The Psychology of Hope: Why Obama's Words Are More Effective Than Hillary's

I noticed something in Obama's and Clinton's choices of language in the Cleveland debate last night, something the newest ads from each campaign manage to illustrate precisely.

Clinton increasingly describes herself as a "fighter" who will "stand up" for people. Checking the transcript, Clinton used the word "fight" or "fighter" in reference to herself no fewer than six times. She also used "standing up" and its variations no fewer than eight.

Her most recent 30-second ad begins and ends with the exact same thoughts:

Here's the Hillary transcript:

Announcer (V.O.): She's fighting for America's middle class.

Hillary: ... [T]ime to level the playing field against the special interests."

Announcer (V.O.): She'll end $55 billion in corporate giveaways to special interests, and invest it to rebuild the middle class, create jobs, end tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas, and cut taxes for working families.

Hillary: Standing up for people who weren't getting a fair shake - that's been the purpose of my life, and it will be the purpose of my presidency.

Longtime Democratic speechwriter and campaign advisor Bob Shrum was excellent at getting candidates into lower offices with exactly this sort of retail populist "fighter for the people" rhetoric -- but his candidates went 0-for-8 (the last one being Kerry) in reaching the White House.

For someone aiming for a legislature or a Governor's mansion, the "fighter" stuff makes sense. Everybody knows that a single Governor or lone Congressperson can't unilaterally change the structure of power.

But for the presidency -- still arguably the most powerful office on earth -- the message here is surprisingly weak. "Level the playing field" makes the candidate only as powerful as the big bad boys, not more so. Hardly reassuring. A fairer fight is still a fight -- one you might lose.

Unfortunately for her supporters, "standing up for people," "fighting," etc. position Hillary as not necessarily able to change anything. In this formulation, she's more like an older sibling, taking on a neighborhood bully. Nice to have around, and appropriate for a lower office -- but on an instinctive level, not exactly displaying a presidential level of authority.

Now let's look at Obama's most recent 30-second ad:

Here's the Obama transcript:

Obama (V.O.): If you are ready for change, then we can go ahead and tell the lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda are over.

Announcer (V.O.): In the Senate, Barack Obama challenged both parties, and passed tough new ethics laws reigning in the power of lobbyists. And he's the only candidate refusing contributions from PACs and Washington lobbyists who have too much power today.

Obama: They have not funded my campaign, they will not run my White House, and they will not drown out the voice of the American people.

Translation: Hop on, everybody -- because I know the way, and we're bigger than all of these bad guys combined.

Obama's language positions him not as a fighter, but as a winner, stating the outcome of his election in absolute terms. Stretching (and surely over-stretching) the family metaphor, Obama comes off not as an older sibling, a mere equal of the bad guys, but as a powerful and self-assured father -- one ready to march right down the stairs and give those bullies some whoop-ass.

Moreover, the ad begins with "[i]f you are ready for change" -- so that everything that follows is conditional: it's you, not Obama, who is ultimately responsible for the future. If you don't vote for Obama, the continuing mess is your own fault. But if you do -- "[t]heir days of setting the agenda are over."

Think about what a confident assertion of power that is. It's more than presidential -- for skeptics, it's damn near delusional. But it also predicates itself on the voters' participation, so it's also unthreatening, inviting, and empowering.

As I've pointed out a bit on my own site, this large difference in small communication skills is visible everywhere in the Obama and Clinton campaigns -- amusingly, right down to their e-mail sign-up buttons. (Obama's says, invitingly, "Learn More." Clinton's says, dourly, and playing directly into every negative stereotype about her, "Submit.")

Never mind who the better candidate might be -- just looking closely at the ads and their language, is really it any wonder that Obama is winning?