by Jonathan Alter
Published Aug 23, 2008
From Newsweek magazine issue dated Sep 1, 2008
It’s hard to predict what will stick. ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ was a hand-scrawled sign hung in Little Rock.
When NEWSWEEK reported earlier this summer that the McCain family owns at least seven houses, few outside the hothouse of politics noticed. Voters assume that all politicians are rich and didn’t seem to care that John McCain’s wife, Cindy, is worth $100 million and owed back taxes on one of the properties. But when Politico asked McCain last week in New Mexico how many residences he and his wife owned and he answered, “I think—I’ll have my staff get to you,” the story suddenly took off, fueled by the impression that McCain is old and out of touch with Americans struggling to pay their mortgages. Will it do his campaign real damage? Depends on the “stickiness.”
The same goes for Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in Denver. The buzz of 70,000 people screaming for him at Invesco Field will wear off if he doesn’t frame his economic message in a way that otherwise inattentive Americans can recall. Without an indelible metaphor, all of his policy speeches are written in invisible ink.
Modern campaigns are about flinging 10 things against the wall every day and hoping something sticks. Everything else, from fund-raising to advertising (paid for by the fund-raising) to speechmaking to Web strategy, is in the service of applying that adhesive, either to cement the candidate’s message or muck up the opponent’s engine with sludge.
That’s because memorable lines, images, gaffes and monikers act like a piece of gum on the bottom of your shoe. They get your attention and may even shape your voting behavior. In the world of marketing, “sticky branding” means intentionally creating an emotional attachment to a consumer product. In the blogosphere, a “meme” (a word coined by the science writer Richard Dawkins in 1976) is an idea that spreads virally, beyond anyone’s control. Political campaigns often try to add gobs of glue (as Obama did on the seven-house story), but why some stories stick and others don’t remains something of a mystery.
Pop-culture references help. Ronald Reagan used a Clint Eastwood line, “Go ahead, make my day,” to great effect. When Walter Mondale wanted to stigmatize Gary Hart for lacking substance in 1984, he quoted from an ad for Wendy’s: “Where’s the beef?” The political spot that made the biggest splash this summer aired only briefly on TV. But the use of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton helped McCain label Obama as just another celebrity. If big names cut through the clutter, so does name-calling. GOP hit men like to refer to “Barack Hussein Obama,” the better to brand him as a foreigner. And Democratic polemicists are already referring to “Exxon John” and “another four years of John McSame.”
There’s nothing fair about the process. McCain can be excused for not knowing exactly how many rental properties his wife owns. Al Gore never actually said, “I invented the Internet.” (He was talking about his role as a legislator in providing the government funding that allowed it to grow.) In 1988, Michael Dukakis took a ride in a tank. It wasn’t his fault that the picture made him look like Snoopy. To his dying day, George H.W. Bush will insist that in 1992 he knew perfectly well what a supermarket scanner was; he was just commenting about some new technology. But the image helped sink him.
The most common standard for stickiness is whether it fits into a pre-existing impression. “Heck of a job, Brownie,” stuck because it perfectly captured President Bush’s failures during Hurricane Katrina. And Bill Clinton’s finger-wagging always gets him in trouble because it reminds people of when he lied about Monica Lewinsky. But Joe Biden’s stereotyping Indian-Americans at a convenience store or calling Obama “clean” and “articulate” did no lasting harm because no one ever accused Biden of being a racist. Stories don’t grow in barren soil.
Of course, sometimes fertile soil—the congruent context—is itself a concoction. Dan Quayle’s spelling “potato” with an “e” resonated because of superficial media judgments that he was somehow dumber than the average vice president. After Obama’s gaffe about “bitter” voters “clinging” to guns and religion, McCain operatives worked overtime trying to tag the Democratic candidate as an elitist, down to the brand of iced tea he drinks. This despite the fact that Obama was raised by a single mother (who sometimes relied on food stamps) and attended top universities on scholarships and loans. The most persistent meme of this campaign season, that Obama is a Muslim, is a lie based on his foreign-sounding name and brief attendance at a public elementary school in Indonesia. In politics, like war, truth is the first casualty.
It’s hard to predict what will stick. The “New Covenant” Bill Clinton offered in 1992 went nowhere, but a hand-scrawled sign that James Carville hung in the Little Rock war room that year, “It’s the economy, stupid,” entered the language. Campaigns spend vast amounts of time and money coming up with slogans (“Change We Can Believe In,” “Country First”) instead of finding the quirky expression or colorful figure of speech that someone might actually remember.
And all the efforts to fan the flames of the other guy’s gaffe might be counterproductive. Flaps fade. The “story of the day” rarely lasts two. Truly harmful memes work more insidiously. Gore’s Internet misquote was never a headline; it never sucked up all the media oxygen. But it ate away at his credibility because it played on an impression that he sometimes inflated his own importance.
The same might be true this year of McCain’s “I’m illiterate and have to rely on my wife for assistance” line. When he said it to Yahoo News in January, hardly anyone took note. But the prospect of a 21st-century president largely unfamiliar with the dominant technology of our time has a way of lingering in the mind. It crystallizes the age issue without referencing it directly. Should McCain lose in November, that offhand admission could be one reason why. If it sticks.