In the small and early states, a presidential candidates can forge a connection with voters. There are direct interactions: meet-and-greets, town hall gatherings, rallies. Word of mouth can spread. And the media in the early states devote extensive coverage; even couch potatoes come into regular contact with the contenders. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, Obama was able to create a bond with a great number of voters--many of whom had been able to interact closely with him or his campaign. They could hear him speak. They could look him in the eye. They could experience Obama--in real time, in real life.
After Nevada and South Carolina, that's going to change. The election will be shaped by Supersaturated Tuesday, February 5, when two dozen states, including some of the largest in the union, will hold primaries or caucuses. No candidate will be able to reach large number of voters in an up-close-and-personal manner. There will be big rallies in California and elsewhere. But the people who show up will be a minuscule fraction of the electorate, and these events may not receive extensive local media coverage--absent Oprah or a newsworthy mishap. (California television news is notorious for shortchanging political coverage. There are, after all, so many car chases to chase after.)
At this stage, the candidates will be reaching voters mainly through commercials. A television spot is a fine medium for a candidate to share his or her resume, to list his or her accomplishments. It is much tougher to convey the intangibles of hope, faith, and transcendence in a 30- or 60-second spot. The bottom line: advantage to Clinton.
I'm not sure I buy this, at least not after what I saw in New Hampshire. There, Obama repeatedly out-drew Clinton at their respective campaign events; but, in the end, the huge crowds and his amazing speeches didn't get him the victory. I think the NYT's Matt Bai put his finger on why that was in a smart post-New Hampshire blog post:
I keep thinking now, with the wisdom that hindsight affords, of an Obama event in Salem a few days before the primary. The police turned away 4,000 people at the door because there was only room for 1,000 inside the hall. I had never seen anything like that in politics.
Obama asked, as he often does, how many of the voters in the room were undecided. I was surprised to see maybe a third of the hands in the auditorium go up. Then the candidate proceeded to give the same inspiring, rally-type speech he had been giving in Iowa. I was watching the faces of a group of middle-aged voters sitting near the back (you often learn more from watching voters during an event than you do by interviewing them after the fact), and I could see that they were generally unmoved. These weren’t kids in Iowa City; they were taciturn New England parents, and perhaps they had questions they had hoped to ask. Obama didn’t take any, which was his habit for most of that final week in New Hampshire. He had a lead, and he was running out the clock.
The problem here is that Obama’s pattern of support in New Hampshire, should it be repeated elsewhere, would place him squarely in the tradition of your classic liberal insurgent—this year’s Bill Bradley or Howard Dean. Obviously, there are some crucial differences: Obama will lay claim to some substantial portion of black voters in upcoming states, which past insurgents have not, and he has already had more success than Bradley or Dean. So I don’t mean to suggest that he is doomed to suffer anything like the same fate. But he does seem to be entering a perilous moment where his well-funded campaign could easily become this year’s “cause” or “movement,” rather than a candidacy with the kind of broad support you need to get you through to the convention. Liberal causes built on beautiful speeches and campus rallies never really win the nomination; they just fade into noble lore, fondly remembered by that breed of Democrat who seems to view losing as a kind of moral validation.
For Obama, this might argue, going forward, for replacing some of the rallies and rhetoric with more substantive speeches and interactive town halls. When Obama engages voters in a conversation, he gives the impression, as Bill Richardson put it in his very gracious farewell speech yesterday, of being “grounded in thoughtful wisdom beyond his years.” If there is a lesson in those exit polls for Obama, it may be that inspiration will only get you so many voters. The rest you have to convince.
In a strange way, the dynamics of the campaign from here on out could actually help Obama, in that those dynamics (i.e. commercials instead of speeches) will force him to be more of a transactional and less of an inspirational candidate--which is something that might not please people like me but could be music to the ears of undecided voters in Florida and New York and California.