The Sunday review: the US presidential election

by Anthony Painter

Politics is part art, part science. The best campaigns combine artistry and method. US election 2012 was the one in which science won and art was overwhelmed. And what a disappointing election it turned out to be – albeit one with a good outcome.

In his victory speech, president Obama declared:

“You’ll hear the deep patriotism in the voice of a military spouse who’s working the phones late at night to make sure that no one who fights for this country ever has to fight for a job, or a roof over their head when they come home.

That’s why we do this. That’s what politics can be. That’s why elections matter. It’s not small; it’s big. It’s important.”

What a pity that this voice was muffled throughout the campaign. The Washington Post blogger, Ezra Klein, explains why:

“The Obama campaign found that their key voters were turned off by soaring rhetoric and big plans. They’d lowered their expectations, and they responded better when Obama appeared to have lowered his expectations, too. And so he did. The candidate of hope and change became the candidate of modest plans and achievable goals.”

This campaign was driven by focus groups and polls – science. Only, this wasn’t a campaign of modest plans and achievable goals. It was a campaign of attack and vagueness. What on earth has changed? In The Audacity to Win, campaign leader David Plouffe’s take on the 2008 Obama campaign recounts:

“Focus groups … and feedback from the field were two of our most important assets…We did not use them to make policy decisions. We used them to gauge how the arguments in the campaign were being received and digested. It was about communications, no content.”

This time round, focus groups effectively led to the campaign failing to communicate the president’s achievements in office, their vision, their plans and instead turn their fire on their opponent. In the closing stages of the campaign, 99% of Romney’s ads were negative and 85% of Obama’s were also. I wonder if the degree to which people appreciate such a negative campaign was ever polled? Unlikely, I’d say – the science is sometimes selective. So for the all the talk of the restorationist and salvationist power of politics in the victory speech, it sounded a bit thin after the reality of the campaign. It is little wonder that despite the proximity of the outcome, turnout was down a few per cent on 2008.

Had Obama’s team pursued a science-driven approach as opposed to a science-refined approach in 2008 then Obama would have and sounded a lot more like Hillary Clinton in that campaign. Hillary was more experienced and notwithstanding the fact that she had supported the Iraq war where he hadn’t, the outcome is quite predictable. An honourable second would have been Obama’s fate and a possible shot at 2016. So in the intervening years his campaign and the president himself have unlearnt the artistry that led him to travel across the nation’s highways until he arrived at Pennsylvania Avenue and into the White House itself.

However, it wasn’t art over science. It was art and science. The science was there in order to allow the art to express itself and mobilise a human network behind change. This time around it was science over art.

Both Tesco’s and John Lewis are very successful retailers. Tesco is science. They have a granular understanding of their customers. They locate their stores brilliantly. They appeal to our rationality. People don’t love Tesco but they shop there in their droves. John Lewis, on the other hand, combines art and science beautifully. Its advertising projects a vision of magical moments – family, celebration, falling in love, romance.

They pride themselves in great service. Equally, they have a wide range of stock and are never knowingly undersold. Art and science are in harmony. Obama ’08 was John Lewis and Obama ’12 was Tesco – effective but lacking soul.

There is little doubt that the Obama campaign took the science to a whole new level. Increasingly campaigns are driven by method and quantification. Huge data sets are assembled, sliced, analysed, and then targeted message are fired out. Science writer Ben Goldacre drooled at the deployment of randomised controlled trials. The scientific method in campaigns is analysed in Sasha Eisenberg’s brilliant The Victory Lab: the secret science of winning campaigns.

All of this is entirely sensible – any campaign would want to use every tool at its disposal to both identify and get out its vote. But the art of political persuasion is a more subtle discipline alongside that. It requires the audacity to persuade; an audacity of hope.

Victory isn’t secured along only one route – there is both a high and a low road. And it’s difficult to argue that this time the high road was taken. The problem is not that the low road doesn’t lead to victory but that the type of inspiring and elevated politics of which Obama talks is a little further away when it is travelled. If politics is a series of negative attacks on your rival then what chance is there of civic revival?

Elsewhere, the scientists had a good run of things too. Nate Silver’s success is ubiquitously discussed. Less discussed but equally impressive is the performance of Ruy Teixeira at the Center for American Progress who has now established that the emerging Democratic majority of which he and John B Judis first wrote in 2002 is real. More than anyone Teixeira has dissected and analysed America’s demographic change with unerring accuracy. He predicted an electorate that was only 72% white this time and he was bang on.

To question the ascendency of the science of politics is not to drift into the superstitious nonsense of the Republican delusions about their chances before the election. Wall Street Journal columnist, Peggy Noonan decided to count a random selection of yard signs rather than look at the more traditional predictive device of opinion polls:

“There is no denying the Republicans have the passion now, the enthusiasm. The Democrats do not. Independents are breaking for Romney. And there’s the thing about the yard signs. In Florida a few weeks ago I saw Romney signs, not Obama ones. From Ohio I hear the same. From tony Northwest Washington, D.C., I hear the same.”

Amusingly, The Victory Lab cites yard signs as a campaign tool favoured by activists and volunteers that has very marginal impact for the time and money spent on them. The Republicans, even Karl Rove who should have known better, decided to become political creationists in the latter stages of the campaign. What else could they do? With the exception of one debate, their whole campaign – one which they should have won – was a disaster.

Obama, who has been a very good president, now has the chance to become a great one. We can all be relieved about that. But a sense of disappointment that an artistic politics of civic renewal and hope was discarded in this campaign is inevitable. He became a normal candidate backed up by a normal campaign – albeit deploying phenomenal science – in 2012. Maybe it will be up to Hillary ’16 to reignite a politics of hope and change. What a delicious irony that would be.

Anthony Painter is an author and critic

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3 Responses to “The Sunday review: the US presidential election”

  1. swatantra says:

    Sometimes politicians have to dumb down their approach to the level of the electorate, just to get elected. The Republicans, and Tories and Boris, do it all the time. Obama previously came across as very cerebral and the messages were simply not getting across to a confused electorate worried about the dollar in their pocket.

  2. uglyfatbloke says:

    Hmmm….history suggests that if Obama had most he would never have had a shot at contesting in 2016. Once presidents (and even presidential candidates) fail to get elected they are generally pretty much finished.
    Now that he is back in the White House and cannot run again, will Obama be more radical? Maybe, but he does have a hostile house to deal with and he does have a number of issues – foreign and domestic- to address…not least how to deal with the expressed will of the voters in Colorado and Washington.

  3. uglyfatbloke says:

    Duh…that should have been ‘lost’, not ‘most’.

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