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Presidential Politics Can Be Local, Too

August 5, 2008

Former Speaker of the House Thomas "Tip" O’Neil made famous the adage that all politics are local. What he meant was that people voted based on how issues related to them personally and that candidates can’t take a voter for granted – even if that voter lives in their own neighborhood.

Back in Tip’s day – in the rumble tumble of Cambridge, Massachusetts politics – the standard way to reach voters was trudging through neighborhoods door-to-door. People expected their candidates to personally ask them for their vote - and voters liked it if they did because they thought it showed humility.

Technology has since changed the political process – yet Tip’s mantra that all politics are local – still applies - even in Presidential races.

In this Presidential race Barrack Obama could take a cue from Tip’s philosophy. While his campaign effort has been nothing short of impressive, he continues to make mistakes and make statements that seem out of touch. Voters in key swing states continue to be wary of his positions and John McCain has exploited these weaknesses by making the charge that Obama is driven by style - not substance.

Some of this fallout may be the result of Obama’s reliance on campaign technology instead of personal contact. He has set a new standard for technological effectiveness - including raising an unprecedented amount of money ($338 million to date); making cutting edge use of the Internet to communicate with his supporters about his positions and announcements; airing world class advertising and television commercials; and orchestrating first-rate campaign rallies and events.

But the trade-off for all this innovation might be that the campaign has difficulty seeing politics and issues as being local and that’s what moves voters to your side. This could be the reason Obama still has problems bringing along voters in key swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, West Virginia, and New Hampshire. Obama was trounced by Hilliary Clinton in many of these states during the Democratic primary and those reasons have not gone away.

These are the so-called Reagan Democrats, and Obama must have them to win. They will not vote for him automatically because he is the presumptive nominee - he will have to work hard to get their vote and that means taking his cue from these voters directly.

As Speaker O’Neil once said, "You can be the most important Congressman in the country but you had better not forget the people back home." Same is true for Presidential candidates. There is intrinsic value in listening directly to voters. It doesn’t take a big speech to win them over. Campaigns are not rocket science. They are about listening to what the voters have to say, and making those thoughts part of your own. Then repeat those thoughts back to the masses as often and as creatively as possible.

This could be at the heart of why Obama’s recent speech before 200,000 people in Germany did not provide him with the political bump he was hoping for. Although his overseas trip was supported by those in Europe, it did little here in the states. Voters here are more interested in how he plans to make gasoline affordable. Even more to the point that all politics are local, while Obama was looking for votes in Germany, McCain was visiting local towns in the key states of Pennsylvania and Ohio where he got great local news coverage.

Maybe this is why McCain seems to be telling voters what they want to hear. He recognizes that voters want more control over the price of gasoline and that drilling for oil tops the list of how Americans feel we can get there. At $4 per gallon this is a local issue, and McCain is making a strong case for off-shore drilling. Obama has seen his vulnerability on this issue and has quickly said he has second thoughts about off-shore drilling in certain circumstances.

This is a good example of what Speaker O’Neil was talking about. McCain sees off-shore oil drilling as a local issue - Obama sees it as an environmental one.

There are less than three months until election day and no doubt there will be other issues that take center stage between now and November 4th. The Obama camp needs to keep Speaker O’Neil’s maxim at hand - and realize that all politics are local - even when running for President.