Monday, September 15, 2008

Back To The Future

The Iowa caucuses not only marked the beginning of this election season, but also ushered in what was to become the theme of the election: Change. In Iowa, all the candidates from both parties saw that the two candidates that campaigned on a message of change did incredibly well (Obama and Huckabee).

Since then, the theme of change has remained a constant in the campaign. Obama has stayed with his message of "Change We Can Believe In," while McCain has attempted several different change themes prior to the republican convention (remember "The Change You Deserve" back in May).

After the convention, an interesting development occurred. Somehow Obama lost control of the theme of Change. All of a sudden McCain was all about Change. He had taken what Obama had been saying, and started campaigning as the Maverick team that could bring change to Washington. Instead of trying to come up with an original theme he simply used the media spot light of the republican convention and flatly stated, as if no one had ever thought of this idea before, that he was the candidate for change.

What happend next was quite surprising, it caught on. All of a sudden McCain, who remember is from the party who has controlled the presidency for the last eight years, as well as the House and Senate for the first six of those eight years, was the Change man. It appears to me that he was able to pull off this transformation because the base of the republican party has never embraced him (and in fact still haven't--remember they really only got on board once Palin was on the ticket), so he was able to sell himself to moderate republicans (and perhaps independent leaning republicans) that he is different than the last eight years. He can bring Change. Not the Change the democrats want, but he can bring a different kind of republican control to Washington.

With such a high level of success on the overarching theme of Change, McCain started very slowly to adopt a lot of the exact same language that Obama has been using over the last year. If you examine McCain's speeches post convention with Obama's remarks, there is no mistaking that McCain has become somewhat of a mimic or echo of Obama.

McCain has been able to pull of his copy cat nature of Obama's messages, in essence by using the same language and ideas, but in slightly different patterns and cadences. The result has been quite remarkable in the short term. McCain's national and swing state polls have shot way up. This development however has clearly made many Obama supporters quite angry. The claim is that McCain has usurped Obama's issues and is a charlatan or a wolf in sheep's clothing.

What is interesting is that this is not the first time the strategy of co-opting your opponent's popular ideas and messages as your own has occurred in a presidential race and it is not even the first time it has been done by a republican presidential candidate.

Issue and message co-option was the bread and butter of the republican party in presidential elections of most of the 1930s and 1940s. The most famous example is probably the election of 1948, in which the republican party took Truman's entire campaign platform and passed it through congress during the election in an effort to take the issues away from Truman.

The good news for Obama, is that in each historical case when the republican party attempted to take a democratic platform as their own they have lost the election in November. The historical argument for why this is the case is that in the end, issue co-opting by a rival candidate signals to the voting public that there are really only one set of options for moving forward. So when forced with a choice, why would you choose the imitator over the real Mccoy?

What has generally happened is that while issue co-optation can cause short term excitement by the partisans of the candidate that co-opted the issue, because there is no previous record of the candidate having such a position the candidate cannot make a credible commitment to actually carrying through on the co-opted issues once elected. Thus, faced with a choice between candidates that are saying the same thing, voters choice the candidate who is more likely to actually carry out those issues as promised.

As a result, issue co-option helps with popularity in the short term, because the issues themselves garner attention, but in the long term, results in the original candidate being elected. Of course there is no way to know for sure if the same will happen in this election. It is up to Obama to ensure that he remains the authentic choice by showing that McCain is merely echoing his ideas. But it cannot be denied that Obama has history on his side in this development.

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