As we head into the debate this week in Pennsylvania — only a week from the Democratic primary there — let’s take a look at lessons learned this week in this rough and tumble campaign.
Hillary Clinton was again hounded by questions of her honesty regarding her exaggerated “storytelling” of her 1996 Bosnia trip and her husband added to the fire by fumbling in his explanation of her misstatements.
Barack Obama got in a bit of hot water of his own over comments at a so-called closed event (more on that later) about “bitter” working class folks and the political causes they support.
So what does all this mean? My initial take is that neither story was good for the candidate but the two incidents happening so close together are a wash. They both take a hit. Clinton’s hit would have been more damaging if Obama hadn’t hit himself again so soon.
When these kind of things pop up in a campaign you have to look at them in two categories: first, bad news or mistakes can be just a momentary news cycle distraction that don’t have anything to do with the overall narrative of the race (and thus they quickly pass without much effect) – or, they can add to voters’ perceptions of the candidate that have already developed or are developing. The latter category is the worst case scenario for the candidate.
Rightly or wrongly, some voters question Hillary’s trustworthiness. That perception is fairly embedded in her image, and when the Bosnia incident came up, it gave those people evidence of something they already believe.
For Obama, while being an elitist isn’t embedded yet in his image, it is a developing story line for him and one that his opponents may try to build on. And the comments he made about small town voters make a case for that emerging image. I think this storm will likely pass, but if he makes more missteps or misstatements in this vein, the elitist narrative could become as damaging to him as the truthtelling narrative is for Hillary. It’s not there yet, but more could do it.
In criticizing Obama’s remarks about small town voters, Hillary Clinton drew a line between Obama and Al Gore and John Kerry, who she said lost the last couple of general elections is because of “elitist” attitudes. Is that fair? I don’t think so.
Elitism had some impact on both of those campaigns but it did not lose those elections. Kerry lost because at a time the country wanted a strong and decisive leader, he gave them a flip-flopper. And Gore lost the electoral college vote because he was seen as an ultra-cautious politician in his decision making who was part of an administration that wasn’t viewed as honest and didn’t respect the dignity of the office.
Keep in mind that both of the Democrats that Hillary called elitist won Pennsylvania in the general election in 2000 and 2004, and won the working class vote in that state!
Finally, if the Obama campaign (or anyone campaign) learned one lesson this week it is this: there is no such thing as a “closed” event anymore.
With camera phones, and tiny recording devices, and YouTube, etc, campaigns should open up every event to the press. It is likely to be reported on by citizen journalists anyway! And with the expectation that every event is open to the press, the candidate will stay disciplined at all events. I don’t understand why Obama is doing these small fundraising events these anymore since he has such deep pockets in the money he has already raised, and can certainly raise more money at less cost over the internet.
Finally, stay tuned for the ABC News debate this week and watch t see if the candidates further add to these developing or developed perceptions of their personas. That is the importance of this debate in my view.
And one more time, the lesson of the day is this: there are no secrets any more in this age of technology.