Archive for September 19th, 2008

Obama vs. McCain

Last June I gave my analysis of the Presidential contest between Barack Obama and John McCain.  There is nothing there I’d take back, but now that we know the VP candidates, have had the conventions, and the election is less than a month and a half away, has anything changed?

First, a brief review of the action between then and now.  Obama led in most polls in early June, but by a rather small margin.  By the time of the Democratic convention McCain had pulled slightly ahead, as July and August found the country with a bit of Obama fatigue after all the coverage during the primaries, and Hillary supporters rallied into “puma” groups, convinced somehow they could derail Obama.  At the Democratic convention the strong endorsement of Obama  by both Clintons, combined with a pick of Joe Biden for the VP spot, helped push Obama into a 5 or 6 point lead.  Then McCain electrified his base by choosing an unknown, a young photogenic conservative Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, to be his VP.  That helped give energy to the GOP convention, after which McCain pulled ahead by 3 to 5 points.  Now Obama is regaining slight leads in most national polls as the public learns more about Palin, and frets over the economic crisis engulfing Wall Street and beyond.

As predicted, the primary “scandals” of Rev. Wright and the like have not come  back to haunt Obama — usually once a candidate survives a scandal, he becomes immune to it, sort of like surviving a disease.   And, as predicted, the race has become nasty, with allegations flying back and forth, and both campaigns taking off the gloves early.  So have the fundamentals of the campaign shifted at all?

In a word – No.  Obama still is the favorite to win, and the keys remain the economy, the mood of the country against the Republicans, and Obama’s ground game — the fact that he has a more energized and enthusastic set of supporters, with the likelihood of increasing voter turnout in what could be an unprecedented scope.

The two “wildcards” — Palin and the Economy — are long shots for McCain.  Palin had a positive short term effect, energizing the GOP base, helping McCain with fundraising, and making Palin somewhat the anti-Obama: a young, inexperienced GOP candidate for reform and change.   But just as Obama fatigue set in and hard questions were asked about him, Palin’s ability to maintain this energy for the distance is questionable.  Already scandals back in Alaska and lack of knowledge on foreign affairs is hurting her.  Even worse, her warlike talk about Russia, and claim that we are fighting a “war for God” in Iraq — rhetoric which is a mirror image of how Islamic extremists talk — is bound to used by the Democrats to scare people as election day nears.  Moreover, elections are about the top of the ticket.  If Palin keeps attracting attention, grabbing center stage at GOP events, that might undercut McCain’s appeal come November.   Politically he may have had to take the gamble of choosing someone so inexperienced and untested, but it was a cynical choice, done for politics, and remains a long shot.

The economy is even worse news for McCain.  As much as he now wants to claim the mantel of fighting big business and looking out for the little guy, the fact he’s a Republican and the GOP gets associated with deregulation and free market excess hurts.  To be sure, I’m convinced BOTH parties are co-responsible for this crisis, and the blame game is futile, we should be talking about how to fix things.  But politically this issue is potentially enough to give Obama a landslide victory if he performs well in the debates.  The fact that Republicans in Congress are turning against Bush on these issues doesn’t help.  In an election like this, the parties have to speak with a clear message.  If the GOP appears divided, it hurts McCain.

State by state polls in recent days show a trend towards Obama; even Indiana is leaning Obama’s way.  Some believe that Obama should have chosen Hillary, and this would have negated the Palin effect.  I disagree.  Having the Clintons around would risk removing Obama from center stage, and weaken his ability to distance himself from the wild 90s, when the foundation of this crisis was really set.  Moreover, that assumes the Palin effect is more than a short term reaction to a new face.  This is America, we’re smitten at first, but the effect wears off.  Obama has gone through that, and survived.  Palin’s still untested.

However, there are some tricky unknowns still to navigate.  The attacks on Obama will continue, with claims that he’s strange, a radical, someone not to trust in difficult times.  The idea will be that many voters who might now be saying they support Obama will go into the voting booth and say, well, Obama may sound better, but they know they can trust an old white guy war hero as a ‘safer’ choice.  In some ways, McCain’s choice of Palin might protect Obama from that reaction.  Race and gender still matter, and it is quite imaginable that racism might help McCain win.   This is not to say, as many defensive conservatives say whenever the reality of racism is brought up, that everyone who votes for Obama is racist.   Most just disagree with him, or think he’s not experienced enough.  But race will undoubtedly be a factor; there will be racial votes against Obama, plus minority voters who come to the polls for the first time and increase black turn out because Obama is black.  Race is a factor on both sides.

As of September 18, 2008 I still believe that this race will be decided primarily by the enthusiasm and organization Obama has “on the ground” in get out the vote efforts and a determined voting base.  I believe that the polls will remain close, but that on election day most swing states will tip towards Obama.  I still think the dynamics of the 1980 election, which put Ronald Reagan in the White House, are similar to the dynamics of this election — with Obama in the role of Reagan.  Of course in any campaign, anything can happen.

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