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Morning Jay: The Obama Campaign: From the 'Macarena' to 'Give 'em Hell!'

6:00 AM, Apr 20, 2011 • By JAY COST
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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?

Obama-door

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.

Imagine that you’re sitting home alone, flipping through the channels, and you stumble upon public access, where a strange duo of middle aged men is doing a very strange dance to a very strange song

Dale a tu cuerpo alegria Macarena
Que tu cuerpo es pa' darle alegria cosa buena
Dale a tu cuerpo alegria, Macarena
Hey Macarena!
(Ay!)

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

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