A few Sundays ago, we gathered as a nation of tribes—groups of family, friends, work buddies, neighbors, fellow Giants or Patriots fans—to watch the big game and experience the Super Bowl ads. Since our founding days as a nation, people made all important decisions in these groups, including choosing leaders. George Washington wasn’t the brightest or best-spoken in the tribes of his day, but he listened best to what people wanted. When he spoke, he reflected their aspirations. People said, “he speaks for me!” That is how he became the Father of Our Country, and how the Democrats and Republicans will pick their winners on Super Tuesday.
Today, you can spot who is in your tribe because they’re programmed in your cell phone, which made gathering for Super Bowl parties much easier than organizing the Boston Tea Party. But the result is the same—“tribal councils” getting together to talk, laugh, debate, drink, and, in the end, decide who speaks for them.
A great candidate has to find the perfect combination of poignancy and memorability, reflecting the values of people huddled around their televisions.
Watch how people surrounded by their tribe look at a Super Bowl ad, and we see the same process they use to evaluate a candidate. They watch intently (albeit while reaching for another beer), giggling or booing as they talk about the game. Then, in the two seconds after the ad, in unison, they do one of three things: clap, boo, or—in the worst nightmare of advertisers—simply reach for the chicken wings. People don’t judge the ads in the solitude of their own reflections, they do so out loud, in groups of people they know. The tribe shapes the opinion, and decisions emerge from the group—for whether an ad will drive business for the advertiser, or how they’ll vote in a state primary.
People loved the Charlie Brown and Coke ad. People are saying it expresses the essence of the Super Bowl, and the United States—positive, simple, not taking itself too seriously. When the Budweiser Clydesdale came from behind, people cheered—it was the American story of the underdog. People said, “that ad speaks for us!” It was the Madison Avenue version of George Washington.
It’s the same with McCain. All across the Super Tuesday states, tribal councils held in sports clubs, banquet halls, and living rooms kicked around the candidacies. They discussed the latest polls, the sound bites from debates, and their views of issues. People giggled, objected, made their points as they reached for more beer during dull commercials. In the end, Republicans said, “he speaks for me,” or at least “he speaks for me better than Romney or Huckabee.” Like the Charlie Brown ad, they love the underdog who doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. They like the fact he’d appear on Jon Stewart, laughing even with liberals from New York. They like the fact that his position on the war held constant even during unrelenting criticism. Like the Clydesdale commercial imitating Rocky, he presents the American image of consistency, simplicity, and leadership.
For the Democrats, the question conjures up different ads. Will tribes say, “Hillary speaks for us,” or “she’s too abrasive, too unlikable, too unelectable”? Will they perceive her as an opportunist who hasn’t owned up to her record on Iraq? Tribal leaders rarely survive an image of indecision or lack of integrity. Worst of all are potential leaders who seem to be saying “me, me, me!”—and that was a big point of discussion in this weekend’s tribal councils about Clinton. If she came across as GoDaddy.com or Planter’s Nuts—both of which left American tribes scratching their heads—it’s over.
Did Obama get the right combination of underdog, optimism, and change? As the outside candidate (until the last few days showing an upswing in polls), it takes perfect resonance with tribal values to get over America’s fear of voting for the loser. We think has found that resonance. His consistency on Iraq, his Reaganesque optimism, and his version of “change” swayed the tribes we were in over the last couple of weeks.
In the end, America will vote. Obama or Clinton will emerge as the person who speaks for the Democrats, with the loser having come across like the Pepsi Max commercial that was a parody of Night at the Roxbury—over-the-top, not original, too much. People said, “Clever, interesting, but that doesn’t speak for us.” It conjures distant memories of Giuliani and Edwards.
The decision about Clinton vs. Obama has already been made in tribes across Texas—we just don’t know the results yet. If American tribes say, “Obama speaks for us!”, it will be an upset of Truman-vs.-Dewey significance.
After the democrats select a candidate, and the tribes we’re in are saying it’s Obama, then America’s tribal councils will reconvene with the same question—“who speaks for us?” Will it be McCain or Clinton/Obama?
Hopefully, people won’t just reach for more chicken wings.