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Wednesday, February 20, 2008


But isn't Obama promising the moon?

I'm not entranced by Obama and I wasn't commenting on his proposals which would be very costly. But it's interesting that if realism is the question, and if we're comparing Obama to Hillary, there are some indications that Obama is more realistic in his proposals (Obama and the mortgage crisis). And if delivering on campaign promises is what presidents actually do, we'd have seen a very different Bush presidency.

How much this matters is questionable because many voters don't vote for presidential candidates based upon a close evaluation of proposals or substance. An unconscious calculus is in play and it is less about realism than it is about more visceral and emotional reactions influenced by unrecognized, unscrutinized influences and forces. Going negative, even with false suggestions and accusations can be powerful because negativity can act on these more automatic components of perception, overriding more conscious and factually based assessments.

Obama's "style" seems to be favorably influencing many voters at the more visceral, automatic level. Merely accusing him of being style over substance does not seem to have any effect on voters. The accusation may be satisfying for people who already dislike Obama, but it does not appear to provoke any visceral dislike for him among those who react enthusiastically to him. So as a negative campaign strategy, it seems very ineffective. Hillary's people and conservatives say that Obama is all style and those who like Obama respond, "We really like him." The criticism doesn't get at the underlying level of attraction and I don't think it's going to. Arguing that that his style is attractive but insubstantial does not make him less attractive to people who find his style viscerally appealing.

Try telling someone who is in love that the object of their affections is more style than substance -- it's very unlikely you'll alter their affections. Coyly plant suggestions that their beloved is secretly a pimp, a stripper or a junkie and you might get somewhere. Even if the information is untrue, you might influence their more visceral reactions. I'm not advocating that approach, I'm just saying that's how it is.

And, all of that being said, I'm not discounting the potential value of automatic and unconscious reactions either. It would seem that we evolved a mind that reacts in this way because doing so has some survival utility over a mind that doesn't process the world in this way. While unconscious mental activity can lead us to make very poor decisions it can also steer us right. Human beings can put a Hitler in office and they can put a Lincoln in office with unconscious factors playing a key role in either selection. Sometimes people unconsciously smell a monster and that's exactly what they're looking for and sometimes they sense something better about a candidate's character and that's what they're looking for. These perceptions aren't simply determined by an understanding of a candidate's positions on policy.

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