Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Voting for President is an Emotional Act, Not an Intellectual One

Mark Shields, the political pundit who has appeared on CNN and the News Hour, often says that a vote for president is the most emotional vote that Americans make. It is emotional because the president is the only office-holder elected by the whole country. This means that a lot of Americans' hopes, dreams, and aspirations are bound up in their vote for president.

This essential point often seems to be missing from losing Democratic candidates' campaigns. Think of the Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry campaigns, did they strike you as intellectual exercises or emotional exercises? Indeed, one could make the argument that of those three, the Gore campaign was the most emotional, especially after the conventions and the debates when he adopted a more aggressively populist tone. While all three of those campaigns lost, only the Gore campaign managed to win the popular vote.

Contrast all three of those with the two Clinton campaigns. Clinton was able to emotionally connect his ideas and his agenda to voters' concerns. As a result, he became the first Democrat since FDR to be elected to a second term in office.

The fact that a vote for president is an emotional vote is also very well understood by Republicans. The favorite tactic of Republicans is to make the Democratic nominee appear to be slightly "alien" to a majority of voters, especially white middle class voters. The underlying message in most Republican campaigns is that the Democratic nominee is "not one of us." He or she doesn't share our values, our backgrounds, and therefore can't really understand our hopes, desires, and dreams.

Which brings us to the current campaign for the Democratic nomination. If we had to put in one sentence why Obama is now leading Clinton in public opinion polls, it would be that he instinctively understands that voting for president is an emotional act and she does not. This is not to say that she may not intellectually understand that, but that she can't internalize it the way that Obama can.

This is why his emotional appeal to voters cannot be discounted in both the nomination battle and in November. Obama, much like Bill Clinton in 1992, is giving voters emotional reasons, most of them positive, to vote for him. Clinton is giving voters intellectual reasons to vote for her.

If you believe, as we do, that the Republicans will run a campaign using negative, exclusionary emotional appeals in 2008, then having a Democratic nominee who can counter with emotional, positive appeals makes a lot of sense. We think that a lot of Democratic voters feel this way and it is one reason why Obama is now leading the polls against both Clinton and McCain.

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