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Democratic Convention Day #1

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Aug 26, 2008

One of the main jobs of the Democratic Convention is to convince American voters that Obama is "one of us." It is not just the strange sounding name and his race that many think hurt Obama. It is the perceived elitism, unAmericanism, and inexperience that concerns voters. Tonight, Michelle Obama started addressing those concerns by effectively placing the Obama's in the American mainstream.

One of the most effective narrative's in America is the American Dream where those with nothing are able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of themselves. The Obamas clearly fit in this Horatio Alger narrative.

First, Obama comes from a broken home, is raised by his mother and grandmother, and goes off to college (but not just any college -- Harvard), and law school (where he made law review at Harvard), and then to a large law firm. There are so many Americans who are first generation "somebodies" who have an almost identical story and so his similar story helps people identity with Obama and believe that Obama can empathize with them.

Then out of his gratitude for what America gave him, he turns around, quits the law firm, starts with community organizing, and eventually turns to politics. And after some success in Illinois, he rebounds from a disastrous run for congress to win a US Senate seat. From there, he makes an inspiring keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention and then launches a campaign for the presidency where he defeats the "inevitable" candidate and the Clinton machine by a better strategy and just outworking her. His entire life is an underdog story and that resonates with many Americans.

Michelle Obama's story resonates just as much as she was the daughter of a sanitation worker who had a stay-at-home mom (ala June Cleaver) and a supportive family (a brother who watched over me). Her parents worked hard so she could go to college (Harvard -- not bad) and she landed a major job with a large Chicago law firm. From there, she began to work with non-profts to see that rich Chicago reached out to the rest of Chicago. And she did all this while raising two children. Her life, including giving up her career to help Barack is something many Americans, especially women, can identify with.

This is important because as Richard Fenno pointed out almost thiry years ago in his Home Style, candidates must present themsleves in certain ways to win the trust of voters. In other words, they must convince voters that the candidate is who s/he claims to be and will do what s/he promises. Because if they like and trust you, they are more likely to vote for you.

Fenno noted that there are three components of trust: qualification, identification, and empathy. First, identification communicates that "I am one of you," that I think like you do, and care about the same things you do. This is what we call symbolic representation or the degree to which elected officials inspire trust among voters by serving well as a cultural fit with the nation. Second, empathy is the sense that the candidate understands voters’ problems and care about them. Third, qualification is the belief that the candidate is capable of handling the job of president.

Michele Obama's speech clearly hits on the first two with his and her story. Now, the convention must continue this narrative while promoting his qualification for the job. So Day 1 went well but there is still more for Obama and his surrogates to do.