Candidate Electability and Obama in ’08

Sorry nothing much to say about the Democrats official takeover of Congress yesterday.  It's great.  I'll leave it at that for now.  Like many, I just cannot resist looking ahead to 2008.  Jonathan Cohn had a thought-provoking piece in The New Republic (sorry, subscription site) earlier this week that addressed the issue of candidate electability in presidential primaries.  It is well accepted in the media and even by political scientists that primary voters consider not only their liking for a candidate but also their assessment of the candidate's chances of winning the general election, i.e., electability.  This is, of course, the basic explanation for why John Kerry managed to win the Democratic primaries in 2004 despite never receiving much passion from voters.  Its not that Democrats were thinking, “wow, John Kerry is a great guy, he would make a great president.”  Rather, they were thinking, “I'm not particularly excited about John Kerry, but with that war hero record of his, there's no way Bush can sell him as soft on national security.”  Alas, the Swift Boat Veterans. 

Anyway, what I find to be the most interesting insight of Cohn's article, is his suggestion that voters look almost exclusively at candidates negatives in assessing electability and not the positives.  At least on the Democratic side, this focus on avoiding negatives does not appear to be particularly effective.  Here's Cohn's succint analysis of 2004:

No doubt, the political flaws 2004
voters perceived in the other candidates were genuine. Dean's perceived
extremism would indeed have been a hard sell down South; Clark really
was prone to the stumbles you'd expect of a political rookie. Still,
the calculation of voters was curiously one-sided–measuring candidates
almost exclusively in terms of their flaws, rather than taking stock of
their attributes, as well. It was if a Wall Street analyst sized up a
company by examining its liabilities, while disregarding its assets.
And the result was a predictably misguided conclusion.

If Kerry lacked the vulnerabilities of some of his rivals, he also
lacked their skills. He couldn't win people over with charm or
inspiration. And, while he had a bevy of nifty policy proposals, he had
no grandiose, overarching message with which to sell them. So when the
general campaign got tough, Kerry had no reservoir of public enthusiasm
or support on which to draw. And, when the Republicans attacked what
was supposedly his best asset–his record of heroism in Vietnam–Kerry
didn't have the tools to fight back successfully.

I've had a number of conversations with people about Barak Obama lately and my conversation partners have stressed his negatives: surely lots of Americans still cannot get past that race thing and his inexperience.  And this certainly makes obvious sense, but what impresses me about Obama and his chances is he brings tremendous positives to the table that no other current national political figure can match.  Quite simply, he's got star power.  He's got adoring fans wherever he goes and by all accounts, he actually inspires voters.  Americans thirst to be inspired by their leaders yet they are overwhelmingly disappointed on this score.  Thus, I think a politician with tremendous national charisma and a genuine ability to inspire (think JFK?) has a really good shot despite some obvious negatives.  We'll see in '08.

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