Republicans expecting a McCain comeback in the last two weeks of the campaign point out that Obama has had trouble in the past ‘closing the deal,’ or convincing the American people to truly embrace him and his policies. To be sure, Obama’s inability to close the deal is overstated. He failed to KO Hillary because he held back his punches. He knew he’d need her and her supporters, and in a very emotional campaign he could not afford to be negative or go after her with ferocity. Obama is, however vulnerable. Yet he has the resources to turn that vulnerability into a strength and close the deal effectively. If he can pull it off, he can win big.
Ronald W. Reagan in 1980 was considered a risky choice for President. He was a former actor, and though Governor of California, was inexperienced and seemed far too right wing. People thought of him as scripted and not very intelligent. In an era when being “conservative” was seen as something negative, Jimmy Carter rationally thought that he could ultimately convince the American public not to take a chance on Reagan. Carter held a late lead before being trounced by the California conservative. Reagan picked up nearly ten points in the last week of the campaign. The reason is clear: in a debate just days before the election Reagan appeared calm, collected and competent. He outperformed Carter on just about every level, making the public believe he was indeed Presidential, and not a risk. He showed Carter to be risky, pointing at the foreign policy and economic difficulties the US was enduring. Voters broke to Reagan in a big way.
In 2000 George W. Bush held a rather large lead late in the campaign, but like Obama’s now, his lead was soft. Al Gore had experience, and was coming from an Administration that could boast impressive economic success. Yet George W. Bush seemed charming and offered to be a unifier in a country that had been divided by scandal and intense partisan politics. He seemed set to win easily. Instead, he lost the popular vote, and was lucky to have Florida ultimately on his side, giving him the Presidency. Simply, the late breakers decided that maybe Bush wasn’t quite ready, and Gore would be less risky. Ominously for Obama, Gore wiped out a six point lead in the last two weeks of the campaign, showing that Obama’s lead is clearly not insurmountable.
The McCain campaign knows that this is Obama’s weakness. Sure, they can call him “socialist,” or bring up Ayres and Rev. Wright to try to do this. Many in the Republican “base” are certain this will work because it resonates so well with them. However, such a strategy would fail. Calling a candidate “socialist” seems a bit banal, and since the Ayres and Wright stuff haven’t stuck before, why would they stick now, especially with Obama outspending McCain in advertising by a 4 to 1 margin. It’s too late to define Obama, that could only be done effectively much earlier in the campaign. McCain needs instead to take a lesson from Hillary Clinton, and emphasize experience to convince people that while Obama may be an inspiring man, he is just not quite ready for the big job.
How should Obama prepare for this? A hint may have come from Joe Biden today, who stated up front that Obama would be tested early in his Presidency, and talked about the kind of challenges the new President would face. Some in the GOP thought this was Biden going off message — shouldn’t the Obama camp avoid questions of who best can handle a crisis?
McCain has committed some serious gaffes this year. He suspended his campaign, vowing not to debate until the financial bailout package was passed. He changed his mind. While it may have been something he had to do — missing the debate would have hurt him immensely — by creating a sense of crisis and stating on principle he would suspend his campaign and not debate, his change of heart made it seem like he was erratic.
Then there is Palin. Here the McCain campaign is vulnerable on two fronts. First, McCain’s choice of Palin is increasingly seen as a risky gamble, especially given the problems she’s had with the big stage. Couldn’t there have been a better choice to motivate the base? Second, McCain is old, and Palin could become President. She is widely seen as not ready for the job.
There is also Colin Powell, who called McCain “unsure” and essentially said that Obama would be the best to handle a crisis.
Finally, there is Obama himself. He’s cultivated an image of being cool and collected while McCain is passionate and firey. He’s appeared more Presidential in the debates, avoiding looking silly in split screen debate shots. McCain’s awkward grimaces and apparent anger hurt him in the final debate.
So here’s a potential campaign ad for Obama: Start with Powell’s quotes and the quotes of other generals supporting Obama over images of Obama in “Presidential moments.” Then shift to McCain, maybe a split screen shot or some other embarrassing pose. The voice would say: “John McCain thought the financial crisis so important that he suspended his campaign and vowed not to debate until the crisis was solved. He changed his mind. He suspended his campaign before he decided not to suspend it.” Put in some quotes from others criticizing McCain for being erratic or a gambler. Then, as a series of shots of qualified, respectable Republican Vice Presidential possibilities are shown, including many women “Of all the people with experience in the Republican party, John McCain chose Sarah Palin (show a shot of her in an unflattering position) to be the Vice President. This was his first Presidential decision. (Show shot of McCain looking old/weak). While we wish Senator McCain a long life, there is a real chance that his age and health difficultiess could put the Vice President into a position of having to make Presidential decisions in a time of crisis (show a shot of Palin talking to Katie Couric). Did he make a good choice in Governor Palin, or was he gambling, not thinking through his options? The stakes are high this election. The country cannot afford the risk of a McCain Presidency.” End with image of a Presidential looking Barack Obama. “I’m Barack Obama, and I approved this ad.”
Jeff Greenfield once argued that the best candidates turn their greatest vulnerability into an asset. McCain’s poor campaign has given Obama the ammo with which to do it. He also has the money to get the message out, and while this sounds cynical, I bet he can sell the message simply with powerful ads. If he does this very late in the campaign, McCain may not have time to reply.
Obama’s get out the vote effort will probably be enough for him to hold on to his lead, even if the race tightens as many predict. However, if he can truly close the deal, it could be a landslide. To do so he has to not only avoid having people think he’s risky, he has to create a conventional wisdom that he is the safe choice, and John McCain the risk. If he can pull that off, he’ll win big.