There’s little doubt that some macro political factors were decisive in driving Barack Obama’s presidential victory over John McCain. Notably, just as the divisive Iraq war seemed to have turned the corner and started to work to McCain’s advantage instead of Obama’s, the economic crisis gave Obama a whole new issue to blame on the Bush administration and, by inference, on McCain. And there’s little doubt that Obama’s run as a black candidate brought huge numbers of voters to the polls who might not otherwise have participated (no, I don’t mean the deceased or fictitious ones!). Could McCain have overcome this double whammy? It would have been difficult. But, when political marketing experts write the history of this campaign, I think many will lay the blame on John McCain’s failure to light up the amygdalas of the voting public.
Months earlier, when videotapes of Obama’s pastor of twenty years, the infamous Reverend Wright, surfaced and showed the clergyman delivering impassioned anti-white and even anti-American rhetoric, I assumed that the Republicans finally had their wedge issue, the “Willie Horton” of 2008. Obama’s handling of the situation – first defending the pastor, then saying he had never heard the hateful speech, and finally cutting ties after the pressure grew intense – gave the Republicans even more ammunition.
At the time the Wright videos came out, I predicted that as the election drew closer Reverend Wright would feature in more political commercials than McCain himself. Voters are indeed driven by emotion, and video clips of Wright’s divisive words would have surely fired up the amygdalas of white voters and, indeed, voters of any color not partial to the emotional preaching style employed by some pastors. Obama worked hard to portray himself as reasonable, accepting of all people, calm rather than angry, and in general a safe choice for president. A few seconds of Rev. Wright foaming at the mouth with Obama’s photo in the background would have undone that work at the visceral level.
McCain’s steadfast refusal to bring the Reverend Wright issue into his campaign may say positive things about him as a person, but not much about his political marketing (not to mention neuromarketing) savvy. McCain also refused to capitalize on Obama’s middle name, Hussein, to subliminally suggest that Obama might be a closet jihadist. (See Maybe Obama’s Middle Name Really Matters.) It’s an unfortunate fact that political campaigns in the U.S. have become more about raising fears about one’s opponent in voters’ minds – Obama did his best to link McCain to the widely unpopular George W. Bush in just about every ad and speech. Obama also referred to McCain as “out of touch,” which most observers interpreted as code for “that guy is really old.”
Game, set, and match to Obama.