Obama’s Victory, McCain’s Neuro-Loss


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.

  1. Brian says

    No politics.

  2. Daniel says

    I would say McCain did plenty of negative attacking on Obama and it seemed to not do very much. I think what McCain lacked as an uplifting message to deliver. People learn best from a combination of negative and positive reenforcement, no?

  3. Roger Dooley says

    Daniel, by and large voters dislike negative ads, and complain about them when asked. The reason almost all politicians use negative ads is that they work – the results of an effective negative campaign can be seen in poll numbers.

    While both McCain and Obama ran negative ads, McCain’s were weaker. Obama was successful in linking Bush to McCain, while McCain’s ads focused more on lack of experience, etc. While Obama’s lack of management experience and weak legislative record might appeal to rational analysis, those aren’t gut-level issues that hit the viewer emotionally.

    McCain could have used some brain scan analysis of his commercials – I suspect that a hard hitting Reverend Wright ad would have lit up viewers brains in a way that would have convinced even McCain to run it.


  4. Daniel says

    Hey Roger,
    But didn’t McCain also run negative ads linking Obama to Bill Ayers? There was a lot of “palling around with terrorists” and “Who is Barack Obama?” rhetoric. Since supporters at rallies shouted out “Terrorist” and “Kill him” I would say they were gut-level issues.

    Perhaps the problem was that these only ‘lit up’ in the conservative base and did poorly with independents? I just feel like McCain had plenty of these gut level issues that failed to bring in votes or (as negative ads usually do) suppress votes of the opposition.


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