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McCain's Free Ride

If the Democratic campaign had not taken such a negative turn, McCain would arguably be suffering from all the focus on the Democratic contest, which is clearly grabbing the lion’s share of media attention. But the attention is no longer positive, and as the story has turned from voter enthusiasm to acrimony, it’s giving McCain the opportunity both to brand himself and to join the fray on the other side of the aisle when the opportunity arises. McCain is defining himself with little resistance (and an occasional assist from the Clinton campaign) as the natural choice for commander-in-chief and as a straight-talker--a particularly strong brand in an election that may turn out to be much like the 1976 election, when Jimmy Carter reassured a nation weary of the dishonesty of the Nixon years, “I will never lie to you.”

He is also taking the opportunity to help brand his potential rivals, amplifying the perceived weaknesses of both Democratic contenders. Recently, for example, he described his opponents as offering “platitudes instead of principles and insults instead of ideas,” effectively joining with Hillary Clinton in her attack on Barack Obama, while simultaneously turning her own relentless (and effective) attacks on Obama into an attack on her.  By referring to her campaign’s attacks as insults (some of which were, in fact, insulting), McCain was reinforcing what he and Republican strategists know is the greatest threat to her electability: her high negatives, and the public perception, built up through a well-financed, well-executed (if ill-intentioned) conservative branding campaign when she was First Lady, that she is cold and ruthless.

It would truly take talent for the Democrats to lose this election (although Democrats have never hurt for talent).  Seventy percent of Americans tell pollsters that the country is on the “wrong track.” The Republican president’s approval ratings have hovered around 30 percent for two years. For the first time since 1992, the majority of Americans answer in the negative to Ronald Reagan’s electoral litmus test (“Are you better off than you were four years ago?”). In presidential match-ups, independents overwhelmingly prefer generic Democrats to generic Republicans. And most voters trend strongly Democratic on the vast majority of issues confronting the country, particularly when offered messages designed to be compelling (as opposed to the more “neutral” language of so much polling, which asks people to rate statements such as “Global warming should be one of the government’s top priorities.”) Independents’ attitudes tend to be far closer to Democrats’ than Republicans’ views on health care, the economy, energy independence, Iraq, and even the Republicans’ most recent wedge issue, immigration. But with the circular firing squad among Democrats beginning to take its toll, John McCain is now matching up remarkably well in polls against his two potential rivals for November--and with their nomination process in suspended animation, the Democrats are in danger of employing the best strategy for losing in November: Waiting until the Democratic primary contest is over to start a full-fledged branding campaign against the presumptive Republican nominee.

The reason that is a losing strategy is as much neurological as political. As explained in greater length in my book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion In Deciding the Fate of the Nation), much of our brain consists of networks of associations--thoughts, images, ideas, memories, and emotions--that become connected with each other over time, so that activating one part of a network activates the rest (including the gut-level feelings associated with a candidate that “summarize” voters’ judgments about the candidate and are among the best predictors in the voting booth). The more times a network is activated, the harder it is to change, for reasons both physiological and psychological.

Physiologically, the more two neurons are activated together, the more likely one is to trigger the other, as chemical changes in the cells themselves and the actual growth of physical links between them bind them together. Pragmatically speaking, that means that the more times voters hear John McCain described as a war hero and a strong potential commander-in-chief—instead of, for example, a man with such poor judgment on national security that he would support an endless continuation of an ill-fated war much like the one he suffered through despite his own personal experience--the harder it will be to deactivate that network and inhibit those neural links. Similarly, from a psychological standpoint, the longer voters hear the story that McCain is a “straight talker,” the more they will filter out and actively resist disconfirming information, such as his involvement in the Keating Five, his fall off the wagon of the Straight Talk Express when it seemed expedient to wrap his arms around George W. Bush and Jerry Falwell, his embrace of Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy when he knew--and stated clearly when he initially voted against them--that they were both fiscally unwise and unfair to middle class Americans.

With their clear understanding of marketing, Republicans may not know the biology, but they understand the principles of branding in politics. Long before John Kerry had even won the Democratic nomination in 2004--in fact, within forty-eight hours of his victory in the New Hampshire primary that signaled that he, rather than Howard Dean, would likely be the Democratic nominee (and a potentially formidable one, given his own status as a war hero in an election the Bush campaign intended to center around war and national security)--both the Bush campaign and the conservative spin machine moved into action with an extraordinary branding campaign. They sent out talking points and fanned out across talk radio, Fox News, and other conservative media to disseminate one of the central narratives that branded Kerry from the start and became a key interpretive frame through which both voters and the media viewed everything he said thereafter: that he was a flip-flopper, who had taken every side on every issue.  The branding campaign was so successful that within weeks voters could purchase a new brand of shoes—John Kerry Flip-Flops—which Fox News’ Chris Wallace displayed with the caption, “If the Shoe Fits.”

There are glimmers of light on the progressive side of the aisle.  This week the AFL-CIO launched an innovative Internet-based “briefing book” called McCain Revealed, which walks voters through McCain on the issues (and is worth viewing just for its production value—like pages that flip back and forth with the glide of the cursor), and the union has the ability to reach millions of potential readers with direct mail.  And other progressive organizations reportedly have their guns cocked and ready to fire.  But if Democrats want to win this election, particularly when negative messages about both of their presidential candidates are now filling the airwaves 24 hours a day and shaping the networks of association that constitute public opinion, they’d better load their 527 automatics and come out with guns a’brandin’--not tomorrow, not in June, not after a potentially contentious convention in August, but now.

Drew Westen is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University and founder of Westen Strategies. He is the author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

By Drew Westen