Really, It’s All About Obama III: Why Are They Tied?

The press and political world are wondering why John McCain has apparently evened up with Barack Obama, despite a week of embarrassing flubs.  How could Obama have lost ground?

But if you start from the assumption that this election is all about Obama, it’s really not surprising at all.  He said it himself:

“If you are satisfied with the way things are going now, then you should vote for John McCain,” Obama says before rattling off a list of current concerns, including rising gas prices, home foreclosures and job losses as the country fights two wars. Then, Obama promises “fundamental change.”

With the exception of Ted Kennedy, John McCain is the best-known politician in America who hasn’t been president or vice-president.  Whether he is “McSame” is a matter for debate, but one thing’s for sure.  He is who he is and you know who he is.  If he has a bad week, if he misspeaks, if he changes his mind on offshore oil drilling or tax cuts, it doesn’t alter our view of him.

The picture of Obama isn’t so clear yet.  The things he says resonate more because they add proportionally more to the sum of knowledge about him.  When Obama alters his positions, there is more of an impact on his overall reputation, because his initial set of positions represented most of what we knew about him.  He is in a real bind on Iraq, because he owes his nomination to his ability to chide Hillary Clinton for her pro-war vote in 2002.

The conventional wisdom is that he can “run to the center” without penalty, but I challenge that opinion.  You could not imagine an article like this one appearing with regard to any of the Democratic candidates since 1976, all of whom tried to position themselves as centrists after securing the nomination.  Some repositionings didn’t seem legitimate, perhaps.  But none have been portrayed as betrayal:

In the breathless weeks before the Oregon presidential primary in May, Martha Shade did what thousands of other people here did: she registered as a Democrat so she could vote for Senator Barack Obama.

Now, however, after critics have accused Mr. Obama of shifting positions on issues like the war in Iraq, the Bush administration’s program of wiretapping without warrants, gun control and the death penalty — all in what some view as a shameless play to a general election audience — Ms. Shade said she planned to switch back to the Green Party.

“I’m disgusted with him,” said Ms. Shade, an artist. “I can’t even listen to him anymore. He had such an opportunity, but all this ‘audacity of hope’ stuff, it’s blah, blah, blah. For all the independents he’s going to gain, he’s going to lose a lot of progressives.”

Later in the article, Shade allows as how she is far out of the mainstream, and the theme of the article is that Obama doesn’t really need to worry about the far left.  But it’s another clue to Obama’s situation that some in the far left thought Obama was one of them.  It’s the amplitude of surprise that impresses me.  Compare that with McCain’s situation.  The far right knows he’s not one of them.  When McCain strikes a centrist pose, they might resent it, but they expect it and have accounted for it already.  They’re surprised when he agrees with them.

It’s all about Obama.  If his statements and positions gel into a coherent whole, a graspable persona, and a philosophy, he probably wins.  But if voters are still trying to square Statement A with Statement B, voters will probably settle for McCain.


New Hampshire Theories


Here are a few theories.

Like the Washington Post‘s Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiest, I don’t buy the so-called “Bradley Effect” in 2008.

A more likely culprit than the role of race in the New Hampshire election was the “likely voter” modeling, with pollsters perhaps over-counting the boost of enthusiasm among Obama supporters following his victory in Iowa. Another possibility is that independents opted at the last minute to participate in the Republican primary, depriving Obama of crucial voters.

A further potential source of error stems from New Hampshire ballot rules. In previous contests, the state rotated candidate names from precinct to precinct, but this year the names were in alphabetical order, with Clinton near the top and Obama lower down. Stanford Professor Jon Krosnick, a survey specialist and expert witness in a lawsuit about ballot order in New Hampshire, has estimated a three percentage point or greater bounce for a big name candidate appearing high on the ballot. Therefore, if pre-election polls randomized candidate names, as most do, they would have underestimated Clinton’s support by at least three points.

Tim Russert reportedly said internal campaign tracking polls were as wrong as the public ones. Obama’s people were telling him he had a 14 point edge; Clinton’s were telling her he was ahead by 11.

Another underestimated factor — a frequently underestimated factor:  Early absentee ballots.  How many Democrats cast their ballots before the Iowa results?  Hillary’s campaign emphasized rounding those up. 

Anyway.  As I said earlier, Obama needs to be tested while the public’s watching.  Recovering from unexpected disappointment is a good next test.

Tired Earth*

begleyrav4.jpgNot too long ago, having a celebrity at your environmental press conference was a sure way to attract the cameras and spread the word. Luckily, most of the celebs who agreed to appear were walk-the-walk types, like Ed Begley, Jr. You wouldn’t invite anyone who wasn’t serious about it. Begley would bicycle all the way from the Valley to Santa Monica to stand up for Heal the Bay or the Coalition for Clean Air. If someone had taken a satellite photo of his home, it would have embarassed neither him nor his cause. And he was never sanctimonious.

Now, the celeb phase of the environmental movement has achieved its absurd apotheosis and badly needs to be shut down. Billed as a massive teach-in on climate change, the Live Earth concerts were, politically, a train wreck. From Rasmussen Reports, a polling site:

The Live Earth concert promoted by former Vice President Al Gore received plenty of media coverage and hype, but most Americans tuned out. Just 22% said they followed news stories about the concert Somewhat or Very Closely. Seventy-five percent (75%) did not follow coverage of the event.

By way of comparison, eight-in-ten voters routinely said they were following news coverage of the recent Senate debate over immigration. Fifty-four percent (54%) said they followed news coverage of the President’s decision to commute Scooter Libby’s sentence.

Skepticism about the participants may have been a factor in creating this low level of interest. Most Americans (52%) believe the performers take part in such events because it is good for their image. Only 24% say the celebrities really believe in the cause while another 24% are not sure. One rock star who apparently shared that view is Matt Bellamy of the band Muse. Earlier in the week, he jokingly referred to Live Earth as “private jets for climate change.”

Only 34% believe that events like Live Earth actually help the cause they are intended to serve. Forty-one percent (41%) disagree. Those figures include 10% who believe the events are Very Helpful and 20% who say they are Not at All Helfpul. Adding to the skepticism, an earlier survey found that just 24% of Americans consider Al Gore an expert on Global Warming.

Given a choice of four major issues before the United States today, 36% named the war in Iraq as most important. Twenty-five percent (25%) named immigration, 20% selected the economy and only 12% thought Global Warming was the top issue.

Whatever needs to happen next to bring about a reversal of man-made global warming, that goal is now farther away, thanks to Al Gore, Madonna, Leo DiCaprio and the global concerteers, who only managed to persuade the public they received some personal benefit from their association with the issue. Neither the celebrities nor the event organizers never answered the question of their basic hypocrisy. In a TMZ/Defamer/Murdoch world, of course we’re all going to find out how much energy the movement’s stars use, how many times they fly in private jets, tour demands completely at odds with their stated positions, huge stock positions in companies that pollute the most, and the vast amounts of energy burned and pollution released by the concerts themselves.

Gore and the celebrities complain about the tabloidization of the news, and are especially bitter if the snark gets in the way of their unselfish efforts to, you know, change the world. But an intriguing NY Times Magazine piece about a neurological disorder called Williams Syndrome and its implications for understanding why the human brain evolved the way it did, contains a profound nugget of insight into why celebrities hurt the causes they seek to help, unless they’re willing to be more like Ed Begley, Jr., and less like the people we saw on those concert stages Saturday.

Bear with me, it will all make sense:

Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist and social-brain theorist, and others have documented correlations between brain size and social-group size in many primate species. The bigger an animal’s typical group size (20 or so for macaques, for instance, 50 or so for chimps), the larger the percentage of brain devoted to neocortex, the thin but critical outer layer that accounts for most of a primate’s cognitive abilities. In most mammals the neocortex accounts for 30 percent to 40 percent of brain volume. In the highly social primates it occupies about 50 percent to 65 percent. In humans, it’s 80 percent.

According to Dunbar, no such strong correlation exists between neocortex size and tasks like hunting, navigating or creating shelter. Understanding one another, it seems, is our greatest cognitive challenge. And the only way humans could handle groups of more than 50, Dunbar suggests, was to learn how to talk.

“The conventional view,” Dunbar notes in his book “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language,” “is that language evolved to enable males to do things like coordinate hunts more effectively. . . . I am suggesting that language evolved to allow us to gossip.”

Dunbar’s assertion about the origin of language is controversial. But you needn’t agree with it to see that talk provides a far more powerful and efficient way to exchange social information than grooming does. In the social-brain theory’s broad definition, gossip means any conversation about social relationships: who did what to whom, who is what to whom, at every level, from family to work or school group to global politics. Defined this way, gossip accounts for about two-thirds of our conversation. All this yakking — murmured asides in the kitchen, gripefests in the office coffee room — yields vital data about changing alliances; shocking machinations; new, wished-for and missed opportunities; falling kings and rising stars; dangerous rivals and potential friends. These conversations tell us too what our gossipmates think about it all, and about us, all of which is crucial to maintaining our own alliances.

For we are all gossiped about, constantly evaluated by two criteria: Whether we can contribute, and whether we can be trusted. This reflects what Ralph Adolphs, a social neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, calls the “complex and dynamic interplay between two opposing factors: on the one hand, groups can provide better security from predators, better mate choice and more reliable food; on the other hand, mates and food are available also to competitors from within the group.” You’re part of a team, but you’re competing with team members. Your teammates hope you’ll contribute skills and intergroup competitive spirit — without, however, offering too much competition within the group, or at least not cheating when you do. So, even if they like you, they constantly assess your trustworthiness. They know you can’t afford not to compete, and they worry you might do it sneakily.

The sentence I emphasized suggests why a global TV event featuring movie stars and pop-music performers might be just about the worst way to convey environmental information — or in fact, any important political message. In the very same global village Live Earth sought to educate, we are consumed with gossip about the stars who pretend to teach us–the truth about how they live as opposed to what they want us to hear and believe.

Stars attract attention, but the audience’s relationship with them is complex. We’re suspicious of their motives, don’t completely buy their idealism, and are on the lookout for hypocrisy — which this group of stars gave us by the carload. The media doesn’t create this; it’s human nature.

That is why the “carbon offset” concept is not working and should be dumped forthwith. All it does is emphasize that rich entertainers can’t bear to sacrifice and will buy their way out of living their lives in anything remotely resembling the fashion the rest of us must do. It destroys any possibility of consensus on dealing with climate change.

Climate change is a scientific issue. It raises complex issues for governments. Individuals can’t do very much about it, but they are avidly interested in considering viable solutions offered by experts. Of course, we might want to know something about those experts to determine if they’re trustworthy, but we wouldn’t be bombarded on a daily basis with stories about their incredibly opulent lives. Instead, the focus would be where it belongs, on the points of debate leading toward a political solution that, one would hope, would make a difference in earth’s environment.

green-city-hall.jpgIronically, in “the entertainment capitol of the world,” there was no Live Earth concert. Just Mayor Villaraigosa, Begley, produce Lawrence Bender and a few supporting-actor types from TV like Daphne Zuniga and Sharon Lawrence, turning on some lights that made City Hall look green. I was glad the mayor mentioned that “Los Angeles recycles more than any other metropolitan city.” Hurray for the Bureau of Sanitation!

*Edited, 7/9/07

Help Wanted: Democratic Candidate to Run for President that People Don’t Hate

It is said that while the right looks for converts, the left looks for heretics.  The consequences of that tendency are demonstrated in this perceptive story from the LA Times:

It is a paradox of the 2008 presidential race. By a wide margin, several polls show, voters want a Democrat to win — yet when offered head-to-head contests of leading announced candidates, many switch allegiance to the Republican.

In a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll conducted this month, this dynamic was most clearly evident with Clinton.

When registered voters were asked which party they would like to win the White House, they preferred a Democrat over a Republican by 8 percentage points. But in a race pitting Clinton against former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Republican was favored by 10 percentage points.

Clinton’s showing against Giuliani was the starkest example of how the general Democratic edge sometimes narrows or vanishes when voters are given specific candidates to choose between.

The poll also showed Clinton trailing when matched against two other Republicans, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The deficits, however, were within the survey’s margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

These results, as well as follow-up interviews of poll respondents, reflect the array of difficulties that Clinton could face as the Democratic nominee.

Plenty of time remains for Clinton to temper resistance to her candidacy. But for now, her failure to match her party’s generic advantage underscores the primacy of personal appeal in a presidential race, regardless of political context.

“Personal appeal” is part of the problem, but I don’t think it really captures it.  Hillary, Edwards and Obama are anything but repellent personalities.  In their own ways, they can be charismatic.  The problem is the toll that being a Democratic leader takes against a candidate’s image for strength and having a core of beliefs.

The one-issue caucuses within the party, especially labor, put so much pressure on candidates to carry their water regardless of how the general public feels, regardless of what common sense and experience shows that one of two things happens.  The Democratic leader becomes unviable because the special interests exert their veto power; or they become a flip-flopping ball of confusion, totally reliant on careful parsing of words and PR spin to make their positions seem coherent and principled.

To some degree, the netroots phenomenon was supposed to overcome this.  Kos is a “just win baby” Democrat who wants the party to unite around broad principles.  But despite the good intentions, the netroots have somehow evolved into yet another single-issue constituency — the “get out of Iraq now” caucus.   Both Clinton and Obama joined a small minority of Democrats in opposing the troop funding bill, because they believed they would otherwise be crucified.  But that position is likely to come back to haunt them later.