Politics, Message and the Obama Brand

1 Apr

Barack Obama made Fast Company’s April cover, and why not?  He’s the biggest political story for the Democrats since, well, Howard Dean. 

OK, so he’s shown a great deal more substance as a candidate than Dean ever did.  The more I watch this race, the more I think of the book Microtrends, not so coincidentally written by Clinton advisor Mark Penn.  In a chapter titled, “Impressionable Elites,” Penn writes:

 “Every day in this 2008 election season, I hear two kinds of comments.  First, I hear, “If only X or Y candidate were warmer, and friendlier, I would vote for him/her.”

Second, I hear, “I like candidates wo address the issues.  This is a serious election, and we need a president who truly gets our problems and will help solve them.”

Which one of those attitudes, do you think, comes from America’s Ph.D.’s? The one focused on personality, or the one focused on issues? 

The Ph.D.’s, he notes, “are all about personality.” According to polling he’s done, 48% of voters believe that the candidate’s stand on the issues is the most important, while 32% cite character.  But when you look at people with incomes over $100,000, the focuses switches to character over issues — 45% to 37%.  Penn also argues that if you ask these elites why they focus on character over issues, they’ll say it’s becaue the less educated mass of voters “don’t understand the issues and so they vote on the basis of personal traits.” The truth is quite the opposite — lower income, less educated people are keenly aware of “the issues” like health care, eduation and the war, while higher income people are more removed from these daily concerns.

It’s no surprise then that Penn’s client, Hillary Clinton, has been successful with issues voters, while Barack Obama is captivating higher income elites.  The question now is whether Obama can make his soaring rhetoric about change relevant at eye level to people who’ve probably seen quite enough change over the past couple decades, thank you.  The challenge now:  show people that he’s fighting for them while others are just fighting.  A little more passion, a little more reality and no less hope for the future.

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