Sep 10, 2008

The affinity gap

Are presidential campaigns in the United States more about affinity than about facts? Republican strategist John Feehery answers the question, somewhat crudely, in today's Washington Post:

John Feehery ... said the campaign is entering a stage in which skirmishes over the facts are less important than the dominant themes that are forming voters' opinions of the candidates.

"The more the New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there's a bigger truth out there and the bigger truths are she's new, she's popular in Alaska and she is an insurgent," Feehery said. "As long as those are out there, these little facts don't really matter.

Indeed. The bigger truth is that once voters begin to identify with a candidate they begin to perceive as slights even legitimate challenges to their candidate's statements. Then they start to feel those slights personally. Affinity is irrational and anti-intellectual. Logic and facts are no antidote.

If the boss fires a stranger, you assume the stranger probably did something wrong. If the boss fires your sister, you assume the boss is a biased prick.

Sarah Palin provided the McCain ticket with instant affinity. When the media says she "fires up the base," what it really mean is she stands as a tribal symbol. Objectivity is out the window. An attack on her is an attack on the family.

Affinity enables the McCain campaign to chastise Obama for chastising the media a few days after the McCain campaign chastised the media for asking legitimate questions about Palin. This is cognitive dissonance to an objective observer, but there is little danger McCain-Palin will lose support for embracing a contradiction. McCain supporters plainly see that the press that questions Palin is biased and the press that questions Obama is fair.

Obama had mojo, but he isn't running an affinity campaign anymore. He chose at his convention to run on the issues. On unity. But, no matter how those issues resonate, they do not build a familial bond with voters. Being black hasn't helped him either.

Steve Schmidt saw all of this. He knows the media - increasingly opinionated and desperate to be popular - prefers an affinity campaign to an issues campaign. It's more entertaining and easier to handle. That's why Palin is on the ticket. That's why McCain in his convention speech emphasized his cell in Hanoi over his campaign platform.

A fractured media landscape also ensures that readers/viewers can readily find the "facts" they need to prove the truth they already believe. Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic considered this in a recent column:
[P]erhaps the media -- hereby defined as a single entity consisting of the collective mindset of reporters, editors, producers, writers and pundits working for broadcast nets, cable news nets, TV News magazines, radio news nets, entertainment news mags, online nonpartisan news media, online partisan news media, print magazines, national newspapers like USA Today, online newspapers like Politico, Matt Drudge, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, local TV news, local talk radio, national talk radio, the Netroots, Belo, Hearts-Argyle, Clear Channel, the Rightroots, the nutroots, hyperlocal citizen journalists and corporate news executives -- has failed to create a coherent narrative about the truth that -- I hasten to add -- neatly fits with an ideological worldview.
The McCain campaign has used affinity and the media to define Palin and push the Obama campaign into a position where it's responding to a storyline rather than driving one. In the next couple of weeks, Obama will have to decide whether the affinity younger voters feel for him plus Democratic registration plus his get-out-the-vote operation are enough to hold the swing states in the final stretch run to Election Day. If not, he is going to have to fundamentally shift his strategy. (Hint: Play to your strengths. Maybe giving speeches isn't so bad after all.)

No comments: