False opposition: boosting Obama v. knocking McCain

Congnitive dissonance theory: voters who aren’t comfortable with Obama won’t listen to bad news about McCain.

Some strategists and armchair strategists are expressing discontent that tonight didn’t hit John McCain hard enough. I agree that Jim Leach could and should have gone after McCain the way Zell Miller went after Kerry. But the opposition between convincing voters that (1) that McCain Is A Bad Man and (2) that Barack Obama Would Be A Safe Choice is, I think, a psychological mistake. It ignores cognitive-dissonance effects.

Voters have to choose between Obama and McCain. If they believe that one or the other of them is unacceptable, that makes them less willing to believe negative information about the other. The more scared they are Obama, the more heavily they will discount, or deny, McCain’s flaws. So presenting Obama as safe is one of the necessary pre-conditions for getting people to believe all the (true) bad things that can be said about McCain.

Conveying a positive message is hard; attacks are much easier, and defending yourself is no substitute. The Michelle Obama presentation, with the prologue video and the epilogue with her husband and daughter, did that job brilliantly. Tonight was the end of the summer interlude and the beginning of the fall campaign. It could hardly have started on a better note.

Expect to see HRC in full attack mode tomorrow night. Her speech will be more effective for the groundwork Michelle Obama laid, and especially because of M.O.’s praise of HRC, which will help to open the ears of her discontented supporters.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com