Tag Archives: elections

Explaining American Politics To Non-Americans – Part I: Why We’re ****ed

It’s been my ambition for some time now to dedicate a series to explaining American politics to our substantial audience of non-Americans. While this blog is comprised 50% of Canadians (our frosty neighbors north of the wall), the simple fact of the matter is that the land-the-free has long been the front line of culture war. What happens here affects the rest of the globe.

With the already hotly contested primaries underway and prospects for the 2016 election being widely debated, what better time could there be than now to explain just why it is that we the people are fundamentally screwed.

Let me break it down here.

I. The Person Who Wins Isn’t Always The Person Who Gets Elected

In spite of our praise for democracy, the American republic does not have a one-man-one-vote policy. Every four years, there’s a decent chance that the candidate with the most votes will still lose to his opponent.

See, we have something called the “electoral college”- a staggeringly complex system that not even this succinct TED video can completely cover. At its simplest, the system boils down to states having “points” assigned to them on the basis of their populations and number of congressmen and senators.

This system means that a political candidate doesn’t necessarily have to get a massive number of people to vote for him- just a majority. So long as he or she gets that majority, no matter how slim, they still takes away as many “points” as if they had won a landslide.

What that means is that a person can get elected president in spite of his or her opponent getting more actual votes. Just look at this image below:

While the majority of votes cast in this example are blue, red still wins by virtue of this system. While supposedly protecting states with smaller populations (preventing them from being drowned out by heavily populated states), the result is that a person’s vote can very well be rendered utterly pointless. Plenty of folks simply don’t even bother voting, especially in states dominated by one party. Alternatively, states with greater electoral power (more points, that is) and a habit of swinging between parties (Ohio and Florida, most famously) get disproportionate amounts of attention.

In spite of being viciously despised by folks on both sides of the political spectrum, there’s really very little hope for any reform on this point. While part of that can be blamed on tradition, plenty of it also boils down to a little thing called- Continue reading

Obama: the brand

Jim Messina was an undergraduate when he managed his first campaign, and has won every race since then. He’s now manager of the Obama reelection campaign and going to great lengths to maintain his record.

source: huffingtonpostMessina has purportedly read volumes of US election history, but he spent the first months before beginning the Obama campaign in earnest meeting not with successful senators and former campaign managers, but with CEOs and senior execs of Apple, Google, facebook, Zynga, and DreamWorks. While Obama looks for support from left side of the House and Senate, Messina’s also brought Stephen Spielberg and Vera Wang into the campaign. Messina’s campaign, he says, is more based on wunderkind business strategies (Zynga and facebook, for example) than any elections from previous centuries.

The most interesting part to me of Messina’s campaign is the part focused not on intellectual persuasion, but attachment-building via branding. To contrast this with Mitt Romney’s campaign, look at the merchandise pages of each of the candidates’ websites:

Romney’s store has:
2 types of bumper stickers
a window decal
2 buttons
4 different t-shirts (2 of the with just the semi-unrecognizable logo on them)
a baseball cap
a lapel pin, and
(regrettably) a heather grey quarter-zip-up sweatshirt

All of his products are on one page, and most of them look like print-screened logos on shirts from AC Moore.

Obama’s store includes:
iPhone cases,
Earth Day packs,
“I bark for Barack” magnets,
v-neck shirts for women under 45,
calendars,
yoga pants,
a $95 Monique Pean scarf,
a Vera Wang bag, a $95 “Thakoon Panichgul“, whatever that is,
dog bandanas,
dog sweaters,
Joe Biden mugs,
Obama jerseys,
rubber bracelets,
pint glasses,
aprons,
bangles,
cufflinks,
baby bibs,
grill spatulas,
soy candles,
golf divot tools,
and a six-pack cooler.

There’s also about a billion different types of tshirts, buttons, and bumper stickers, and a “for Obama” series: women for Obama, nurses for Obama, veterans for Obama, African Americans for Obama, Latinos for Obama, Hispanics for Obama, Asian American & Pacific Islanders for Obama, and environmentalists for Obama.

Romney’s shirts say, at most, “Romney” or “Believe” – one of Obama’s shirts says “Health Reform Still a BFD.” Granted, Romney is aiming at a different demographic (LL Bean fans, eg), but Obama’s 19 pages of merchandise make Romney’s 1 page look pitiful, from a branding point of view.

The Obama campaign’s brand-focused strategy is closely integrated with its other image-focused tactics: assigning Romney the cold, out-of-touch persona, for example.
While critics of the Bain capital narrative put out by the Obama campaign said that things like negativity and party inconsistency (Bill Clinton’s subsequent praise of Romney’s management skills, eg) rendered the move moot, an article in Bloomberg said that Messina may not have been so concerned about persuasion at that point: “Messina is adamant that the Bain attack succeeded among the uncommitted voters he’s concerned with, who ignore pundits and are only now beginning to form opinions of Romney.”

For a lot of voters, Romney’s business and managing experience are just off the table. The Bain Capital anti-campaign put on by the Obama team wasn’t so much a persuasion for some voters as an excuse to keep holding their current opinion. K street and the hill will argue about the relevance and logical holes in different arguments, and about the influence of different political figures voicing their opinions, but humans decide things more based on instinct than consideration, I think.

David Plouffe, a political strategist, commented: “When people say, ‘How’s the Bain thing playing?’ it doesn’t matter what the set of Morning Joe has to say about it.”

Voters’ behavior and attitudes are hugely dependent on their initial impressions of politicians. People will take things like the Bain story how they want to, based on what they’ve already consciously or unconsciously decided. And some might criticize the Obama campaign for putting a lot of money into what seems like frivilous merchandise, but things like brand and image aren’t meant to persuade – they’re meant to create a stronger identity and community within the already-present supporters. Such branding is what made Facebook, Google, and Apple such monstrosities – and they are precisely where Messina went for advice.