There are only two groups of voters who decide the outcomes of elections and are targets of communication that can be affected by political campaigns. They are "persuadables" and "mobilzables".
In general elections, persuadables are the voters who are switch hitters. They always vote, but they sometimes vote for Democrats and other times for Republicans. They have to be persuaded to vote for our candidate.
Mobilizables don't have to be persuaded to vote Democratic. They would support Democrats if they went to the polls, but often don't vote. They have to be mobilized to come out and vote.
The messages campaigns aim at persuadables are about the qualities of the candidate. The messages that work with mobilizables are not about a candidate -- they are about the voters. They are aimed at overcoming the sense of many potential voters that the act of casting a vote really isn't that important -- to their lives or those of the people they care about. Often we need to overcome the feelings of voters that they don't have much power to control their lives in general.
Very often, candidates are good at delivering one of these two messages but not the other. They are either very appealing to "persuadable", swing voters, or they motivate the Democratic "base" - but they don't do both.
That's where inspiration comes in. Inspiration is the one political message that works with both groups.
By inspiration I mean something very specific. Being inspired is about feeling empowered. When you are inspired by a speech or story or movie it isn't the "facts" or proposals that affect you. Its how experience makes you feel. When you're inspired you feel that you, or the country, or your group can overcome obstacles and do things you previously couldn't do. You feel that you can be more and achieve more than you could before.
Inspiration persuades "swing" voters because the candidate makes them feel good in his presence. He makes them feel more powerful and meaningful.
But inspiration also mobilizes voters because it overcomes the major obstacle to voter's participation -- the feeling of powerlessness.
It's his ability to inspire that allows Barack Obama to appeal simultaneous to swing "persuadable" voters and the vast number of "moblizable" voters who don't vote in [residential elections.
Obama's attraction to swing voters isn't that he promises to "compromise" with the right -- or adopt right wing values. It is that he inspires them with the traditional progressive values:
• That we're all in this together, not all in this alone;
• Unity not division;
• Hope not fear;
• That people are not commodities to be paid what the market will bear and discarded when they aren't needed, but human beings whose happiness and success are the purpose of the economy.
Inspiration comes from appeals to values, not ten point plans.
If Obama is the candidate for president this fall, he will attract Democrats, independents and even some Republicans. But he will also bring out a massive surge of young people, minorities, and many others who have never voted before. His candidacy will transform the presidential electorate.
That's why Obama is without doubt the best candidate to lead a potential progressive realignment of American politics this fall.
But just as important, Obama would be the best president to pass a progressive program of structural change that can democratize the distribution of power in America -- health care, tax, electoral, and trade reform -- new labor laws to allow average people to organize to defend their standards of living -- universal access to higher education. We won't pass this agenda if we rely on the insider game in Washington. Success will require a massive, on going mobilization of people across America. That will require inspiration.
If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, she can win the General Election --though it will be harder. She could be a good president.
But Barack Obama could be a transformative figure in American politics, like Roosevelt or Kennedy -- presidents who used the power of inspiration to fundamentally alter American politics.
Economic self interest is a critical -- and often determinative self interest for voters. But it isn't people's only self interest. That's why the poorest counties in Ohio voted for Bush in 2004. That's why the working class Kansan's in What's the Matter with Kansas turn to cultural conservatism. People want meaning in their lives. They want purpose. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves - and to be able to personally play some significant role in that larger human endeavor.
That was the power of John Kennedy's call four decades ago to "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country". That's the power of Barack Obama's candidacy today.