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Did George W. Bush Throw New Hampshire to Hillary?

Wrestling with the implications of Tuesday’s surprise.

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 New Hampshire is to back up three months, when Hillary Clinton had been climbing steadily in the polls and Obama was stagnating. Clinton crossed the 50 percent mark nationally among Democratic voters, leading to widespread questions about her invincibility.  

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 Iowa that ignited his campaign two months ago. Having established his “substance,” he stopped trying to go toe-to-toe with Clinton on 14-point plans on every issue from taxation to taxidermy. The strategy of appealing to the rational self-interest of voters, who actually want more than anything else to be inspired by their leaders’ principles and presence, has cost Democrats the presidency repeatedly over the last three decades (except for Bill Clinton, who understood that winning hearts and minds starts with winning hearts). Obama was electric. That was the Obama who had broken fund-raising records months earlier, before seeming  to recede through a series of bland debate performances. The Obama who re-emerged that night in Iowa is the Obama who would be very difficult for anyone to beat, Democrat or Republican, in 2008--and Iowans ended up soundly supporting him.

At the same time, the media began defining Clinton’s lead as a “coronation,” a media frame that surely did not endear her to Americans who prefer to vote for their nominees. Then Senator Clinton stumbled. Although most pundits emphasized her answer to a debate question about drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants, something else happened around the same time that I believe was of greater significance: her vote giving President Bush a hunting license in Iran. Obama and Edwards rightly jumped on her vote immediately, noting that you can claim ignorance once (her Iraq War vote) but not twice, and she never offered a particularly compelling rationale for it. Clinton’s vote played into one of the two central negative stories about her that she is yet to overcome--and she is unlikely to win either the nomination or the general election unless she makes significant inroads on both of them. The first is that she is a calculating, poll-tested opportunist. The problem with stories like these--whether fair, unfair, or some mixture of the two--is what her husband understood well in 1992: If you don’t control the narratives, you don’t win elections. Bush was a compassionate conservative in 2000, whereas Gore was a serial exaggerator; Bush was a steadfast commander-in-chief in a relentless War on Terror in 2004, whereas Kerry was a flip-flopping fake war hero.

So, what changed in New Hampshire? Several things.

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, Clinton also showed an openness voters had not regularly seen from her. She took more questions. She spoke more personally. She used more examples of real people. And then there was that tearful moment that many (especially male) pundits described as a Muskie moment, but that actually may have done more than anything else to chip away at the other narrative that has plagued her campaign: that she’s cold, emotionally invulnerable, and lacking in genuine feeling. Two pieces of exit poll data suggest that Hillary may well have gained some ground against that narrative in New Hampshire. Unlike Iowa, where women preferred Obama, in New Hampshire they went for (and, I suspect, identified with) Hillary. And that leads to the other poll result suggesting a change in the cold-ruthless-Hillary narrative: She actually outperformed Obama in voters’ perceptions of empathy, something she hasn’t ever even approached in prior polls.

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 New Hampshire bears the motto “Live Free Or Die,” and they mean it. It’s easy to make too much of Clinton’s two-point victory in New Hampshire. After all, two weeks ago, that would have been seen as an astounding victory for Obama, who had been running 15 to 20 points behind for much of a year. New Hampshire voters were clearly swayed by Obama’s success in Iowa, but they made up their own minds. Plus, the inevitability factor may have affected the results in yet another way. The young voters who filled Obama’s rallies did not show up at the polls at anything like the rates in Iowa, perhaps reflecting the belief in their candidate’s inevitable victory.

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 New Hampshire, and her most likely voters were people who had voted before. One of the lessons for Barack Obama in South Carolina, where he reportedly has a very strong campaign operation on the ground, is to develop a strategy to make sure those young voters come out in force.

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 New Hampshire, in figuring out how to capture some of the power of his stump style in debates (voters who said they were influenced by the New Hampshire debate were more likely to break for Hillary).

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 Iran that just happened to occur between Obama’s stunning victory in Iowa and the vote in New Hampshire. Why did the President pick the middle of the day of the first primary for a press conference, and why didn’t the media frame the press conference in terms of what his intentions might have been in doing so?

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 Clinton’s comeback victory reflects the impact of the president’s “intervention” or some other factor is anyone’s guess. But his press conference would predictably have shifted voters away from Obama and toward Clinton and McCain (and Republican strategists will tell you that they’d much rather run against Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama, particularly a surging Barack Obama).

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 New Hampshire vote, including the candidates’ own internal polls. In recent history, the only times we’ve seen such huge disparities between the polls and the polling booth are when Republicans have supplemented their get-out-the-vote efforts with block-the-black-vote efforts (which did not happen in New Hampshire, where there aren’t enough blacks to block), some accident occurred in the election machinery (as when a low-level Democratic functionary in Florida did not notice or contest in advance the butterfly ballot used in 2000 that led to thousands of votes in a heavily Jewish area for Pat Buchanan), or the candidate was black. Particularly when a large percentage of voters are making up their minds at the last minute, as they did in New Hampshire, what voters hear in the closing hours when one of the candidates is black (or, for that matter, when a candidate for commander-in-chief is female) is crucial to what neural networks are most active, consciously and unconsciously, when they go to pull that lever. For both Hillary Clinton (who reminded voters of the historic nature of a female presidency in New Hampshire) and Barack Obama (who consistently exhorted Iowa voters that there is no red America and no blue America--and by extension, no white America and black America--but only the United States of America), that may be one of the most important lessons of the New Hampshire primary.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University; founder of Westen Strategies, LLC, a political and corporate consulting firm; and author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.

By Drew Westen