By Ben Goddard - 04/16/08 04:55 PM EDT
A couple of decades ago a seasoned veteran of many political battles gave me some advice on focus groups that has served me well over the years: “Listen to the music, not the words,” he said. The evidence suggests the good people of Pennsylvania have been doing just that amidst all the noise over Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) comments at a San Francisco fundraiser.
Despite predictions by the chattering class that his suddenly public “private comments” would cost him votes in Pennsylvania, despite withering attacks on the stump from both Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and despite a quick attack ad rolled out by the Clinton campaign, Pennsylvania voters don’t seem to be deserting Obama. Three new Pennsylvania polls this week were a wash — one had Clinton gaining four points, another Obama narrowing the gap by four and the third showing no change. The Real Clear Politics average of Pennsylvania polls continues to show the race tightening. Obama has gained 16 points on Clinton in the past three weeks. Clinton still leads by eight, the big debate happens after this piece is filed and there are still five days of intense campaigning ahead. Still, I feel pretty comfortable with saying Obama’s music is in tune.
Many Pennsylvania voters are bitter, and with good reason. Along with 80 percent of their fellow Americans, they think the nation is headed in the wrong direction. Over 70 percent are unhappy with the way George Bush has waged his war in Iraq, and the way many politicians have enabled his incompetence. We’re in a recession and working people feel it. Politicians have been promising that jobs were coming back and better days were just around the corner for decades — but no one has delivered on those promises. Voters everywhere are fed up and want some changes made. Hell, I’m bitter and I have a pretty good gig going.
Obama has the music right. It is hardly elitist to identify with the frustration of middle-class America. Now, had I been advising him on how to say that, I’d probably not have suggested he use the word “cling” to describe how folks turn to traditional values when their leaders seem to have deserted them. “Embrace” might have been a better choice. Even “take solace in” or “find comfort with” would have given opponents and pundits less to carp about. But the core message was truth to power, and a lot of voters are ready to sing along with Sen. Obama on that tune.
Even that “cling” word may not be doing the damage some predicted. A good friend who is also a good Democrat, a talented wordsmith and a practicing Catholic made the point to me that there is “nothing wrong with clinging to one’s faith. A lot do,” he said, “just as they cling to family, patriotism, roots, culture, heritage …”
While I’ve strayed from my religious roots a bit, I can still recall a hymn sung a dozen times a year in my youth. “The Old Rugged Cross” contained a refrain that closely aligns with Obama’s words: “So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross/ Till my trophies at last I lay down/ I will cling to the old rugged cross/ And exchange it some day for a crown.” Could it be that a lot of Pennsylvania Christian voters recalled that chorus and so were not repelled by the senator’s choice of words? In times like these a lot of us need something to cling to.
As has often been the case in this most unusual of election years, the chattering class continues to be wrong about what matters in this election. I suppose the fact that I’m privileged to proclaim 750 or so words of my thoughts each week gets me a seat somewhere near the end of that table, so I could be off message as well. But as Ronald Reagan said, numbers are stubborn things, and the numbers seem to show Obama continuing to solidify his support, no matter the Rev. Wright controversy or the charges of elitism. The Washington Post/ABC News poll this week shows Obama with a 10-point lead over Clinton among Democrats. But more important are some internal numbers. They show serious erosion in Clinton’s favorability, a growing lack of trust and a perception that she is not honest.
Obama scores 23 points better on honesty, 21 points on ability to change Washington and five points better on understanding voters’ problems. That’s strong evidence voters like the music they are hearing from Sen. Obama.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.