The Obama Campaign: A Political Masterpiece




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Interpretation using Charismatic Leadership Theory

Charismatic leadership theory states that "...charismatic attributions are literally contagious, spreading from follower to follower "(Bligh, Kohles 488). Bligh and Kohles also note that in the Obama Campaign, the spread of charismatic attributions was highly encouraged through the use of social networking and web-based campaigning (488). In fact, this strategy was premeditated. Sarah Stirland discusses how Obama and his team used an advertising model originally developed by Harvard scholars as a way of fixing the Sierra Club's grassroots volunteer program. The theory states that logic tends to appeal more to the type of person who will try to get things done by themself and emotions appeal more to people who will use social means to accomplish tasks. Since people who try to do things themselves get burnt out more easily, emotional approaches at advertising are more effective (para 25-26).

The infectious emotion model was assisted greatly by the internet. At the same time that the Republican candidate John McCain had 600,000 facebook supporters, Obama had over two million. Similarly, in the visual world of YouTube, the Obama channel received 97 million views while the McCain channel received only 25 million. Similar effects were observed in countless other forms of media. In addition, the diversity of mediums used was great. Besides the 15 online communities in which Obama maintained a profile (Vargas para 11), text messaging, and e-mails, campaign workers even developed an Obama app for the iPhone (Fraser, Dutta para 11-14).

It is clear from the commentary discussed in the ethnography section of this website that Barack Obama was found by many people to be a charismatic person. I would argue that part of this charisma was Obama's ability to translate logical thoughts into emotions through consistency and simplicity. Ideas such as hope and change are easily interpreted emotionally if the delivery is done well. From comments about how Obama came down to other peoples' level and videos demonstrating the effect Obama had on people, it is clear that the delivery of his ideology was effective.

Political Environment and Public Receptiveness to Charisma

Charisma was not the only key to success for the Obama Campaign. Charismatic leadership is only effective when conditions exist in which followers are especially receptive to charismatic leaders, such as a national crisis (Bligh, Kohles 485). The economic crash occurring around the time of the presidential race is a perfect example of such a crisis (Bligh, Kohles 486). During these times of crisis, many people feel overwhelmed by their problems and do not want to think about how to fix them. Instead, they want to put faith into a confident, charismatic leader. Bligh and Kohles note that until the economy began to have severe problems (shortly after the republican convention), polls placed McCain and Obama on even ground. It was not until after escalation of the economic crash that Obama took the lead (486).

As Bligh and Kohles note in their analysis of charimatic leadership, the requirement by the public for charismatic leadership can be seen as a form of social coping mechanism (487). This phenomena shares many characteristics with other examples of the power of suggestion, including the altered states of consciousness produced in hypnosis.

Summary and Conclusions

The Obama Campaign clearly demonstrated the tremendous social effects of emotional contagion. It showed how charisma could distill complex ideas into simple, common emotions. Action on the part of Obama's followers proved the power of grassroots political movements when combined with the organizing power of the internet and social networking services. Finally, it became clear how conditions of the nation dictated the appeal of charisma to the American Public, enabling Barack Obama to win a landslide vote against all odds.


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