years of age come, at least in part, from tapping into a common narrative: older women have had to work much harder in the workplace to get ahead and have likely had to compete against cocky, under qualified, men who waltz in and get all the rewards. This narrative gets reinforced by the Clinton’s skillful framing of Obama as young and inexperienced.
Dedicated Husband Getting Grief for Defending His Wife: The second narrative that is working against Obama is his ongoing feud with Bill Clinton. While some party insiders view Bill Clinton’s virulent attacks sympathetically for Obama, the public uses its own frame. The vast majority of married women, and probably men, simply see a husband fighting aggressively to defend his wife. Who wouldn’t want their husbands to “stick up” for them if they were being challenged by another male? What husband wouldn’t see Bill Clinton’s behavior and say “I’d do the same thing if it was my wife.”
Of course, Bill Clinton is a virtuoso at this, claiming that his hatchet man routine emerges from a deep love for his wife. But his narrative makes more sense than Obama’s. Obama’s complaint that he’s running against two people, while true, falls flat as a framing. Who in their own personal experience can relate to being ganged up on by a husband and wife team? Complaining about the rules is typically a poor frame.
Arrogant Hotshot Who Thinks He’s Better Than Me: The third narrative working against him is Obama’s own personality. In debates, he can go at times go from likable and affable to cocky and arrogant. When he says in response to a question on interracial tension between Blacks and Hispanics “all the Hispanics in Illinois voted for me” he gives the impression of being too cocksure for his own good. Obama’s resume plays into a giant “you think you’re better than me” chip on the shoulder of many working-class Democratic males. A “cocky, slick-talkin’, Harvard guy” is not how Obama wants to be painted. But the Clintons again have been masterful at tapping into class resentment. The Clinton quip that “he gives a great speech, but will he get his fingernails dirty like me” must have made Karl Rove shed a tear. This class resentment, more than race, is what accounts for his drop in the polls.
Disloyal Party Ingrate who Won’t Fight for Me: The fourth narrative favoring the Clinton’s emerged from Obama’s remarks about Ronald Reagan to the Reno Gazette Journal Editorial Board. The Clinton’s relentless hammering of the “party of ideas” theme looks to party insiders and intellectuals as Clintonian disingenuousness. But to rank and file Democrats it is a visceral example of a candidate who won’t be in the trenches fighting. If you are strongly identified as a Democrat, you see the invocation of Reagan as an example of someone who is too willing to compromise. No amount of explanation on Obama’s part as to what he really meant will move the frame. Calling the Clinton’s liars for misrepresenting the remark doesn’t shift the frame because for most democratic rank and file voters, lying in politics is not as heinous a crime as not defending their interests.
So what’s Obama to do? The question for the Obama campaign is how he steers the narratives back in his favor? How does the campaign move from Obama as a young-hot shot, who is inexperienced, disloyal to his party and is criticizing someone for the very human act of sticking up for his wife. Let’s take each framing step-by-step.
Struggling Middle-Aged Joe: First, he needs to change the narrative from being young and inexperienced to being mid-career and middle-aged. Every chance he gets, he needs to emphasize his “middle agedness” by talking about all the indignities that come with middle-age: flabby muscles, gaining weight, kids, mortgages, etc. He should share his middle-life concerns with his audiences. For example, he should talk about his struggle with balancing work-life and being a parent. In policy discourse, he needs to talk about the concerns of people in the 35-55 year age group. Obama should stress that he can speak to the concerns of this group because his is a working parent himself. He should thank Hillary Clinton’s generation for being instrumental in the Civil Rights and Women’s rights movement but that his generation faces new challenges.
Grateful Mid-Career Inheritor of the Party Mantle: Second, Obama has to position the Clintons as the party of the glorious past. He has to change the narrative from that of an ungrateful, young, hot-shot candidate to one of a mid-career professional with better ideas who is being held back by older bosses who can’t let go of power. He can’t do this brazenly but rather with heavy doses of flattery (the way all us middle aged professionals do). Hearken back to the glorious past of the 1990’s Democratic Party. He should use terminology that suggests the party should give Bill and Hillary a gold watch, not the reigns of power. This means allowing Hillary her dubious “experience” claim. This allows Obama to thank her for her long years of service to the Democratic Party. He should talk about them in the same breath as he does the “party elders” and how they’ve done so much to build the Democratic Party to the position it is now in and then stress how the party needs to go in a new direction. This recasts the narrative as “old and tired” vs. “new and vital.”
Avenger for Mistreatment of Clintons: Third, Obama needs to go from being a disloyal Democrat to one that chides the behavior of the Republicans in the 1990’s. He should immediately apologize for the Reagan comment (even though he has no reason to) and say that the real “old way of doing things” is the way the Republicans distracted the nation by ceaselessly attacking the Clinton’s on personal issues during the 1990’s. Talk about how wrong Gingrich and the Republicans were to waste taxpayers money investigating travel gate, Vince Foster’s suicide, the selling of the Lincoln bedroom, etc.. Talk about how the impeachment scandal was the greatest example of the old politics and how the new politics is about ridding that type of politics from Washington. This moves the frame off of Obama’s loyalty and on to the more seamy side of the Clinton years.
Strong (and Faithful) Family Man: Finally, Obama needs to switch the narrative from criticizing Bill for defending his wife on the campaign trail to applauding him for his vigorous defense of his wife. This allows him to stress the importance of strong, committed marriages. He should talk about his own marriage and how his wife makes him a better man and a better president. Obama should go on Oprah, Tyra, whomever, and talk about how much he’s grown from his strong stable marriage. More importantly, he should talk about his own marriage challenges. In one of these couch interviews; he should casually say that he admires the Clintons for keeping their marriage together. He should say that it couldn’t have been easy for Hillary and Bill to go through their marital problems public ally. This moves the frame from Bill Clinton as defender of his wife to someone who harmed his wife emotionally.
All of this framing is ugly business. But to win requires understanding how to play the game. Obama has less than 10 days to change the dynamic of the race. If he can’t change the way voters are interpreting events, his place in the pantheon of losing Democratic Party insurgents will be etched, right between Gary Hart and Bill Bradley.