I think we just witnessed a brilliant new strategy for winning elections by the Obama campaign. The president sold himself like a Hollywood movie premiere instead of as a leader. This emotional appeal worked in part because so many low information voters were willing to ignore Obama’s abject failures for a ‘feel good’ result. I am not suggesting low information voters are stupid or that this is the best campaign strategy going forward. In fact, Obama’s “friend” strategy will probably make his second term quite difficult. After all, he doesn’t have anything remotely like a mandate to achieve his goals.
It explains so much. Obama’s razor thin second term win this week was outside of conventional wisdom, except Nate Silver, of course. Michael Barone, Karl Rove, and others predicted a Romney win and a pretty big one at that. Of course, Bickers and Berry’s economic model also predicted a win for R-Money yet this didn’t happen even with a depressed Democratic Party electorate and a ginned up Republican/conservative base. It still seems inconceivable but it happened and so we must figure out why. I think Obama’s reliance on low information voters worked and here’s how he did it.
Within the exit polls is a very interesting number for Obama. “Voters had a more favorable view of President Barack Obama than Republican challenger Republican challenger Mitt Romney, and the president had a 10-point lead over Romney on the question of which candidate is more in touch with people like them. Of those holding that view, 91 percent voted for Obama.”
Obama got a 53% “more in touch” number and appears to have won 51% of the vote.
What does “more in touch” even mean? To find out, let’s explore one element of the Obama campaign that hasn’t been discussed; his social media effort.
Rebecca Rosen reports this about a comparison between Romney and Obama’s Facebook pages.
“This is the conclusion of some pretty wonderful data scraping and analysis by Deen Freelon, a professor at American University. Freelon captured all of the likes, comments, and shares on Obama and Romney's Facebook pages between April 25 (the day the RNC officially endorsed Romney) and November 2. He then looked in the data for the posts that received the most likes/shares/comments, searching for the types of content that most resonated with supporters. He found that Obama supporters tended to go wild for (as measured by "likes") anything sentimental about the president's family, while Romney fans were more focused on the campaign itself -- "liking" posts that trumpeted its strength.”
Consider this, Obama didn’t answer political reporter questions or go on heavy duty topical shows in this campaign with the exception of Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes. He went on morning shows, The View, Letterman, and this hard-hitting interview with Michael Yo:
“Instead of talking to the press, Obama conducted an Oct. 13 radio interview with the DJ of a Miami pop music station. The first question was about an argument between two pop stars.
“There’s an elephant in the room. … a lot of people are upset,” began DJ Michael Yo. ”But can you repair the relationship between Mariah Carey and Nicky Minaj on American Idol?”
It would seem this campaign was a frivolous enterprise, discussing pop culture issues with entertainment reporters. But this was an important part of his campaign. Regardless of what was happening in the world, Obama was flitting around and gathering paparazzi photos and headlines that conveniently ended up on entertainment news sites. Let’s continue with the analysis of his Facebook page.
"The first thing that jumped out at me here was how none of the top five most-liked posts had anything to do with politics -- they were scenes from the Obamas' family life, the kinds of moments that could be found in any American family photo album," Freelon writes. "The wholesome sentiments these shots convey couldn't be farther from the knock-down drag-out negativity flooding the airwaves and the Internet throughout the timeframe, which may explain why they were so popular among Obama fans."
Obama’s soft sell and celebrity were a key element of his appeal. Low information voters only cared about what Obama seemed like. Keep in mind, he won on the question of who thought he was more in touch with their lives. This seems silly and quite frivolous to those who care about the serious issues facing this country, but it doesn’t necessarily appear that way to people voting on emotional ties. For example, here is a report on Obama partying with Jay-Z and Beyonce.
“Mr. Obama went on to explain that Beyoncé “couldn’t be a better role model for our daughters because she carries herself with such class and poise.” He then discussed the similarities between himself and Jay-Z.
“Jay-Z now knows what my life is like. We both have daughters, and our wives are more popular than we are. So we’ve got a little bond there. It’s hard, but it’s O.K.,” said the President.”
Obama was carefully using his connection with popular culture to demonstrate how he was more connected to “real people” than Romney and Republicans. He used his family as props to make a basic visceral appeal to voters who are more concerned with someone who cares about them. That is the foundation of social media today. We “friend” and “follow” others we like, admire, and otherwise believe have a connection to us. Meanwhile, the Romney and Republican campaigns were running a movement based on ideas and issues. The reporter who wrote the Jay-Z/Beyonce piece compared it like this.
“In addition to his event at the 40/40 Club tonight, Mr. Obama also appeared at a fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria hotel and on The Late Show With Dave Letterman during his visit to New York City. The Republican National Committee responded by distributing a list to reporters of the “Top 10 Things Obama Should Be Doing Instead of Hobnobbing With Jay-Z, Beyonce and Letterman,” which included, “Get An Intelligence Briefing,” “Tell Americans How He’s Going To Get Nearly 47 Million Americans Off Food Stamps” and “Meet With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
I recall being insulted our president was busily hobnobbing with stars and the “Pimp with a Limp” while Benghazi burned and our economy continued to struggle, but those issues never graced the pages of Facebook. People could easily ignore the important ideas of this campaign while they admired and identified with Obama as their “friend.”
In the end, Obama’s strategy was successful but it came at a cost. “Everyone’s going to have to come to the table in the spirit of getting things done, but on this issue of particularly the fiscal cliff — presidents always say, ‘I have a mandate'; that's a foolish word and generally untrue,” Axelrod told MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" on Thursday.”
“Mandate” isn’t a foolish word and it has had significant impact in the past. Ronald Reagan’s landslide win in 1980 gave him the moral authority to get the Democratic House of Representative to pass his tax cuts. Without his enormous win, he couldn’t have done that. Republicans landslide win in 1994 gave them a mandate to force President Clinton into welfare reform and balanced budgets. LBJ certainly got an enormous push from his defeat of Goldwater to pass the “War on Poverty.” Axelrod knows mandates matter. He simply knows Obama doesn’t have one. Obama won by persuading people to “like” him for four more years. He didn’t win because his policies have worked or his plans have promise.
In fact, the exit polls reported voters are on the flip side from Obama on the role of government in society. While 51% thinks government does too much, only 43% think it doesn’t do enough and 52% think the US is on the wrong track while 46% think it’s on the right track. That is exactly opposite Obama’s governing philosophy.
We have to keep this in mind as this administration tries to bully us into these destructive ideas. Obama’s last moments on the campaign trail with a half empty stadium and ever smaller crowds must have worried him. There was no way to know his “friends” would show up. Just enough did that Obama’s numbers squeezed by in winning margins in the needed areas. While his electoral votes don’t seem to have diminished much, his popular vote isn’t impressive or persuasive. Obama got voters to “like” him, but not necessarily to agree with him. Before the conservative movement loses its head, let’s keep that in mind.