The revelation that Sarah Palin’s image consultants have spent over $150,000 on her new wardrobe has come as a shock to many hard-pressed voters. In recessionary times, this is a huge extravagance. The creation and extension of political image is a constant in politics around the world; Ms Palin’s expenditure exemplifies how dominant this projection is in the great game that is democratic politics. If McCain-Palin somehow manage to pull back the Dem’s lead and win, then this will be just another, albeit scandalous, campaign detail. Should the GOP, as looks likely, end up being slaughtered in the General Election, it will prove that image-makers can only work with what’s already there; you can’t go against the grain by claiming to be ‘Everywoman’ but shop at Hermes and DKNY.
US presidential elections, usually coming down to a run off between two individuals, have seen candidates rely on image to give them the edge. Right back to the Founding Fathers, the US has had a strain of individualism which has been emphasised in electoral contests as each runner has tried to portray distinctive characteristics. Kennedy stood for youth and change; Nixon was famously given a better reception by radio listeners than TV viewers – Kennedy and his media handlers carried off the brilliant presentation of a young man, vibrant and virile (despite Kennedy permanently wearing a back brace and being injected with an unknown combination of medicines on a daily basis) against an easily typecast ‘Tricky Dicky’.
Tony Blair and New Labour are the classic case study of presentational magic. Blair’s team referred to Labour’s makeover as ‘The Project’ – it was fighting the previously media-savvy Tories on their own ground; again, youth and change were dominant motifs as were the notions of trust and responsibility. The ultimate trick that New Labour spin doctors pulled off was to make voters believe ‘what you see is what you get’ – there’s no better candidate than the one that radiates sincerity – no matter how manufactured that quality is.
Obama’s campaign has been brilliant from the point of view of image projection. Where McCain looked unsure, Obama looked confident. Where McCain-Palin attacks looked clumsy, Obama surrogates wielded the knife with perfect ruthlessness. Where the older man seemed out of touch, the younger man never ceased to exploit this. Whatever happens on election night, the Obama campaign has already surpassed Clinton ‘92 and ‘96 in terms of political professionalism. He has taken the high road and let others take the low road – never being seen to sling the mud. Obama has been brilliant in engendering a sense of purpose and optimism in his supporters; they may not know everything he stands for but they’ll follow him wherever he needs to go. One of the key issues in leadership is trust; Obama-Biden have this in abundance according to polling.
For once the phrase historic is not hyperbole; 2008 will go down as an era-defining election. The winners and losers will look to where it all went right and wrong and image will be a key consideration in their review of tactics and strategy. So far, there’s been a clear victor in these stakes.