Barack Obama's drop in the polls last week can be attributed entirely to that special group within the electorate known as The Swing Voters. Swing Voters are people who---unlike you or me---really can be persuaded to vote for either a Democrat or a Republican. Their support for either candidate is always very tenuous. Barack Obama still has plenty of time to win them back. Whichever way they happen to be leaning at this point is irrelevant. It is during the last three weeks of October that Obama needs to win them over.
It is absolutely crucial that we Democrats come to understand the Swing Voters as a group. These people are essentially "headline readers" & "sound byte nibblers." When they see in the headlines that Candidate A accused Candidate B of having a certain personality defect, they tend to believe it. (Unless it is effectively answered.) That is why negative campaigning [=character assassination] is so effective with these people.
While Democrats knock themselves out every election cycle trying to talk to Swing Voters about The Issues, Republican strategists calmly focused their attention on winning The Image Campaign. The Issues might actually be important to many Swing Voters early on in a political campaign, but when both sides start to pick apart each other’s facts & interpretations, the typical Swing Voter quickly becomes confused. As the debate over The Issues drags on, Swing Voters realize that they don’t understand the details well enough to make an informed decision, so they end up relying on their impressions of the candidates.
Republican strategists see this clearly. That is why they continuously try to create doubts in the minds of the Swing Voters about the character of the Democratic candidate. They know that it doesn’t really matter if they can’t find any real flaws in their Democratic opponents. Accusations, insinuations, & innuendo will work just fine. They hope to encourage voters to question the motivation and dependability of The Democrats. They try to create the perception that Democrats are "defective" in a disturbing way. They know that by accusing , they are able to suggest to Swing Voters that they are not [defective like the Democrats].
The most important reason why negative campaigning has worked so well for the Republicans is because their negative attacks on the Democrats create a positive impression of Republican candidates, who appear—in contrast—to be individuals who do not possess the defects that they have accused others of having. They define themselves [positively] by defining their Democratic opponents [negatively].
On a visceral level, what the Republicans actually "stand for" in the minds of Swing Voters on election day is that they are not Democrats—those defective people who seem to have been born to ruin everything. It’s simple, really. By bashing Democrats, Republicans present themselves as the desirable alternative. Negative character attacks also provide the Republicans with one more benefit. They know that the media will give priority coverage to their personal attacks, distracting attention away from any of the "substance" blather that Democrats always like to talk about.
Barack Obama will only win in November if he comes to fully appreciate the role that EMOTION always plays in winning over the Swing Vote. Just ask yourself why it is that the word "Liberal" acquired the negative connotation that it has today? The answer is: the Republicans created that negative connotation by repeatedly expressing scorn and derision whenever they used the word to describe their Democratic opponents. They expressed disgust for anyone who would be foolish enough to be such a person.
Whenever politicians express strongly felt emotions, Swing Voters tend to grant them a greater measure of authenticity. After all, why else would McCain be so upset?) Just think of the times when Republicans laugh at Democrats. They don’t just laugh in a way that shows they have a good sense of humor; they laugh in a way that communicates their contempt for Democrats.
It’s not the words we use, Democrats; it’s the emotions we show when we use particular words. Consider the phony outrage that Lynne & Dick Cheney expressed after the third debate four years ago. At a time when it was crucial for Kerry to continue to build momentum after a solid debate performance, his advisors ended up losing the post-debate spin. They lost it because they didn’t understand how crucial Kerry’s response would be and they didn’t understand how a candidate absolutely must respond to an Angry Outrage Performance if she wants to win.
The big story that Swing Voters saw on TV the next day (those who didn’t watch the debate) was that the Cheneys were really angry that Kerry had called their daughter a lesbian on national TV. What turned this into a home run for the Republicans was Kerry’s unfortunate response; a written statement that sounded a lot like an apology. The overall impression this gave to Swing Voters was that Kerry had apparently done some "dirty politicking." Then, after the Cheneys apparently called him on it, he offered [what sounded like] a weak apology and then tried to change the subject ['let's get back to talking about the Issues'].
Whenever Democratic candidates are the target of a Republican politician’s expressed ANGER, it is crucial that they respond properly if they want to win The Image Campaign. Impressions formed during such confrontations are usually remembered on voting day. John Kerry should have responded emotionally by calling for a televised press conference, and then using the spotlight to laugh at the Cheneys’ phony display of anger. Laughter is the appropriate emotion for a candidate to feel and express when he is guilty of no wrongdoing whatsoever. After laughing at the Cheneys, Kerry would then have been able to focus the media’s attention on the real story, which was/is the clever manipulations and deceptions that the Republicans always use to mislead voters.
Anyone remember what Karen Hughes did to Al Gore in 2000 with the same kind of expressions of emotion (outrage, indignation)?
With this kind of response, Kerry would have told the Swing Voters how they should respond to the reports they’re hearing. That is to say, he needed to model the response that he wanted the Swing Voters to have. The Republicans do this all the time. (Human Nature 101: people depend on you to tell them how to perceive you.) Also, holding a press conference would have given Kerry an opportunity to enjoy the humor of the situation with the members of the media who were present (it encourages the media to have a favorable impression of you as a candidate). In his initial remarks to the press, he would have wanted to smile broadly, shake his head, and express mild but sincere amusement at the Cheneys’ performance. Then, he would have wanted to review with good-humored stabs of ridicule the many times that the Cheneys had, themselves, mentioned their daughter’s lesbianism to the public.
After dismissing the phony outrage in this way, Kerry should then have seized the opportunity to get on a soapbox and explain how this incident illustrates the great threat that The Cunning Republicans represent to the average American. In a more serious tone, he could have taken the time to explain what the Cheneys were doing and why they were doing it (& how it was a classic example of the conniving sort-of-thing that the Republicans always do to win elections). He could have turned the whole episode into a complete disaster for the Republicans by focusing attention—with first hand evidence—on the characteristic duplicity of Republican politicians. Swing Voters would have perceived that John Kerry appeared to be innocent of wrongdoing because he showed no fear in the face of the Cheneys’ anger.
One more thing I think Barack Obama needs to work out in his mind... Whenever he expresses his respect for John McCain, he models the kind of respect that McCain wants the Swing Voters to have of him. Every time McCain models disrespect for Barack Obama, he is telling the Swing Voters how they should perceive Barack Obama. This stuff works. My instinct would be to show only a token, passing comment of respect for McCain's service, but then be quite articulate in showing how little respect every American should have for John McCain's tactics [and his profound lack of intelligence]. I'm sure that if there is a better way to achieve the same goal, Barack will find it...