Campaigns usually collapse because of gaffes — off-the-cuff actions that accidentally reveal the true nature of candidates. And the Barack Obama campaign has had more than its share of revealing gaffes: Obama’s statement that rural voters turn to God, guns and racism because they have no jobs; his explanation that proper tire gauge use would fix high gas prices; his self-aggrandizing exhortation that he has "become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions"; his associations with Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers and Tony Rezko; the list goes on and on.
But gaffes are not the real reason for the stagnation of the Obama campaign. That stagnation is due to one factor: successful distribution of the Obama message.
Gaffes highlight the discrepancy between the message a campaign seeks to push and the message the campaign actually believes. When Americans recognize such discrepancies, they sense dishonesty and vote against it.
In certain rare cases, however, campaigns are killed not by gaffes, but by success: a campaign carefully plans, produces, and pushes its message, and the American people reject that message. George McGovern’s campaign was honest, open and diligent. And Richard Nixon trounced him because Americans did not like his message.
The last several weeks demonstrate one vital fact: The Barack Obama campaign is floundering not because of gaffes, but because of its success. They have portrayed their candidate and his message precisely the way they want to. They have controlled every media situation. They have not been plagued by a rash of mistakes in the last few weeks. The Obama campaign is drowning because Americans simply do not like the message.
The last months should have been a boon for the Obama camp. Obama began with a five-point lead in the Gallup daily tracking polls. He traveled to the Middle East, meeting with Muslim and Jewish leaders. He spoke repeatedly in Europe to throngs of wildly cheering crowds. He returned to the United States, and, after taking a well-deserved break, picked a vice presidential candidate, voluble Senator Joe Biden. He then embarked on a four-day commercial in the form of the Democratic National Convention.
And as of Tuesday afternoon, Barack Obama was trailing John McCain in the Gallup daily tracking polls.
Obama trails because Americans do not like his message. His ill-advised European victory tour illustrated his elitism and international identity. His choice of Joe Biden exhibited his comfortableness with arrogance, his vindictiveness (in not even considering Hillary Clinton) and his lack of confidence in his own experience.
And then there was the opening of the Democratic National Convention. His wife, Michelle Obama, spoke. Michelle has undergone a makeover. When last we saw her, she was insisting that her husband’s triumphant candidacy represented the first time she was proud of her country during her adult life.
When she emerged onto the stage in Denver on Monday night, her hair was less wiry, her attire more feminine, her message more rehearsed. She focused on her own humble upbringing. She focused on her husband’s qualities as a father. She talked about hope and change.
And then she said this: "And as I tuck [my] little girl and her little sister into bed at night, I think about how one day, they’ll have families of their own. And one day, they — and your sons and daughters — will tell their own children about what we did together in this election. They’ll tell them how this time … we committed ourselves to building the world as it should be."
This is the message the Obamas want. It is the message the DNC wants. And it is the message Americans do not like. We do not want to hear a would-be savior’s wife inform us that by voting for her husband, we join a historic and messianic movement. We do not want to hear about how the president must dedicate himself to "building the world as it should be."
We want a president who is confident, not arrogant; competent, not grandiose; a reshaper, not a remaker. We want a president who does not dismiss the abortion question as "above my pay grade" while embracing world transformation as a proper goal. We want a statesman, not a quasi-religious figure.
Moments define campaigns. By minimizing mistakes, candidates hope they can maximize their chances of victory. The problem for Barack Obama is that it isn’t his mistakes that are killing him — it’s his triumphs of marketing and messaging that are destroying him. Every time he gets out his message, he loses voters. And that’s a recipe for electoral disaster.