Obama McCain Round Three and the Myth of the Mousetrap

October 17, 2008
A better mousetrap?

A better mousetrap?

The third Presidential debate provided little further evidence that might change the minds of American voters. A recent study of the myth of the mousetrap suggests how the candidates might be better able to get their ideas accepted

The candidates have had even more media exposure (if such a thing is possible) because reporting of the twists and turns of the Bush regime in its attempts to deal with the financial crisis of the last few weeks.

For all his charisma, Obama sticks to offering a low-key and generally reassuring style of debate. He did not go for broke with an appeal to the anxieties of voters. That was a relatively easy call for his advisors and Obama. He is, after all is moving ahead rather nicely in the polls.

In contrast, McCain is struggling in the polls. Observers suggest that he has decided that there is no option but to stick to a personalised attack on Obama. Arguably, each candidate had strong reasons to stick to their earlier strategies.

The leadership dilemma

The debates offer a case example of the dilemmas facing a leader. Stick or twist? If in a strong position why change? If in a weak position it would be nice to change in a way that addresses the perceived weaknesses. But how to find that new strategy, and how to put it into action?

The Myth of the Better Mousetrap

It just so happens that a book came in for review shortly before the third presidential debate. Anne Miller in The Myth of the Mousetrap: how to get your ideas adopted (and change the world) writes about the challenge for a creative person to get ideas accepted. The book primarily focuses on technological ideas and acceptance seeking processes. I commend it to technologists and inventors, but I want to locate my remarks around its relevance in the context of the Obama-Bush campaign

The dangers of the ‘he who is not with us’ approach

Miller goes back into history to show how scientific pioneers have to find ways of overcoming a comprehension gap. She quotes one scientist who many years ago (in 1944) observed the tendency of someone committed to a new idea to be over-zealous:

Zealous believers commonly follow the motto ‘He that is not for us is against us’ [and that] it does not help the cause to accuse all its critics of a state of mind that is as unworthy as fascism’.

She comments that the phrase ‘ with us or against us’ has ‘a worrying echo’ of George Bush in building his ‘coalition against evil’ , adding that
‘being combative may make your supporters feel good, but it does nothing to encourage people who are teetering on the edge of being interested in your ideas’. Her proposition is that increasingly, influence derives from efforts to involve people which will also harness their creativity.

If Miller is right, we begin to understand the dilemma facing McCain. It is less of a problem for Obama, who seems to have been more successful in involving and enlisting an army of youthful supporters.

Bush, and not thinking about the elephant

Another illustration comes from the success of the Bush campaign of 2000. Gore did not win the case by pointing out that Bush tax cuts would mainly advantage the top 1% of voters. Miller (p105) cites George Lackoff’s analysis that Bush had succeeded because ‘people do not vote with their economic self-interest, they vote with their identity and their values [such as] ..strong defense or family values’ .

I assume Lackoff’s analysis has been noted by strategists on the left and right alike. In any case, values are being repeatedly signalled by both candidates. Yet, this time around, there is an elephant (or a gorilla) that can’t be ignored. And it’s not too far away from the point made by Clinton. It’s the economy stupid. Which then gets dressed up in value-laden language. Last night, [October 15th 2008] John McCain personalised it with extensive references to Joe the plumber’ (a real person).

But there are further complications. Appeals to injustice or real and present danger have immediate emotional impact, also trigger feelings of guilt, inadequacy and anger. Such manifestations have been a feature of recent McCain events, less so with Obama’s.

Miller refers to a favoured notion of mine about change from the behavioural theorist Ed Schein. He suggests that people’s attitudes are ‘unfrozen’ by triggering acknowledgement of dissatisfaction with the status-quo coupled with vision off a better state and a simple credible action. If I have a concern about Schein’s model it is in its simplistic application in which someone goes around whipping up dissatisfaction, anxieties, and feelings of inadequacy. This holds for someone arguing for a new product idea and for a change of leadership. It is likely to be more effective in the latter case, than in the political arena, where the actions may just trigger anger against a common enemy.

So McCain is toast?

‘Barring the unexpected’, I would say yes. The possible sources of a turn-round seem to be dwindling. The initial boost from the impact of Sarah Palin is fading. Chances to score in the three televised exchanges have come and gone.

But these are exceptional times. If there is a change it will be a radical disruption of all the factors that have been pushing the polls in favour of Obama.

It might just be worth planning for the implications for a Democratic win.

Acknowledgement

To Gilleport for the image of a better mousetrap