The Obama campaign has problems with conservative populism. They don't seem to understand it.
Conservative populism on a national scale was invented in the late 1960's. At the time, most working people identified themselves with liberals. But conservatives realized that many working people were what I have called "biconceptuals" - they are genuinely conservative in their mode of thought about patriotism and certain family issues, though they are progressive in their understanding of nature (they love the land) and their commitment to communities where people care about each other, etc. So conservatives have talked to them nonstop about conservative "patriotism" and "family values", thus activating their conservative mindset.
At the same time, conservative theorists invented the ideal of "liberal elitism": that liberals look down upon working people and are not like them. Conservatives have been working at constructing this mythology for nearly forty years and liberals have stood by and let it happen. Palin is a natural for the conservative populists. She understands their culture.
Conservative populism is a cultural, not an economic, phenomenon. These are folks who often vote against their economic self-interest and instead vote on their identity as conservatives and on their antipathy to liberals, who they see as elitists who look down on them. Simply giving conservative populists facts and figures won't work.
They tend to vote for people they identify with and against people who they see as looking down on them. The job for the Obama campaign is to reverse the present mindset that the Republicans have constructed, to reveal the conservatives as elitist Washington insiders who cynically manipulate them, to get conservative populists to identify with Obama and Biden on the basis of values and character, and to have them see realities through Obama's leadership capacities. Not an easy job. But it's the real job.
I am concerned about the upcoming debates. There are two aspects of debate prep: internal and external. Let's start with the external, since it's less obvious. What happens in a debate depends very much on questions asked and the framing used to ask them. It's the job of a campaign to get questions asked that use their own framing and language, not the opposition's framing and language. The McCain campaign has been very active in prepping the press to ask his questions with his frames: The Maverick Frame, the Country First Frame, The Surge Is Working Frame, the Victory Frame, The Drilling Frame, the Change Washington Frame, and so on. McCain can answer questions based on these frames easily and forcefully, as he did at the Saddleback debate, which he won handily.
Obama's On Your Own Frame for McCain is one the press should bring up. And whether our economic problems are all psychological, as McCain has said. And Obama's riff on empathy, and caring for one another being the basis of our democracy. This is a matter for Obama to decide, but the press should be prepped about what the moral and character issues are for Obama, as well as what the policy issues are.
McCain won because he used short answers, and answers that reflected deep conservative values. Obama hesitated, tried to give nuanced answers, and came off looking like he had no values. Obama needs to train, to give fast, straight-on, inspiring responses that link his major themes - empathy, responsibility (both social and personal) and aspiration - to the foundational ideals of our country. Obama's values are America's values, and that has to come out loud and clear.
Additionally, he must show just how extremist the McCain/Palin ticket is.