As a psychologist, I should begin with the caveat that anyone who thinks he knows how Hillary Clinton was able to resurrect a campaign that looked like it had gone from inevitable victory two months ago to inevitable defeat two days ago should see a psychologist. But though we can never know for sure why it occurred, a number of factors may shed some light on one of the most perplexing nights in modern electoral history.
The only way to understand
Shortly afterwards, a perfect storm emerged for Obama. For one, his campaign took a dramatic turn, beginning with his performance at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in
At the same time, the media began defining
So, what changed in
First, we saw a much more emotionally engaged and engaging Hillary Clinton. National viewers saw it first in the debate, with her wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, funny, and human response to a question about her likability: “Well, that hurts my feelings.” Obama looked tired and a little cranky, and delivered a line that, with slightly different intonation, might have come off as humorous camaraderie: “You’re likeable enough, Hillary.” He might have gotten more mileage out of something closer to, “Well just for the record, I like you, Hillary, and I think everybody on this stage has enormous respect for you and your service to our country.” Instead, the exchange made her seem the more affable of the two--a rare role reversal for the two candidates.
In town hall meetings, speeches, and informal settings around the state,
A second factor that likely had an effect was what began to look like the inevitability of Barack Obama. The license plate of every voter’s car in
The evening of the New Hamphire primary, my friend Donnie Fowler, a Democratic political operative who has run campaigns in swing states in the last two presidential elections, made a particularly important point: It’s hard for those of us who have never run a state campaign operation to understand how much it matters, particularly in a state like New Hampshire, with its small size and retail politics, to have people on the ground who have identified every voter who plans to support your candidate, to know at 4 p.m. if they’ve voted yet, and if they haven’t, to send the van for them. Hillary Clinton had the most experienced team in the country in
I could focus on several other factors: Hillary’s wise decision, against the advice of many talking heads, to keep her rock-star husband rocking the vote against her rock-star opponent. The overuse by every campaign of the “change” motif, which quickly became a meaningless proxy for the fact that most Americans have thought for over a year that the country is “on the wrong track.” The difficulty Obama continues to have, despite a stronger appearance in
But I will focus here on just two more, which speak to the underbelly of American politics.
The first was the decision by George W. Bush to insert himself into the election, by holding a press conference in the early afternoon of the day of the New Hampshire primary (ostensibly to talk about his trip to Israel), and the failure of the media to either understand what he was doing or to exercise its responsibility to protect the American people from that kind of manipulation. The press conference came on the heels of saber-rattling on
Because they either don’t care much whether they’re providing information or disinformation, or because they don’t understand the psychological phenomenon of “priming”--the activation of specific neural networks in the electorate--and how priming can make certain networks (e.g., national security, fear, the need for a leader with foreign policy experience) more salient as people vote--whether they are aware of it or not. If
No one should be allowed to produce or report the news who hasn’t read the work of a team of psychologists who have spent over 20 years developing and testing “terror management theory,” an elegant body of research that shows how priming people with messages like the president’s, which raise concerns about their mortality, shifts people to the right, and demonstrably did so in the 2004 election. I’ve written extensively about how priming works in politics as well. There’s no excuse for major media outlets to report “stories” such as those provided at pivotal times by the White House, without at least framing them in terms of the range of possible reasons behind odd “coincidences,” like a presidential press conference on an ostensibly unrelated topic on the day of the New Hampshire primary.
Finally, we come to one more factor that could help explain the double-digit inaccuracy of virtually everyone’s polls leading up to the
Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at
By Drew Westen