Obamamania and the bursting bubble
by SevenStrings, Tue Mar 25, 2008 at 09:33:23 PM EDT
In my previous diary, I examined two questions:
(1) Did Rev. Wright's YouTube sermons damage Sen. Obama, and did his "A more perfect union" speech stop/reverse that damage ?
(2) What is the explanation for the Hillary hatred ?
I tried to show that the damage from Rev. Wright's YouTube sermon is ongoing, and that Hillary hatred (or at least portions of it) is somewhat illogical.
In this diary, I will examine two other question: :
(1) What is the explanation behind Sen. Obama's meteoric rise in the polls ?
(2) What is the explanation for the ongoing damage to Sen. Obama inspite of the well received speech he delivered. ?
First, a preamble: I am not supporting Sen. Obama in this race. Initially, I was supporting Sen. Biden; when it became apparent that he was not going to win, I shifted my support to Sen. Clinton. However, I do think that Sen. Obama has run a BRILLIANT campaign. He has pushed all the right buttons, and said the right things to get to where he is. So, take my analysis with that disclosure warning.
Next, some other working assumptions:
(1) People are foolish (and will make foolish decisions). Yes, I know that sounds controversial (did I hear anyone say "elisist"). Allow me to explain: suppose you are faced with a decision wherein you have incomplete information. You have to choose between two options, and you have mixed feelings about both. Suppose you are "leaning" towards Option A (or Candidate A), but you are 60:40. If, at this point, you are told that your neighbor (or friend, or coworker, or someone you know from a blog, or an editorial writer..anyone else, really) has also chosen Option A, then you are that much more likely to discount your own 40% negative feelings about Option A. If OTOH, your friend chooses Option B, you are somewhat likely to discount your own 60% positive feelings about Option A, and go with Option B. If you extend this process to a whole lot of people who get influenced by other people's decisions, then pretty soon you have a lot of people going with Option A (or Option B, depending on which way the dam breaks), inspite of the mixed feelings they all have for Option A (or Option B). This is the classic mode of bubble formation in every market (housing, stocks, options, and even politics). This is normally a random process ~ sometime Option A gets runup to bubble like levels, and sometime Option B gets runup to bubble like levels. And so what do you do if you are a "marketing officer" that wants Option A to be runup to bubble like levels. The answer is quite simple, really: you suppress any news of anyone ever choosing Option B from reaching anyone who is undecided between Option A and Option B.
(2) People are more foolish (and will make more foolish decisions) when they are emotional This is an obvious one. The previous point belabors the fact that people do not always make "rational" decisions. Here, I am merely pointing out that the more emotional we are, the less rational we become in decision making. You might have wondered why Republicans push "hot-button" issues like gay-marriage, or right to life, or patriotism etc... this is why ! If you can invoke "negative emotions" (fear, anger, loathing, despair etc.) in someone, you are that much more likely to have him make irrational decisions. The same goes for "positive emotions" (hope, aspirations, victory, etc.). In general, successful Democratic campaigns have pushed positive emotions, and successful Republican campaigns have pushed negative ones. There have been quite a few exceptions, such as Reagan's morning in America, and JFK's missile gap; and there have been instances where the same campaign has invoked both positive and negative emotions (George Bush with Willie Horton, and a thousand points of light).
(3) By combining points (1) and (2), a clever tactician can create a bubble. You do not think this can ever happen, eh ? I can assure you that it happens all the time. Successful companies have marketing department who do nothing but combine points (1) and (2). Think Apple, Steve Jobs, the IPod and the IPhone... think of the "emotional" aspects of owning the IPhone (which I do not), and how much hoopla is generated around each product launched by Apple. How many of you had to get an IPhone because your friend had one ? You drive an emotional response in people by pushing the appropriate emotional buttons ~ this is point (2). And you drive the decision making process from point (1) (the Option A vs Option B choice) to one that favors your company (or candidate) by controlling the dialogue between Person A and Person B ~ by controlling the blogs, and the mainstream press..
Now, let us examine Sen. Obama's campaign. You definitely had all the emotional triggers being pushed. In late 2007, he was the candidate of hope, and of the future vs the past, and of transcending all kinds of divisions that we yearned to transcend. More recently, he has also become a symbol of "black pride", while attempting to remain the candidate of transcending divisions. (Ever wondered why "the MLK/LBJ flap was an insult to all black people"?) And they also had substantial control over the Person A to Person B dialogue ~ most of the "progressive blogs" are supporting Sen. Obama. Like I said, it was (and is) a brilliant campaign. Sen. Clinton, by comparison has run a wonkish (read: dull, inispiring, and devoid of any emotion) campaign, and she quickly ceded the progressive blogs to Sen. Obama: Sen. Clinton's campaign has been the opposite of brilliant, although to her credit, she has rectified most of those mistakes recently.
I knew that Sen. Obama was forming a bubble from my analysis of the Favorable-Unfavorable numbers (which I have diaried on before) and from anecdotal evidence gleaned from this blog, and specially from DailyKos. It seemed that, during the months of Nov 2007 through Feb 2008, there were quite a few diary entries that stated something like "I just called my Aunt in Kansas, and convinced her to support Obama", or something to that effect. This bubble was formed with the "transcending divisions" emotion ~ it appealed to people across all kinds of divisions (here, I am using the moniker "transcending divisions" to also include other positive emotions being pushed by the campaign). You could tell because those were the emotions being pushed by the campaign, and those were the words being used by the bloggers.
Sometimes, a bubble will burst for reasons that do not become apparent until well after the fact. Othertimes, a bubble bursting event is apparent as soon as it happens. It appears (see the chart below) that bursting of the "transcending race" bubble approximately corresponds to the Michelle Obama gaffe ("for the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country"). Was this a coincidence ? I do not know. In any case, the significance of a bubble bursting event is less than most people assume: all that is accomplished by a bubble bursting event is that people are reminded of the original doubts they had about this particular decision. If those doubts had been assuaged by other means, then the bubble bursting event (Michelle Obama's gaffe, in this case; perhaps) would have been insignificant. It is not that Sen. Obama suddenly becomes unpatriotic just because his wife is proud of her country for the first time, it is just that those comments remind people of their original doubts about Sen. Obama.
But Sen. Obama's campaign is not stupid by any means ~ they are a brilliant operation. They know that bubbles will burst, and so they had another one in anticipation. I call this the "racial pride" bubble. As Bill Clinton put it, once Sen. Obama got enough white support, his black support went through the roof. This was done with subtle and not so subtle appeals to black racial pride. I suspect this is one bubble that will not burst anytime soon (i.e., unless he throws Rev. Wright "under the bus", I suppose). And with sufficient black support, you can even prolong the original bubble (or reverse the bursting of the original bubble). This can be accomplished by appealing to what people have already invested in the campaign, and by showing some promise of those concerns being assuaged. Someone who has been donating to the campaign every paycheck is less likely to abandon the candidate; just like someone who has a lot of equity in a house is less likely to "foreclose. This, I think, is what happened from March 4 (i.e., the OH/TX primary; followed by the MS and WY caucus) until March 13 (the Rev. Wright sermons).
As is clear from the chart, the Rev. Wright sermon has caused (and is causing) significant damage to Sen. Obama. For instance, today, his favorable-unfavorable numbers are identical to Sen. Clintons ~ this is the first time this has happened since Nov 2007. He has been unable to stop this damage with his well-received speech. Once again, as with other bubble bursting events, the damage caused by the YouTube sermons is not that people are suddenly questioning Sen. Obama's patriotism (well, outside of the chattering classes, that is), but that the bubble bursting event brings forth original doubts about Sen. Obama that had been put aside during the bubble formation. Is he an angry black man ? Is he going to be the first President who happens to be black, or the first black President ? etc. Given that, it is easy to understand why his well received speech did not work: His numbers are falling not because we need a "conversation on race", but because people have genuine doubts about him which he has not tried to address.
So where does that leave us ? I do not know the answer to this. But I can bet you my detached garage (I never bet my house on anything!) that Sen. Obama's campaign is hard at work, trying to figure out how to reverse the current bubble burst, and how to create new bubbles. They have been brilliant so far, so I would not put it past them. They are, no doubt, analyzing why the speech did not work; and trying to figure out the best response.