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Obama's Decline in the Polls: Who Turned Off the Electricity?

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. That's exactly what Obama has done in his recent debate performances.
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The last few weeks haven't been good for the Obama campaign. Since the two nationally televised debates in South Carolina and New Hampshire, his standing in the polls has dropped among Democratic voters, he's received increasingly negative reviews in the blogosphere, and the Los Angeles Times reported that his donor base in Hollywood -- where people know an emotionally compelling candidate when they see one, and they thought they saw one -- has started to run dry.


If you start with false premises about how the mind of the voter works, you can reason your way to a concession speech. You can watch precisely how Michael Dukakis and Al Gore did that here. They listed all their best facts and figures, their positions and policy statements, their 17-point plans for every issue. Their goal was to convince voters that they had the most to offer -- in the language of economics, that they offered the greatest marginal utility. Perhaps they would have won if everyone were Alan Greenspan (although even Greenspan got emotional about irrational exuberance).

When asked about his Medicare plan in the first presidential debate against George Bush in 2000, Al Gore responded,

Under the Governor's plan, if you kept the same fee for service that you have now under Medicare, your premiums would go up by between 18% and 47%, and that is the study of the Congressional plan that he's modeled his proposal on by the Medicare actuaries.

Voters didn't need to know exact percentages. Most didn't know what an actuary was, and if they did, they probably wouldn't like one. All Gore needed to say, with the appropriate intonation to make the point hit home (and home is where the heart is), was, "Under the Governor's plan, your rates will go up by about a third. That's a lot of money, especially if you're on a fixed income. That's not how we should be treating our parents and grandparents. That's not why I call 'family values.'"

Nor did either the Gore or Kerry campaigns effectively take on the character attacks launched at them by the Bush campaign. Like Dukakis, who was talking about jobs while being beaten to death by Willie Horton, they didn't seem to recognize that when the other side is telling a story about you that people are starting to believe, you'd better drop everything and offer a compelling counter-narrative -- and preferably a compelling story about the story-teller. That two Democrats let George W. Bush make character an issue about them without ever turning his history of impulsivity, recklessness, drunkenness, investigation for insider trading, and draft evasion while cheerleading for the Vietnam War (not to mention his cheerleading at Yale -- not exactly a great visual image for a presidential nominee) into a voting issue speaks volumes about the way our party's leading strategists tend to understand the mind of the voter.

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.

Obama has it in him, but he isn't using it. The one who is using it is John Edwards, who voters saw as the winner of the last debate, but who the East Coast media have run a concerted effort to take out of the race -- first by pretending that he wasn't in it, describing it as a two-way contest between a white woman and a black man, and failing to mention in most articles that the usual presumptive favorite, the vice-presidential nominee from the last election, was even in the race; then by amplifying a concerted GOP effort to portray him as feminine and hypocritical (as if the Kennedys couldn't talk about poverty or the minimum wage until they sold their compound on the Cape), and now describing his years studying and speaking about poverty -- not exactly an obvious issue to champion if you want to win an election -- bashing immigrants is much better for the polls, if not for the soul -- as a political ploy and perhaps a misuse of funds. Northeastern intellectuals didn't care much for Bill Clinton, either, and he did what Edwards will likely need to do: he turned to alternative media (which are now much more powerful) and to local media, who are usually excited to talk with a major candidate rather than to run him into the ground. But Edwards will also need to respond more rapidly and aggressively to smear campaigns, because it's a lot harder to wipe it off after it sticks.

Of the top contenders, the main beneficiary of Obama's turn to the cerebral thus far seems to have been the cerebral Hillary Clinton, who is picking up votes the more she shows something other than the size of her cerebrum -- the warmth and humor whose lack have been her greatest emotional deficits. What Americans want most from their presidents are strength and warmth -- strength to let them know that they will protect them and their families, and warmth to let them know that they give a damn. Watch the tapes of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton sometime, and you'll see the ability to deliver both a punch and a punch-line -- not to mention a moving eulogy. Whether Senator Clinton can alter the historically high negatives she faces as a primary candidate if she reaches the general election remains to be seen.

Forty years of electoral data show that the best predictor of success in elections is how people feel about the political parties and their principles. If you don't believe me, think of how often the "R" or "D" next to a candidate's name you didn't even recognize for, say, school board, has influenced your vote. Right now, the winds are blowing slightly leftward, largely because of the stench blowing in from the right. But the next best predictor -- and the one that makes most swing voters swing -- is not the beloved "issues" of Democratic primary voters and strategists: It's the global feelings voters associate with the candidates. If you don't believe me on this one, listen the next few days for the number of times even politically informed friends say things like, "something about him just feels phony to me" or "I really like him." We don't pick our spouses or friends based on their expected utility. And we don't pick our presidents that way, either.

Obama's strategists may be thinking that this is a marathon, and that they'd better pace themselves. You don't want to sprint 18 months before the final mile.

But they need to remember that Dukakis lost. 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.

And may the best man or woman win.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University and founder of Westen Strategies. He is the author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, which was released today by PublicAffairs Books.

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