I watched The Tavis Smiley Show last night which had Frank Luntz and a focus group that had watched the Democratic debate at Howard University on Thursday. Their observations were interesting, as far as gauging potential Democratic primary voters (especially African-Americans), but revealed the limitations of amateur political analysis*. Luntz revealed up front that most group members felt that Hillary Clinton won the debate–and that most had gone in as solid Obama supporters. After the debate, Hillary held a slight lead over Obama.
I have no problem with people switching their allegiances or being moved by one candidate or the other. That’s the way it goes in a democracy, and the voters determine what’s important to the voters (despite my Hamiltonian inclination to write them off). The problem arises when you ask voters to explain why they feel the way they do. It often comes out as a mix of political pundit cliches (e.g. “He spoke to the issues”) or say things that are contradictory or unsupportable (one focus group member said that the candidates hadn’t addressed any important domestic issues, but much of the debate was nothing but domestic issues). They’re simultaneously trying to tell you what they believe while acting as novice political strategist…who happens to feel (surprise!) the best strategy is identical to their own political beliefs. Voters just aren’t that good at analyzing themselves.
Thus we get the familiar complaint that Obama isn’t giving the voters enough “substance” (i.e. specific policy initiatives). As many others have noted, policy wonkishness is good for the media commentators and the policy wonks, not so much for the people at the rallies. It’s still early in the election, so the voters paying the most attention to these debates and the ups and downs of the campaigns are political junkies–the sort of people who give a damn about policy initiatives. Not exactly a representative sample.
Media reports (and the stories that less than engaged voters use to frame the race) are important, but what this most recent debate reveals is that there’s still a lot of room for candidates to set or exceed expectations. For years (and quite recently) the focus has been on Hillary’s relatively high negatives in polls and “polarizing” effect on voters. The conventional wisdom–at least for the Democratic base–has been that Hillary is a cold, triangulating hawk–her husband without the charisma or political intuition. When they actually saw her in person, however, they realized that she isn’t nearly as bad as they’ve been lead to believe.
Going into the debate, the assumption was that the venue was tailor made for Obama; it was a forum populated largely with African-Americans, discussing issues important to many in the African-American community. Had he won, it wouldn’t have been much of a story. Obama did best where everyone expected him to do well. Of course, allowing Hillary to break expectations is to give her a political opportunity. But the idea that more policy initiatives are what Obama needs isn’t necessarily right–yet. When Bill Bradley says Obama should propose more specific programs, he’s unwittingly inviting comparisons between Obama and past early frontrunners and Democratic elite favorites like himself and Paul Tsongas. The crucial difference is that Obama isn’t locking himself into the role of technocratic elitist–possessed of good policy notions but unable to communicate the sort of political vision that captures voters and can transcend policy differences.
At some point, however, Obama will have to break the conventional wisdom and start peppering his speeches with talk of tax credits and legislation. He’s already beginning to do that (see his Foreign Affairs essay), and I have a feeling that his team of professional strategists already have this gamed out.
*Yes I’m aware that “amateur political analysis” is this blog’s stock and trade. What are you implying?