I watched the New Hampshire debates last night. What struck me on the Democratic side was the extent to which the candidates stuck to their positioning. Three of the candidates have clearly staked out their territory in the mind of the voter.
What do the Democratic candidates stand for in the mind of the voter?
Barack Obama stands for "hope" in the mind of the voter. Last night, he repeatedly used words like "empowerment", "getting beyond cynicism", and "bringing people together". The notion that he is an agent of change is an undercurrent of this theme. He wants voters to think he can change the divisive nature of decision-making in Washington into a more inclusive one. His being a fresh face strengthens this message. Voters perceive the usual faces as partisan squabblers that can't accomplish great things.
John Edwards embodies a "fight the power" mentality. He is the populist of the group, and he spoke of battling special interests, lobbyists, multi-national corporations, and "forces of the status quo". The story of his blue-collar father and grandparents working in the mills, and his fighting insurance companies as a trial lawyer, supports this theme.
Hillary Clinton has projected "strength" as a candidate. Her more muscular stances on foreign policy, her statesmanship and experience, and her claims to be a doer and not just a sayer all contribute to this theme. She did not consistently stay true to her positioning in the debate. There were moments in which she responded forcefully to Obama and Edwards with a "let's get back to the real world" message, but she also tried to claim to be an agent of change. This claim distracts from, and may actually undermine, her "strength" theme.
What single idea does Bill Richardson stand for in the mind of the voter? It was difficult to tell from last night's debate, and I suspect his poor standing among the remaining candidates has a lot to do with his failure to position himself clearly.