We have believed for some time that the bounce for the Republican ticket following the Republican Convention, in particular the surge in support among white women, has been misinterpreted. Yes, the media has been fascinated by the surprise announcement of a relatively unknown woman being placed on the ticket, but the running mate rarely draws much voter attention. We believe McCain earned much of the boost with his remarkably effective acceptance speech.
Why does this matter now? Because Barack Obama, and his supporters still need a better understanding of why he has been unable to open a larger lead in the polls despite all the advantages he has on the issues. McCain connects with voters on levels Obama, and many Democrats, seem unable to understand.
On an intellectual level it would seem, at least to many Democrats that this contest should be over by now. The economy is in shambles and John McCain does not support a single economic proposal that diverges from George Bush’s economic program. Voters want change on the economy and McCain has no new direction to offer them.
Further, most voters believe the decision to invade Iraq was a mistake, but John McCain insists he would do it again if he faced the same circumstances. If John McCain cannot admit this was the wrong decision, how can voters be sure he would not repeat the error?
And yet, the two candidates have been nearly even in the polls for months setting up what looks like another nail biter of an election, and one that could still go either way. Is this all racism as some would argue, or voters’ jitters over Obama’s relative lack of experience? Maybe, but we have a different theory.
The problem is not Obama’s weakness as a candidate, but rather the opposite. The problem is Obama’s unwillingness to show weakness.
Voters do not respond on the intellectual level alone. The McCain campaign knows this and the Obama campaign seems not to. When John McCain admitted that his captors in the Hanoi Hilton broke him, he connected with many voters on a level that cannot be fully understood rationally.
“After I turned down their offer, they worked me over harder than they ever had before, for a long time. And they broke me. When they brought me back to my cell, I was hurt and ashamed, and I didn’t know how I could face my fellow prisoners. The good man in the cell next door, my friend, Bob Craner, saved me. Through taps on a wall he told me I had fought as hard as I could. No man can always stand alone.”
Similar to the Dover New Hampshire event where tears welled up in Hillary Clinton’s eyes, “the candidate” suddenly becomes a human being. We feel we know and can trust someone because they have given us just a glimpse of their soul, shown us part of their wound, and rather than pulling away, many people, particularly women, feel a closer bond.
Bill Clinton, and to a lesser degree Jimmy Carter seemed to understand the political impact of self disclosure, in a way that Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and Al Gore seemed not to. Actors know this as central to their craft and in large measure it explains why Oscars tend to go to actors who play characters with real problems, such as mental illness, addictions and physical handicaps.
Obama has not done this, at least not since completing his book, Dreams from My Father, where he details his journey to Kenya and into himself. Perhaps because this story highlights his “otherness” he feels it is best to keep it out of the narrative he tells on the campaign trail, but if he is not willing to keep sharing this part of himself he must find other parts, because without some self disclosure, many voters will not be able to build connection and trust.
The 60 minutes interviews offered new opportunities taken by McCain and missed by Obama. McCain used the interview to again reprise his story of captivity and the lessons he learned, and he threw in a discussion of his alcoholic father and his own youthful mistakes.
When Steve Kroft offered Obama the most fundamental question, “Why do you think you’d be a good president?” he shared — that he has an ability to bring diverse groups together.
“I am a practical person. One of the things I’m good at is getting people in a room with a bunch of different ideas who sometimes violently disagree with each other and finding common ground, and a sense of common direction. And that’s the kind of approach that I think prevents you from making some of the enormous mistakes that we’ve seen over the last eight years.”
Heading into the debates, Obama will have a few more chances to share more of himself and close the empathy gap. If he does this – and if it rings true rather than calculated which would be a huge error – he has the potential to move dramatically forward.
On the other hand, the biggest mistake he could make would be any sort of reprise of Michael Dukakis’ failure to connect on this level. Many people attribute his loss to a particular moment in the 1988 debates when he was asked whether he would reverse his opposition to the death penalty if his wife, Kitty, was raped. Rather than a human showing a glimpse of the pain he would feel, America saw a policy analyst defending his issue position. That image of Dukakis in the tank didn’t help either.