The Biography is the Message

Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson has done a really remarkable job of opening up the Obama campaign this year — making its inner workings accessible and understandable, illuminating the personalities within. His new piece on Obama’s campaign team isn’t quite as essential or eye-opening as, say, The Machinery of Hope, but it’s a nonetheless a sharp and revealing overview of Obama’s team behind the scenes. I was especially struck by this passage on David Axelrod’s messaging philosophy:

As an adman, Axelrod believes that finely crafted policy proposals are meaningless unless voters can connect with a candidate on a personal level. “People are used to being bombarded with messages, but biographical material is the only way they can make the judgment whether what they’re hearing is genuine,” he says. “So when Barack talks about economic issues, the fact that he started his adult life as a community organizer in the shadow of closed steel mills, the fact that he passed on the Wall Street jobs to work as a civil-rights lawyer — all of this authenticates the overall message of the campaign that stems from who he is.”

This is obvious in many ways, but it’s something a lot of Beltway policy-pushers seem to forget. Most voters (and, come to think of it, a lot of bloggers and political professionals too), being rationally ignorant, aren’t going to bone up on the relevant white papers and studies. They’re going to trust the person who appears to have lived the message. This is why Barack Obama, the former community organizer and activist, comes across as reputable on economic issues, while John McCain is much stronger on the war and foreign policy. You can argue all you want about whether that’s actually a good way to judge a candidate and his or her policies; the fact is that vast swaths of the voting public use biography and personality as proxies for assessing policy. Axelrod is employing exactly this strategy in his first round of general election ads:

McCain’s team is obviously pushing this approach as well — hence the “Biography Tour” — although perhaps not quite as successfully.

Of course, part of the key to this strategy is effectively shaping and controlling your candidate’s backstory, which is why the Obama-as-secret-Muslim stories had (and may still have) such potential to be damaging, and why the Obama-as-elitist line will continue to be potent (though I suspect not fatally so).

Another note, somewhat tangential: The cover to the new RS, which features a high detail headshot of Obama and not a single headline, is really striking. I didn’t notice this when it showed up in my mailbox, but on the newsstand, it’s extremely dramatic and really stands out.