The choices look like they’re boiling down to three right now, Romney represents wealthy business interests, Santorum speaks for conservative Christians, and Obama, the known entity that not many are super stoked about. It looks like another race heading into the “not voting for _______” (fill in the blank with objectionable politician) instead of being proud to vote for our preferred candidate. This is a terrible position for a politician to be in, it means that their best traction comes only as a knee jerk response to an opponent. There is no inspiration, only revulsion. As was demonstrated in George Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, you cannot successfully run against an entity by only calling attention to that entity. Or, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Just try it now, do not think of an elephant. I’ll bet you failed. The fact is that when we were itty-bitty kiddies, we learned “elephant” at some point, probably through a cheerful picture or visit to the zoo. When you learn the word elephant in this country (where elephants do not roam around), we strongly tie this noun to an image of an elephant. We memorize the greyness, the long nose, the big ears, all of the distinctive features at the same time that we hear the word and later learn to read the word.As parents we repeat these simple lessons multiple times to insure our children can identify their animals, words, and sounds. All of our senses coordinate our visual, audio, and cognitive information and file them in the same folder. Later, every time we hear the word “elephant”, it does not matter what words surround it, we will briefly recall our own generic image of “elephant” that we have on file. Just adding the word “don’t”, “no”, “bad”, “crazed” or any other word will not prevent us from first recognizing and acknowledging the animal as we know it.
Remember Kerry’s presidential campaign? Of course you do. During that campaign, I did not hear of many people that were very excited about Kerry, but I heard lots and lots of people excited about “ABB” – “Anybody But Bush”. The field of Democratic choices seemed to not even matter because whoever won that contest needed to beat Bush. Bush was “the enemy”. What this amounted to is folks feeling much more passionate about Bush – albeit negative passion – than they did about anyone representing their own self interests. This didn’t work out so well for Kerry.
So, you may ask, why does negative campaigning work? This is something worth a lot more study, but I am going to throw an idea out there. Negative campaigning works for the short term and it also works when it overwhelms all of the media outlets. When a negative campaign message finds an audience before that audience has ever even heard of a candidate, they just might be able to influence how that person “creates their file” on the subject candidate. If a campaign can pull this off in just a few days before voting time, the negative information might be the only information in the citizens “file”, and so they are heavily influenced by the negative ad. If a campaign can overwhelm a media market, negative campaigning might work because, again, the citizen has little other information to put in their file. Negative campaigning against Bush did not work because the progressives were all talking amongst themselves about “ABB”, there was lackluster in the Kerry ranks, and the country already had formed opinions about Bush. Sometimes knowing what you have, even if it’s not that great, is better than taking a chance with the unknown.
The political tables are turned this time and Obama is the incumbent. Not a whole lot of people are really thrilled with his presidency, as mentioned, you leave folks unenthusiastic when you yank their progressive chain and conservative chains alternately. What we have in the Republican field are representatives of two of the Republican factions – the religious conservatives and “free market” advocates – and their similarities are seeming less and less similar. It is tough to reconcile the modern world of business where anything goes to make a buck (even if it means doing a hatchet job on the American dream of owning a home and securing resources for your family) and a restrictive atmosphere where rules and roles are subjectively dictated from on high. The reality is that those two factions don’t have a whole lot of ideological overlap. Most of the overlap occurs because the business folks think that they are smarter than the religious folks and that they can lead them around by the nose through reactionary issues (like gay issues or hyped contraception concerns).
Obama is in the best position at present because we have seen how he governs and our status quo is still livable for most of us. If we decide to hand power over to Romney or Santorum, they both are campaigning on the sweeping changes they would make to our system, of course in their areas of interest. So with Romney, we can expect more of a corporate acquiescence, with Santorum we can expect our political landscape to shift to accommodate certain religious preferences. The 99% have demonstrated that there is a political will opposing the Citizens United ruling, we don’t think corporations are people, which works against Romney. Polls have shown that Americans are quite happy being provided birth control from their insurers. Even 98% of Catholic women admit to having used birth control, so Santorum’s tactics of advocating the government to especially recognize the Catholic church or any other church that opposes birth control, are not in line with popular opinion either.
The icing on the cake for Obama is that the meme of “anybody but Obama” is going ’round. It is almost like a campaign for him. The more Obama’s name replaces another Republican candidates name, the better off he is. Things can change and it is yet early in the season, but Obama is sitting pretty right now. The Republican’s know it from the requests to “tone down the crazy” rhetoric from the candidates and their supporters. The instant gratification of having a very excitable base, means at some point they might get excited about an issue that does not serve the political party machine. Another question is whether or not the religious conservatives can get behind Romney or if “free marketers” can get behind Santorum. Of course they will officially, but will the people follow. Today I doubt it, but political machines have done stranger things.