HOW PEOPLE VOTE.
What's happening in this election.
It's the subconscious, stupid. That is--the stupid subconscious.
The three S'es--Success, Security, Strength--
demonstrated by a candidate wins U.S. elections.
by Elmer Brunsman
How people see themselves determines for whom they vote. People vote on what they identify with and for whomever represents it. It's our most motivating prerogative--thus the term identity politics is not limited to the usual considerations--gender, race etc. Identity is a universal prerogative. Our identity regarding success governs our behavior in the voting booth as elsewhere. The other factors that determine a vote are security and perceived strength.
How people see themselves and whom they vote for involves what they aspire to. Their ideals. And that, first of all, is to be successful. It's only "the economy stupid" when the economy fits those prerequisites, not the economy itself. What people aspire to is why there are Republicans. In another society the party that fights for the lower classes would be elected. In the U.S. no one accepts the label "proletariat" no matter how accurate it would be for the working 99% verses the comparable aristocrats, the "1%." So they vote in large numbers for a class they want to be in, the Republican class. The perceived-to-be-successful class.
People vote according to how they see themselves or more importantly, how they wish to see themselves. Obama is confronted with: 1) he's black, i.e. a minority or de facto a "lesser" despite all post-racial ideals we pay service to consciously (associated with white is handsome, which explains why looks matter, which was John Kennedy's trump card over Nixon). African -American identity, of course, is engaged by a half-black president, so he gets their votes. Mormons will vote for Romney as Catholics did for JFK. Vets vote for vets, etc.; 2) "socialist," the perception (not the reality, which is that Obama has done nothing in four years that justifies that label), it's a perception that Americans have long been ingrained to oppose no matter how much such programs actually exist--social security, medicare, community-owned utilities, NFL-revenue sharing, etc.; 3) his foreign name--again identity; 4) lack of overwhelming success by "his" economy. Merely preventing a depression isn't sufficient, one must preside over a booming economy regardless of how the faltering economy occurred and how little influence the president actually has over the economy and deserves little credit or blame; 5) the ramifications of Benghazi, while he had addressed and achieved the security of the nation and strength image. Yes, his refusal to allow war-crimes investigations against Bush, continuing torture policy, drone attacks killing innocents, killing U.S. citizens, detention-without-trial policy, prosecuting whistle blowers, are all egregious. He could change in a second term. The Republicans are the genesis of such policies and pathologically Romney acquiesces. People vote according to how they identify with these matters if they are aware of them at all.
Even if Obama rewins office through an electoral-college victory the problem has now come to a very possible divided result between that and a popular cumulative vote nationwide. That would set up another kind of disaster, an interminably dysfunctional government. And that plays to the right wing having still more power over anything getting done, certainly any things we realize are crucial that Obama could move toward in a second term. The right wing will brand and not allow an "illegitimate Democratic president" as we allowed the actual illegitimacy of Bush who had not won Florida when the votes were recounted later yet had gone on allowing 9/11 despite repeated advance warnings, Iraq errant invasion and the economic disaster. Republicans aren't so acquiescent and what that will result in is beyond imagining as were the Bush years before they unfolded.
Initiating the set back for Obama was the fatal bad "first impression," after which it is hard to recover, in the first debate in which he was perceived as weak since he deliberately wasn't assertive when viewed for the first time against Romney and Romney came on strong.
People in the U.S. aspire most commonly to success and want to identify with it. This can be overridden only by a such "higher" imperative as religious beliefs. The anti-abortion factor causes some people to vote against their own economic interests. Opposition to homosexual marriage may effect the same.
There are those who identify with "intellectual" characteristics, among them concern for the environment, the world, human and civil rights and all their corollaries in foreign affairs. Obama gets that particular identity vote over any extant Republican. Those who identify with the country itself, many Americans, vote for the party that expropriates "the flag," patriotism, nationalism, U.S. and corporate hegemony. Republicans invariably get that vote.
So how is the irrational shift in women's polling toward Romney explained despite the Republican "war on women" issues that directly affect women? The male as provider. Even when Obama actually possesses the very traits, Romney personifies the image women want whether they consciously acknowledge it or not. Strength, security, success.
Add to the situation the voter-suppression campaign by various means against voters in key states who identify with Obama or receive security from government. That includes the "poll watching" training programs to intimidate voters in specific areas while there is no history or evidence of actual possible voter fraud to prevent. You won't know about this watching Fox News Channel or the corporate network media.
Those other factors that determine voting--security and perceived strength--explain Bush over both Gore and Kerry despite the closeness of those races and the fact that the latter two candidates actually won as later analysis of the voting indicates. What allowed Bush to be in the contest at all were those three "s" factors: self-identity, security, strength. And the perception factor prevailed regardless of reality--e.g. Bush allowed 9/11 to happen but people for psychological reasons couldn't address that and since he was a Republican and not a Democrat the political opposition did not indict him as would have been the case if the situation were reversed and Gore were president and had ignored numerous warnings of a pending attack on the U.S. with one actually occurring on his watch due to weakness undermining national security.
There's one "wild card" factor set that can override the prime "s"es as long as those three aren't too far absent. That wildcard factor category was the determining element in the 2008 election: it's inspiration, optimism, hope. Indeed hope was one of Obama's slogans. It was far more influential than his other slogan printed below the iconic image of him--progress. Progress can actually be frightful, evoke the unknown. Hope is sufficiently powerful and yet amorphous to fit everyman's imagery and aspirations. FDR won on it, Reagan also, coupled with the security-and-success factors. Even Clinton over Bush I was a case of hope triumphant. Remember Clinton exalted that he was the man from Hope, in that case also conveniently a place in Arkansas.
So breaking these descriptors down it's possible to see Obama's problem this year and why Romney has caught up in the polls despite every rational reason against it.
Those who followed the early 2012 campaign through all of Romney's reversals of position and de facto lies might wonder at how he could now succeed. People didn't pay attention earlier. But even if they had, intelligence and knowledge is not the determining issue. As extreme a case as Hitler, the classic example on this, was popular for his promise to "make Germany strong again." Invidious comparison, like it or not, history and human mentality is reality.
Obama had to do one thing to win this election: promote himself as an image of success in America and as president. Nixon should have done the same in 1960. They had to show Everyman and woman the candidate who is themselves in aspiration and self identity real or wished for.
Romney is projecting the idea that he was successful working with Democrats in Massachusetts, intending to convey the canard that Obama was not successful working with congressional Republicans. In reality Romney was "successful" in doing what his opposition wanted, most notably with health care. You can always be "successful" agreeing with what the opposition wants. Obama faced a congress whose blatant declared purpose was that he get nothing done, to be a failure, a one-term president. There's no credit in Romney's case for success and none for failure in Obama's case as the Republicans are claiming regarding "failure" they engineered.
There's hope. The unpredictable vagary of Hurricane Sandy and Obama's response to it looking strong, providing security to the citizens hit by the storm, could be the deus ex machina (in Greek drama a sudden intervening element that saves the protagonist. A storm is a "machine from God"!) to turn things his way sufficiently at the last moment. It could be his correlation to Lincoln's (with whom he identifies) sudden Civil War battle victories that paved the way for Lincoln's reelection after he had been expected to lose in 1864. "The Sandy War" response could sufficiently ignite Obama's electoral fortunes by demonstrating to the voters the three "s" factors: strength, security, success with which they always wish to perceive and identify.
Elmer Brunsman has taught college communication ethics, served in the U.S. Peace Corps, hosted a talk radio program for years exploring cutting-edge issues, was media consultant to numerous environmental, human rights, health, and educational organizations, has worked in numerous political campaigns, and was press secretary for a congressional candidate.