Concluding thoughts on spin the U.S. presidential election

When people think about spin and politicians, they usually assume that spin has to do with either presenting widely agreed facts in a way that puts a particular politician in the best light, or altering the facts by exaggerating or misremembering. Media people are always slightly puzzled when they reveal this kind of spin and find that it has little or no resonance with voters. Hillary Clinton’s memory of landing under sniper fire was a one-day wonder, not a deal-breaker. And there have been many other examples of this kind of spin on both sides during the U.S. presidential campaign, and they have had little impact.

This is because voters don’t choose politicians because of how clever their ideas are , whether they agree with these ideas, or even whether they are noticeably competent (history shows). They don’t listen to the candidates’ speeches and parse them for content. They vote for candidates with whom they feel some kind of resonance. And so they look for features of the candidates as people with which they can identify.

A simple way to say this is that voters look for character rather than policy. But this is still a bit misleading — they don’t don’t think about character in moral terms, but in relationship terms. Not “Is this candidate a good person” but “is this candidate a bit like me”. Moral issues do come into play, but only for those voters to whom moral issues are part of their own self image.

The kind of spin I’ve been following through the U.S. election campaign addresses this issue of presentation, that is to what extent do candidates present themselves, as people, in ways that are not congruent with who they really are, as people. In other words, to what extent do they present a persona or facade that is designed to appeal to a wider range of voters than the unadorned person would?

For both John McCain and Hillary Clinton, the short version is that they have, in general, presented something close to the real person. (This may, of course, be because they developed a political persona that they’ve been using so long that it has become the real them.) There have been ups and downs, and it’s been possible to see what might be going through the mind of the candidate and/or the campaign at certain critical moments, but overall they have presented a consistent persona that seems close to their real personality.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, has consistently presented a persona that does not seem to be very close to the real Obama, about whom we can only guess. This is starting to be more widely appreciated. I’ve heard several commentators say how they find him inscrutable because they simply can’t see the real person behind the presentation.

Spin is only one factor in how voters decide who to vote for, so I can’t make a prediction about who will win tomorrow. What I think is predictable is that, if Obama wins, his approval ratings will drop quite quickly when he becomes president — he simply cannot be all of the things that people are projecting on to him, many of them mutually contradictory. And, as president, his actions will speak louder and more clearly than his campaign speeches about who he really is.


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