Why did McCain’s Negative Campaign Backfire On Him?

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Why did McCain’s Negative Campaign Backfire On Him?

November 2, 2008 Persuasion Politics 0

If there’s one lesson about the art of persuasion to be learned from the McCain campaign against Barack Obama, it’s this:  When you put someone else down, you make yourself look awful.

McCain failed to notice the feedback he was getting from the electorate, and persisted in this pattern of attack until the bitter end.  As I said in numerous interviews during the political season, one guy was running for president, one guy was running against the guy running for president.  The voters preferred giving the job to the guy who wanted it. 

The mechanism in play is the pattern of association, something I’ve blogged about here.  Our minds form unconscious associations rather quickly, between what we know and what we don’t know, what we like and other things we like, what we don’t like and other things we don’t like.  Obama’s campaign sought to create two associations:  McCain means more of the same.  Obama means positive change.  McCain’s campaign sought to make one association. Obama is bad for America.  Obama used the persuasion signals of consistency (stayed on message) and conformity (behaved the way you would expect a President to behave), authority (spoke clearly and effectively) and affinity (brought in his wife and kids, talked about normal folks just like you), and reciprocity too (I want to give the little guy a break, but I need your help to help you.)

McCain came into the race with a boatload of authority.  27 years of service in the Senate.  A phenomenal history of sacrifice for our country in the Navy.  He could have run against Obama’s lack of experience, appreciated Obama for his achievement but offered America a different view of the future.   Instead, he set about squandering the goodwill his personal history evoked by making his campaign all about his opponent. 

The association he created, with his hodge podge of trumped up or irrelevant associations, none of which he delivered in a way that would make it stick, is that McCain is an angry man, old, and when you think of him or hear him talk, you’ll feel bad.  Bad as in sad for him.  Or bad as in scared about the future,   or bad as in ‘I don’t know why, but I feel bad every time I think of him.’  How did he do that?  Through the power of association.  He associated his campaign with negativity, accusations, anger, and denial. 

What was his message?  Don’t elect Bill Ayers.  (At least that’s how it seemed to me, since that’s the only one they were even remotely consistent on).  He didn’t look or act presidential.  He didn’t make it easy to relate to him (Joe the Plumber wasn’t even honest, and certainly didn’t resonate with enough voters to justify his use as a trick.)  In other words, his negative attacks on Obama created an association of negativity with himself.  That’s emotional, not logical.  Emotional associations are powerful, far more powerful than logic when it comes to decision making.  We decide things emotionally, then justify them rationally.  

Once McCain had anchored us to this reaction, all we needed was to see him or hear him and we felt all the emotion of his negativity all over again.  It didn’t help when he picked a VP candidate who slung the mud harder and faster than he did.  McCain succeeded in creating a pavlovian response in the electorate.  And he never seemed to notice.   

The fact is that putting someone else down brings up bad feelings.  Do it often enough, those bad feelings become a habit.  John McCain’s campaign is what defeated him…that and the fact that he was up against someone smart enough not to take the bait, to stay on message, to offer a positive vision of the future.  

What could he have done differently?  He could have spoken about Obama with respect and appreciation for Obama’s achievement and rhetorical gifts.  He could have said, “I would vote for him too, if I didn’t think my plan was better for you.”  He could have spoken with credibility and integrity, and taken us all back on his straight talk express, and ridden it all the way to the election.  

Negative attacks against others almost always come back to haunt you.  Obama has shown how easy it is to turn such attacks into an advantage. 

Love to hear your thoughts about negative attacks.  

Be well

Rick