In memoriam



I want to note the untimely death of Kambili Moukwa, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Pennsylvania. "Kam" was one of my political-writing students - an aspiring public servant who was already working as an intern in the Philadelphia mayor's office, a gentle soul who wrote substantive and often prescient commentaries on the '08 presidential election for the class blog.

Over a span of several semesters, Kam always kept his cool when the class debate got hot. He had strong Democratic sympathies, but he was refreshingly unpredictable. He instinctively understood that political commentators are most credible when they defy partisan orthodoxy and demonstrate their independence. Last April, for instance, Kam eloquently assailed Barack Obama for the candidate's remarks about those "bitter" small-towners who supposedly "cling" to their guns and religion; Kam argued on the class blog that rural people worship for affirmative reasons, "because they care about their faith in God and belief in a higher power" - and that liberal Democrats need to better connect with those reasons in order to win.

It's not yet clear precisely why Kam died, after a night of celebrating the new year. His family and his Penn friends have barely begun to mourn. I'll simply close here by excerpting (with minimal editing) perhaps his shrewdest class contribution, written this past September. Kam rightly framed the terms (emotional connection, perceptions of trust) on which the autumn presidential campaign would be fought. Consider this my small way of keeping Kam's spirit alive, and I ask that all posted comments be appropriately respectful.


From the class blog, by Kambili Moukwa, Sept. 17:

When I worked on a campaign during the Presidential primaries, I was able to travel to Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada, and North Carolina. Surrounded by partisan activists on both sides, I was able to engage in substantive discussions of policy. I’ll never forget debating an organizer of a rival campaign over the merits of his candidate’s health care plan. I had dozens of pages containing the actual plan, in addition to quotations from third-party sources, and spent nearly 30 minutes citing statistics and facts that, after a while, I was not even sure of.

What I have come to realize, however, is that the average American is not nearly engaged in these sorts of issues that deeply, if at all. There simply are not enough hours in a day to discover the nuances in policy positions or to surf cable news networks with up-to-the-minute coverage. With each party’s convention now complete, we have finally reached the phase of the campaign where the average American will start to tune into the election. What will they be looking for? These voters will be looking for the candidate that shares the values that matter most to them and personal traits they believe necessary to lead the nation.

In short, they will be looking for candidates they emotionally connect with.

In Drew Westen’s book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, he makes a similar case. Westen identified four things a voter wants to know most in deciding whether or not to vote for a particular candidate. In order of importance: 1. Does a candidate share the values that matter most to me and do they care about people like me? 2. Can I trust them to represent me faithfully? 3. Do they have the personal qualities that lead me to believe that they will do right? and 4. Can I trust them to make the right decisions on the issues I most care about?

Knowing this, it is somewhat puzzling why there was such an uproar two weeks ago from the left, including the Obama campaign, when McCain campaign manager Rick Davis made his comment that “This election is not about the issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.” The uproar is even more surprising when one considers that, after winning the Democratic primaries, Obama strategist David Axelrod explained that their strategy rested in detailing Obama’s biography, background, and personality to the American people.

What this election will hinge upon is whether voters can answer those critical questions, outlined by Westen, about Obama the person. As anyone who has worked on any sort of campaign would know, one of the most common responses that voters give for supporting a particular candidate is because the candidate makes them “feel good,” or “I have a good feeling about him (or her),” or “I feel that they are right for the country right now.”

Feelings, derived from the emotions, are part of the thought process that leads the electorate to prefer one candidate over another. We will soon see which campaign understands this and which campaign does not.