Monday, February 2, 2009

Palin, Obama: Psychology of Victory

"I want hip-hop Republicans. I want Frank Sinatra Republicans." (Michael Steele, new head of the Republican National Committee). Sarah Palin, with one foot in the hip-hop world and another in the Sinatra-era would nod in vigorous approval at Steele's statement.

Do the vast majority of Americans really understand what's going on in politics? No, they do not.

That's the view proposed by Lee Atwater, the greatest political strategist of modern times -- yes, he was better than Karl Rove, better even that Obama's campaign guru, David Axelrod. He helped engineer Reagan's landslide reelection in 1984 and was George H. W. Bush's campaign manager in the winning effort against Dukakis in 1988.

This week on both of my blogs ( and I'll be writing about Atwater's insights -- and suggesting how they're similar to Gov. Sarah Palin's approach to political success. The emphasis will be on the psychology of winning.

Regarding Atwater, he's the subject of perhaps the most intriguing political biography of recent decades. It's John Brady, Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater, Addison-Wesley, 1997 It's beautifully written and profoundly substantial. Brady, a journalist and a consultant to magazine publishers, is a former editor of Boston and Writer's Digest. He wrote The Craft of Interviewing, a classic how-to book for journalists, and The Craft of the Screenwriter.

The material below has several quotes from Brady's Atwater book. As you read the excerpts, consider the two most remarkable politics events of this decade: (1) Barack Obama's election as America's first African-American President; (2) Sarah Palin's victories in 2006 over incumbent Republican Governor (and former U.S. Senator) Frank Murkowski and then over popular former Democratic Governor Tony Knowles.

How did Obama and Palin accomplish these feats? You'll never find out from the MSM, which presents a simple-minded view of what happens in big-time electoral politics.

In fact, Palin and Obama, both master politicians, plugged into a powerful attitudinal current: a yearning for CHANGE. They both offered HOPE to people who had become so exasperated by politics-as-usual that they had veered to the edge of hopelessness.

Lee Atwater died of cancer at a young age in 1991. However, as you'll see below, he would have understood why people like Barack Obama and Sarah Palin won. It had little to do with "issues" -- and even less to do with stated "opinions." It had everything to do with deeply held --and mainly emotional -- attitudes.

Brady describes Atwater's key insights this way: "[In life generally and politics specifically], It's not what happens to us that matters - it's how we interpret what happens to us. The interpretation establishes an attitude, which can then be catered to emotionally - [a form of] mental crowd control. When we want your opinion, we'll give it to you."

(In other words, attitudes drive opinions -- not vice versa. Concentrate on attidues, and the opinions will follow.)

In Atwater's words, "attitudes are deeply ingrained. You can't even necessarily verbalize them."
In other words, attitudes are so powerful that they override even what we believe are our opinions. They are deep within us -- visceral and largely subconscious.

Brady adds, "Before going negative on an opponent . . . he [Atwater] cultivated strong positive attitudes among the electorate. He used impressionistic images and symbols to depict his candidate in such a way that perception 'can't be busted up even with opinion changes on specific issues that my opponent might accomplish.'"

(By the way, Sarah Palin is even better at using images and symbols -- especially ones related to her husband and children -- than Obama. Everything Palin does reinforces her most powerful theme: "She's one of us." She's a mother, a wife, a middle-class woman whose life closely resembles ours. And, wonder of wonders, she's HONEST!)

Brady observes, "The average voter was kind of slow, actually . . . . The average voter could absorb only a limited amount of information about his candidate, Lee thought, and should never be bewildered with specifics"

Brady goes on, "Lee realized that in order to get swing votes, [George H.W.] Bush had to tap voters' emotions instead of their brains. It was Lee's job [as a campaign guru] to find the specific example, the outrageous abuse, the easy-to-digest tale that made listeners feel - usually, repulsion - rather than think. Like the old carnival barker, he needed a hook to get them into the tent."

In future blog columns , I'll discuss more of Atwater's insights -- and how they can help a Sarah Palin get voters "into the tent."

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