Picture yourself, for a moment, in a version of John Rawls’s original position. You’ve been tasked with selecting the next president of the United States, only you have no idea what political party he/she is from, or his/her ideological beliefs. You only have knowledge of his/her background and résumé. One of the candidates is a former, undistinguished state senator who spent just two, also undistinguished years, in the United States Senate before announcing a candidacy for the White House. Of the 100 or so million people constitutionally eligible to be commander in chief, is this the person you would choose?
Of course not.
Fortunately, Rawls’s Theory of Justice is really of interest to just a handful of political theorists peppered across the academy. Still, the thought experiment does illustrate just how peculiar it is, in the age of the modern presidency, that somebody with so few qualifications could be given the most important job in the world.
Entire books have been written to account for why Barack Obama became the 44th chief executive, and many more are yet to be written. Most of the reasons are easy to catalogue: in the primary, Obama was able to exploit the internal schisms in the Democratic party far more adroitly than the ill-prepared Clinton campaign; in the general he was given an advantage by a feckless McCain campaign, an unpopular Republican president, and an economic collapse just six weeks before election day. What is often left unmentioned, however, is the Obama team’s use of one of the oldest political tricks in the book: the bandwagon effect.
Dale a tu cuerpo alegria Macarena
Que tu cuerpo es pa' darle alegria cosa buena
Dale a tu cuerpo alegria, Macarena
You would probably roll your eyes, flip the channel, and not give it a second thought.
On the other hand, imagine if you came across an entire stadium of people doing this strange dance on television, and your daughter came in and said, “Oooh! I know that song!” – you might think to yourself, "That looks like fun!"
That is the bandwagon effect. Your opinion shifted not based on the merits of the song, the dance, or the undeniable charisma of Los del Río, but because you saw tens of thousands of people doing it at once.
The first candidate to use the bandwagon as an electoral strategy was William Henry Harrison, who ran as the Whig party nominee in 1840. Incumbent president Martin Van Buren was very unpopular, having had a severe economic recession dumped on his lap just a few weeks after entering office, and the Whigs perceptively recognized that the less they said, the better. So, they recast the aging General Harrison, a well off owner of an extensive country estate in Ohio, as a man of the people and (the genuinely humble born) Van Buren as the paragon of the elites. Their “log cabin and hard cider” campaign was one for the record books, according to historian Paul Boller:
Estimates of crowds assembled for Whig rallies ranged from one thousand to one hundred thousand and sometimes were reckoned in terms of acreage covered. Whig parades got longer and longer as the campaign went on: one mile, three miles, ten miles long…The Whigs popularized the expression, keep the ball rolling, in 1840. They actually rolled balls – great, big, huge Harrison balls ten or twelve feet in diameter, made of twine, paper, leather, or tin, and covered with slogans – down the street and from town to town. And as they rolled they chanted:
What has caused this great commotion, motion, motion,
Our country through?
It is the ball a-rolling on.
For Tippecanoe and Tyler too, Tippiecanoe and Tyler too
That’s a perfect example of a bandwagon campaign: Harrison deserves your support because he has the support of so many other people in the country, because of “this great commotion.”
Obama’s 2008 campaign was an update of the old Harrison strategy. That was the point of the huge rallies in football stadiums, the celebrity endorsements (who nowadays sing bandwagon songs with a nice professional sheen applied to them), the quasi-religious chanting of “Yes we can!” at Obama rallies, and all the rest.
This was a bandwagon campaign with a simple purpose. When your candidate lacks the experience traditionally thought to be necessary to run the government, and you have two wars and an economic slowdown, you need something to cover the gap. And that something was the impression that there was a broad, mass movement behind Obama.
To some extent that was true, of course. The tens of thousands who filled Invesco Field to hear his nomination acceptance were not Hollywood extras who were paid to be there. However, the Obama bandwagon campaign ultimately masked a very significant feature of his 2008 candidacy: when you add up the unique Clinton primary and McCain general election voters, you come up with about 75 million people who, at one point or another, registered opposition to Obama in 2008. That is not meant to suggest for even a second that his victory lacked legitimacy – it is only to point out that the impression that there was a massive, popular groundswell for his candidacy was at least in part a carefully crafted illusion, built on a core of intense supporters.
Set against other presidential campaigns throughout history, I was largely non-plussed by the whole operation. Obama's team did an amazing job of figuring out the complicated rules of the nomination process, and its ability to bring middle class liberals onto the bandwagon was equally impressive. However, his team (and Obama himself, for that matter) seemed like it believed its own spin, often pushing all kinds of weird excesses that cast this junior senator as a divine entity. In terms of real political support, the bandwagon stalled by the time of the Ohio primary in March 2008; the European trip (part of the bandwagon strategy) that summer was a total flop; and in the end it was only the collapse of Lehman Brothers that pushed him into the White House.
And of course, the problem with any “keep the ball rolling to Washington” campaign is an inevitable one: what happens after it finally gets to D.C.? This is a problem that Harrison – who died just a month after his inauguration – never had to experience. Yet it is clearly one Obama and his people are now grappling with.
They probably had hoped to run on the theme that Americans are now better off than they were four years ago. Like FDR, they would shift the blame of the economic collapse on to the Republicans while taking credit for the recovery. The problem for them is that this has been a terrible recovery, one that has fallen far short of everybody's expectations. That leaves them with a version of the Hoover ’32 argument: things would be a lot worse off were it not for Obama.
That’s not nearly good enough, so watch the Obama team pursue two strategies next year:
(1) Try to recreate the bandwagon effect. It won’t be nearly as effective in 2012 as in 2008 simply because he’s no longer an ambiguous phenomenon. Now, he’s the president who has a real – and extremely disappointing – record. Still, look for his team to generate, once again, the impression that he’s riding the crest of some unprecedented wave of popular support. That’s the point of the billion-dollar campaign fund, the gratuitous (and utterly absurd) suggestions that Texas is somehow in play, and the general idea that he’s virtually invincible next year. Also, when the campaign gets going, expect plenty of super-large rallies that will play on people’s inability to appreciate the scale of American elections (30,000 people at a rally is a drop in the bucket in a country where 130 million vote) to reinforce the notion that he can’t lose.
(2) Run the Truman 1948 playbook. Harry Truman is today remembered as a straight shooter who told it like it was. That's true in many respects, but he was also one of the most partisan presidents in the postwar era, and his 1948 campaign was one of the most demagogic. Check out, for instance, Truman’s 1948 nomination acceptance address. The reason Truman ran that campaign was because he was pinched from multiple sides – from the left and the right in his own party, from the Republicans, and from the economy, which ground to a virtual halt by election day. In response, Truman ran hard against the Republicans, arguing that they were set to destroy the New Deal. Expect Obama to run a similar 'Give ‘em hell!' strategy, making particular use of Paul Ryan’s budget to demagogue the Republican position. There’s really no reason to pick somebody like Debbie Wasserman Schultz as chair of the DNC, other than to drive home the 'GOP wants to murder granny' argument.
So, here's the billion dollar question: will this two-pronged strategy work? Frankly, I'm skeptical. I think the bandwagon endeavor is going to fizzle -- at least in terms of moving public opinion. As for the demagogic plan, he is going to need a lot of help from the Republican nominee to recast his opposition as extreme. Truman got that kind of assistance from Thomas Dewey, who pulled his punches in 1948, allowing Truman to set the terms of the public conversation in the final weeks. It's unlikely that the Republican nominee will be so passive, and since he/she likely won't be from Congress, it will be hard to tie him/her to the House (as Clinton tied Dole to Gingrich in 1996).
More broadly, I think the 'are you better off?' question is an undeniable one in reelection cycles. No amount of "strategery" from the Plouffe/Axelrod brain trust, no number of "leg tingling" speeches from the president, and certainly not one billion dollars worth of campaign advertisements can change that. For Obama to win, voters must feel that, if things are not actually better by election day, they soon will be. That's really all there is to it.