The Campaign Spot

Are Obama’s 2008 Voters Getting What They Expected?

Today’s Morning Jolt wraps up a not-too-dramatic result in Illinois’ Republican presidential primary, the travel of the president’s daughter, and this continuation of the discussion of how to facilitate the doubts of wavering Obama voters from 2008…

Are Obama’s 2008 Voters Getting What They Expected?

Yesterday’s discussion of the thinking of disillusioned and wavering Obama voters appeared to be greatly appreciated, with James Taranto, Melissa Clouthier, Moe Lane and Rush Limbaugh adding to the discussion.

As we contemplate how to persuade wavering Obama voters… perhaps a good place to start is to ask them what they expected him to deliver. When they marked the box for him in 2008, where did they think the country would be in 2012?

The diehard Democrats will instantly respond, “He inherited a lot of problems, much worse than anyone expected… Bush had eight years to louse up this country, you can’t expect Obama to clean up his mess in half the time… Obama would accomplish more if the Republicans hadn’t obstructed him every step of the way… He can’t he held responsible for the headwinds like the tsunami in Japan and the European debt crisis and the slowing of the global economy and ATMs taking people’s jobs and… ” Of course, none of these are answers to the question above; they’re implicitly defensive justifications for why Obama hasn’t delivered what they expected. You’ve asked them, effectively, ‘when you voted for hope, what were you hoping for?’ and if they respond by offering all the reasons they blame Republicans, you can conclude this Obama voter is not persuadable and move on to the next one.

When you prompt non-diehard Obama voters to think of their expectations on Election Day 2008, they’ll probably conclude that some, many, or all, are unmet. They’ll probably talk about the epic economic anxieties that were gripping almost all Americans in the autumn of 2008. They’ll probably express this in very personal terms, about the value of their home, the value of their 401(k) or other retirement savings, their ability to find a job or find a better job than the one they have now. Perhaps they’ll remember the exorbitant gasoline prices from the summer of 2008. They may remember an incredulity at TARP, at watching the richest people they could imagine – Wall Street bankers! – coming to Congress and begging for billions and saying that if they didn’t get it, the economy would collapse. Long-established businesses were declaring bankruptcy left and right: Lehman Brothers. Washington Mutual, IndyMac, Circuit City, Linens n’ Things… the 2008 election occurred amidst an atmosphere of unequaled crisis. You almost can’t blame late-breaking Obama voters for turning to a candidate who was running as a messiah figure.

Mind you, during all of these discussions with wavering Obama voters, we have to hold our tongues and resist expressing incredulity that they believed Obama could deliver an economic renaissance. In these conversations, for now, it is more important to listen than to talk; you’re collecting data and intelligence on how these people reached their conclusion on who to vote for, and their hierarchy of values. No matter how naïve, ill-informed, stupid, unrealistic, or inane their reasoning is, you will not persuade them by calling them any of those labels. Nod sympathetically. The time to argue will come later. For now, you just want to get a sense of what they think is important in this decision.

My suspicion is that most Obama voters figured that by the spring of 2012, the United States would be in much better shape than it is now. They may not have had specific benchmarks in mind -8.3 percent unemployment, $3.82 per gallon gasoline, and so on. But they probably doubted that they would see the federal government fining them for not having health insurance. (Obama ran against the individual mandate in the Democratic primary, recall.)

You also will probably hear a bit about Obama as a unifying figure. Look back to that 2004 convention speech, the first time most Americans saw him, and the sound-bite from the speech most likely to be replayed over and over again:

There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.

Let’s face it, you and I wouldn’t disagree with that! It’s a wonderful unifying sentiment. It’s even an implicit rebuke of those who are most obsessed with racial divisions and ensuring every aspect of American life is sufficiently diverse, the folks who prompted Bill Clinton to wag his finger and denounce as “bean counters” with “quota games.” No wonder so many people felt warm and fuzzy feelings when they first saw him.

Of course, you and I look at the body of Obama’s work and public life and conclude that none of his noble-sounding sentiments mean much of anything to him when he sees a political opportunity. The sentiment in the convention speech is uniting, inspiring, an idealistic and elevating goal to aspire to… and then he goes out and urges his supporters to “get in their faces” “hit back twice as hard” urges his Latino supporters to “punish our enemies,” refers to citizens who disagree with him as “Teabaggers”, tells White House guests that he believes racism was a factor in the rise of the Tea Parties

But  a significant number of voters saw that guy at the convention in Boston and believed that he meant what he said. What’s more, like the old poster from the “X-Files,” they wanted to believe.  And it’s been a long, slow process of letting go of that idealistic vision.

So the first task is to contrast the prospect of Obama, the ideal that some of his voters expected, and what he has been and what he has produced. If you can get an Obama voter to express disappointment in the man they voted for in 2008… well, you’re halfway to getting that voter to A) vote Republican or B) not vote, which is almost as good for our purposes.


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