Archive for category 2008 Election

How to read State Polls

The election of the President is not really a national election, but fifty separate state elections, awarding ‘electoral votes’. A state’s electoral vote equals the number of Senators plus the number of Representatives. Florida has two Senators and 25 Representatives, so they have 27 electoral votes. In most cases it’s winner take all, though in both Nebraska and Maine they award them based on legislative district. So to guess on who will actually win the electoral college, where 270 votes are necessary to become President, one has to look at state contests.  As seen in 2000, one can lose the popular vote but win the election.

To look at the state polls the best tool is the polling page on the website Realclearpolitics, which allows one to click a state and see the polling history of that state during this election cycle. That’s important because state polls are usually built on a smaller sample size, a larger margin of error, and done less frequently – especially for small states. Only Pennsylvania has a tracking poll, the rest are polls done by various polling organizations. Since some people really get into trying to figure out the state of the race with detail (like me), I’ll go into the ‘complex’ way to read state polls by the end of this post. First, though, the basics for people who want to get the most information with the least effort.

Some states have a large number of polls published. On October 23rd, three different polls were published for the state of Minnesota, showing Obama leads of 19, 15 and 10%. That’s quite a range, and each poll had a margin of error of 4, 4.5 and 4.9% respectively (every time I write margin of error I mean plus or minus). Thus eyeballing it one can be reasonably confident that Minnesota is a state where Obama has a double digit lead. Most of the important states can be ‘eyeballed’ and a large number of polls can be compared. That should give a sense of where the state appears to be headed. To be sure, all the provisos about methods, assumptions, and variation discussed yesterday for national polls apply to state polls, which are almost always less exact than the national ones.

Some wonder about the “Bradley effect” as a systemic error, in which it is claimed people lie to pollsters if a candidate is black, suggesting that the black candidate will lose 5% between a poll and the result. I don’t believe the Bradley effect exists — there are other reasons for late swings (in that case a large quantity of absentee ballots returned with a GOP edge).  Moreover, that election was in 1982.

Now let’s get a bit more complex. A poll came out for Georgia from Rasmussen on October 23rd showing McCain with only a five point lead. Given the heavy early voting in Georgia, this could be a sign of an election night surprise – no one expects Georgia to go for Obama! Rasmussen interviewed 500 people, and it has a margin of error of 4.9%. Comparing with more recent polls, and it shows an improvement for McCain, but nothing dramatic.  On the 24th Inside Advantage showed Georgia with a one point Obama lead.  It was a one night poll with over 600 interviews, a margin of error of 3.8%, and shows the Republican with a two point lead in the Senate race (consistent with other polls).  This still could be an outlier, but the signs point to Georgia as a potential early indicator if Obama is going to have a blowout. 

A couple days ago a South Dakota poll showed McCain ahead 48-41. Another thing to note: anything under 50 shows that it isn’t ‘wrapped up.’ The poll was done by Mason Dixon, a reputable firm, and interviewed 800 voters with a 3.5% margin of error. Interestingly, they polled them on Oct. 13-15, before the latest upsurge in support for Obama. There are fewer polls to compare, and Bush won the state with 20% margins the last two elections, but in the case of an Obama landslide, South Dakota could be another surprise. Montana, also a GOP state, shows a poll with Obama leading by 5. But it’s done with a margin of error of 5%, with students in an upper level political science class doing the interviewing. This gives me a modicum of skepticism, especially given how young people are supporting Obama. Did they conduct all the interviews fairly? Montana is interesting, but I’ve got some skepticism of that poll.

Big Ten Battleground polls, also by universities, show large Obama leads for all the Big Ten states, including a 10 point Obama edge in Republican Indiana. The margin of error is 4%, 586 people interviewed, but it’s very different from polls earlier in the month showing 7 and 5 point leads for McCain. This suggests Indiana is in play, but a ten point Obama advantage? I’m skeptical – this could also be one of those outliers.

On the 24th a few polls arrived which one has to be cynical about.  ETV shows Obama with only one point leads in Virginia and North Carolina, suggesting movement towards McCain.  Yet the polling data was gathered in a period of over a month, since last September.  Given the volatility of the electorate, it may not catch the recent break for Obama.  On the other hand, it might show that McCain’s “hard” support is stronger than Obama’s, suggesting that McCain has a chance to win back those who have moved to the Democrat.  Another group of contrarian polls comes from Strategic Vision, showing McCain up 3 in Ohio, up 2 in Florida, up 6 in Georgia and down only 7 in Pennsylvania.  If true, this very good news for McCain.   However, this pollster is a partisan Republican pollster (on “Realclearpolitics” a partisan pollster is denoted with an “R” or a “D”).  That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but the partisan pollsters on both sides tend to have a bias towards their party.   They could be looking at particular scenarios in their methodology, or perhaps, say, Democrats talking to a Democratic pollster don’t want to admit if they’re voting for the other party.   Still, I tend to expect a three or four point bias, and even with that built in, the states remain in tight races.

OK, let’s say you’ve got a map in front of you and you want to make predictions based on the polls (RPC also has an interactive map where you can play with awarding states to the candidates and make your own scenario).  I have two scenarios I use state polls to test.

Scenario 1: Can McCain win?  I’ve noted before, his strategy seems to be to flip Pennsylvania and then sweep the battleground “red” states that Republicans have won in the last two elections — Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida.  He’d also need six more votes, with possibilities coming from North Dakota 3, Montana 3 (likely) or Nevada 5 and Missouri 11 (less likely) Looking at the polls now, all of these contests look close enough that one can’t call the election for Obama yet.  Again, the national polls are meaningless at this level.  If McCain can run the table on these states he can win.  Yet Obama has leads by  6 in Ohio, 7 in Virginia, 10 in Pennsylvania, 2 in NC, 2 in Florida, and is dead even in Indiana (according to an average of recent polls).  This means McCain needs a significant uptick in support to pull it off.  How significant is unclear — state polls are generally not as accurate as national ones, and it could be that there is a systemic bias towards Obama (not due to political views, but in the methodological assumptions).   Still, this makes the job easy for Obama — it just takes a state (or in some scenarios 2) to derail any chance McCain has.

Scenario 2: an Obama landslide.  This would occur if Obama picks off states thought to be safe Republican.   NC and VA seem the most likely to flip, but for a true landslide the indicators would be Georgia early, Indiana later, and ultimately states like Montana and the Dakotas going blue.  State polls in each of these states make an Obama landslide possible as well.   In fact, the odds of Obama pulling of an almost unthinkable 400 electoral vote landslide (Republicans have done this, but it’s seemed out of reach for Democrats) seem even a bit better than the odds of a McCain victory.

So in reading the state polls now, an Obama victory seems likely, a McCain victory remains possible, and an Obama landslide is possible.  Even if McCain pulls off his Pennsylvania strategy, he could still stumble by losing the Omaha district in Nebraska and fall a vote short (which would yield a tie).  So, in watching the state polls, look to see trends.  If the polls are, on average, within 5 points, I’d say anything can happen.

For those of us who unabashedly follow and are fascinated by the ‘horserace’ aspect of elections, following this is addictively fun.  This is truly one of the most exciting electoral cycles of my lifetime, there are more new variables and uncertainties than in any contest I recall.  Right before the election I’ll blog about the states I’m going to be most interested in, and how one can tell early whether we’ll be looking at a McCain comeback, an Obama blowout, or a closer win for Obama.

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How to Read Pre-Election Polls, P 1

One confusing aspect of this election is the ubiquity and apparently disagreement between a large number of different polls.  How should one read them?   First, the national polls.  Yesterday we were treated to a variety of different national polls on the state of the election:

Rassmussen:  Obama 52  McCain 45
Gallup (trad):  Obama 50  McCain 46
Gallup (exp):  Obama 51  McCain 45
Reuters/Zogby: Obama 52 McCain 40
Hotline/FD:   Obama 48  McCain 43
IBD/TIPP:       Obama 45  McCain 44
GWU/Battleground:  Obama 49 McCain 45
CBS/NYT:  Obama 52 McCain 39
ABC/WP:  Obama 54 McCain 43

A few basic facts about polls:

1)  All polls will post a margin of error, which can vary widely.  Gallup is at 2%, IBD/TIPP at 3.5%, some are up near 5%.   That margin of error means that there is a 95%  chance that the race is within that framework.  We can say with 95% certainty that if the methodology of IDB/TIPP is accurate the race is anywhere between Obama up 48.5 to 40.5 (Obama +8) to McCain up 47.5 – 41.5 (McCain +6).  This is also assumed to be on a “normal curve,” meaning the probability is that the poll is accurate falls off at an even rate as you head towards the edge of the margin of error.

However, it is probable that one in twenty polls (and we get over 20 national polls a week) is outside the margin of error.  That means some polls we see are, even if the methodology is correct, way off.  So when on one day last week there was a poll with Obama up by 1, and another up by 14, it’s possible one of these was either on the edge or outside the margin of error in either direction.  In such cases, I usually ignore obvious outliers on either side.

2.  There are polls, and there are tracking polls.  Most of the polls getting cited are tracking polls which come out daily, but represent three or more days of polling.  This means that the data is not new.  With one poll (the GWU/Battleground) they do no polling on Fridays and Saturdays, and use five days of polling data.  So the poll they posted today includes data from October 16th.  They do this because they only do 200 interviews a day, compared to say Gallup and Rasmussen, who both do 1000 a day, and have three days of data, including weekends.   Does this make Gallup and/or Rasmussen better than GWU/Battleground?   Not necessarily, though I generally prefer larger samples and recent data.  It does mean that with tracking polls its often more important to look for trends, and the GWU poll might show the trend later than the Gallup poll.

Some polls are NOT tracking polls, however.   Fox Opinion Dynamics published on Wednesday a poll that showed Obama up 49-40, with a margin of error of 3%, based on a sample size of 1100 taken over two days.  These polls generally have a clearer snapshot because they use one or two days of data.  They usually have less bits of data than the “big” tracking polls (hence a larger margin of error), but because they are done in a briefer period of time, the snap shot might be more accurate.  Unlike tracking polls, it’s harder to gauge trends.

Since most emphasis is being placed now on tracking polls, I use a couple of rules of thumb.  First, watch for trends, and compare trends between polls.  If the polls agree on a particular trend, it’s probably real.  If not, look at their data gathering.  GWU/Battleground showed a different trend than the others until two days ago.  Turns out it was precisely because they still had older data in their results than the others.  Second, don’t over-react to sudden changes.  Sometimes because the poll dumps old data each day and replaces it with new data, there can be a quick jump.  After McCain’s decision to suspend his campaign the next Gallup found McCain and Obama at 49-49.  Within two days Obama had a seven point lead.  But that was due to data dumped which covered five days.  Finally, remember that on average one in every twenty polls may be outside the margin of error.   It is even more common for any given single day’s data to be off.  So wait for broad trends, not suddenly jumps one way or another.

3.  Polls have different methodologies.   Polling of all registered voters usually does not give one a very good sense of the final turnout on election day.  Pollsters have learned that asking questions about whether or not a voter is likely to vote, and then about a voter’s recent voting history renders a better result.  So does using demographic data.   Some pollsters, like AP/Roper (who had Obama up only one point yesterday) take a generally conservative approach in focusing primarily on voters with a  history of voting.  This tends to downplay (how much depends on the assumptions made) the impact of first time voters.  This election, however, may bring in a larger number of first time voters than usual.   Thus many question Roper’s results and methodology.

Gallup, the granddaddy of pollsters, has done the unusal thing of posting three sets of results: all registered voters (Obama +7), an expanded likely voter result, based on voter intent rather than history (Obama +6), and a ‘traditional’ likely voter model that takes history more heavily into account (Obama +4).  If the Obama ground game is as strong as some believe (and early voting may indicate), then the expanded model is probably more accurate.  If, however, this is another false hope for the Democrats that they’ll suddenly surge turnout, the traditional poll is probably accurate.

If you want to really dissect a poll, many of them post their complete results.  The Roper poll, for instance, notes that 23% of total voters, and 21% of likely voters considered themselves liberal or very liberal.  39% of total and 38% of likely voters considered themselves conservative.   From this one can learn that for Obama to lead, he must be getting support from some conservatives, or if not, from nearly all the independents.  One might also wonder if Roper didn’t oversample conservatives.

The CBS poll notes that every registered voter is weighted (to fit demographics) and then assigned a probability of likelihood to vote, and the likely voter turnout is based on that (using every voter, plus the probability calculation.)  They do not explain how they make that calculation, though they do show how they weight votes.  For instance, total registered voters interviewed were 1046, weighted to 1010.  Republicans interviewed were 326 weighted to 287, Democrats 391 weighted to 411, and independents 329 weighted to 312.  While the population ratio of Democrats to Republicans is correct, one can wonder if perhaps the larger lead for Obama comes from overweighting Democrats.

But most people don’t want to dig into the polls themselves.   Know only that polls use different methods.  Most don’t go into too much public detail about how exactly how they weight them.   All want to be accurate, so many may be putting less emphasis on historical voting patterns than in the past, hoping not to be caught up by Obama’s GOTV efforts.   This all makes Gallup’s publication of three sets of numbers all the more interesting.

In general, political scientists trust polls because it is a science, and most are quite professional.  But we know the limits of polling, and how a mistaken assumption can yield a faulty methodology, or how inevitably there will be polls outside the margin of error.   I like tracking polls for watching trends, and in general the high “N” polls (and low margin of error) like Rasmussen and Gallup are best in that regard.

But, of course, national polls are relevant at this stage primarily to see a ‘big trend’ — Obama pulling away, or McCain mounting a surge.  The real interest now is in state contests.  So tomorrow I’ll tackle the question of how to read state polls.

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President Kerry Set to Lose Re-election bid

(Dispatch from an alternate quantum probable universe: For every quantum probability that is not actualized in our universe, an alternate universe exists in which it is.  In one such universe John Kerry won Ohio and became the 44th President of the United States.  This is the blog entry for October 23, 2008 from that alternative universe.  I’m not sure how I accessed it, but clearly the politics in that world are quite different than ours)

What a difference four years makes!  As the campaign comes down to the last two weeks, the polls indicate that we are almost certain to have another one term President, the first time in modern history that two Presidents in row served only one term.   The reason is clear: Iraq.   In 2004 voters rejected George W. Bush because of a growing mistrust of a policy in Iraq that appeared arrogant, ignorant and harmful to US interests.  John Kerry promised to get the US out of Iraq and repair our status in the world.

Unfortunately, the effort to withdraw hit a roadblock in 2006 as Iraq plunged into all out civil war.  Kerry’s decision to reinforce troop levels, while supported by Republicans, created disillusion among the Democratic base.  The GOP argued that if Bush had won, Iraq would not have had the upturn in violence, and this is proof that Kerry is a poor commander in chief.  The Democrats, however, charged Kerry with continuing the war he promised to end.

Early this year things were looking better for the President.   Kerry could report that his escalation had indeed brought stability, and that now the US was looking at a chance for peace with honor — an ironic turn of a phrase that Richard Nixon used to use.  However, the damage was done.  Republican hopeful George Allen put together a solid primary campaign to easily defeat his rivals Romney, McCain and Guiliani.  The Allen-Guiliani ticket looks poised not only to win the traditional Republican states, but also could make inroads in Democratic strongholds like Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and elsewhere.

President Kerry, not a young man anyway, has started to look old beyond his years on the campaign trail.  After besting George W. Bush in debates in 2004, he seemed tired and almost resigned to defeat as he battled Senator Allen.    John Edwards did, by all polls after the debate, defeat Guiliani.  But Clintonesque rumors of scandal have hurt his reputation.

Then came the October surprise.   President Kerry had been hoping that the good economic news of the last year would make the pitch that despite the trouble in Iraq, success there and an economic upsurge meant that Kerry’s policies were working.  There was even hope that, given the large number of Republican seats up for re-election in this year’s Senate race, the Democrats could regain control of the Senate.  They had a horrible year in 2006 when the electorate punished the Democrats for Kerry’s problems.  Now, however, it appears that an almost certain President Allen will have strong majorities in the House and Senate.

The surprise, of course, was the financial crisis caused by banking problems resulting from how the housing bubble burst.  This was not Kerry’s fault, but his efforts to blame the GOP Congress haven’t stuck.  He was the one talking up the economy, after all.

I admit, four years ago I was enthused by Kerry’s victory.  The former Vietnam vet who opposed that war could now perform some kind of karmic justice by leading us out of another, very similar, foreign policy fiasco.   And, to be sure, I don’t think there was much Kerry could have done to prevent it.  If George W. Bush had been re-elected, he may have suffered a similar fate.  Dealing with a fiercely partisan Republican led Congress, Kerry was limited in what he could accomplish domestically.

Senator Joe Biden, one time a Presidential hopeful himself, was philosophical as he talked with Larry King the other night, probably being a bit more honest than most Democrats would want this late in the campaign.  He acknowledged that a likely Kerry defeat and the prospects of an Allen landslide sweeping in stunning Republican majorities has created a sense of gloom among the party.  But politics goes on, he noted.  He said he wasn’t going to fall into a dismal mood.  With the Republicans in charge of everything, 2010 could be a very good Democratic year.  He argued that young Democrats, like the still barely known Barack Obama from Illinois, could rejuvenate the party in the future (though with a name like that, and I believe his middle name is Hussein, it’s unlikely given America’s mood now he could ever actually run for the top office — he’s black too).   “Sometimes losing an election is bad in the short term, but good for the long term,” he said.  Larry King quipped that from anyone other than Biden he’d have seen such a comment as spin on steroids.  But he believed Biden meant it.

Perhaps.  It’s hard to see any silver lining for the Democrats this year.  President Kerry will campaign on, seeking some way to the magic number of 270 electoral votes, while the Allen camp whispers about a landslide rivaling Reagan’s of 1980 (though not quite 1984).  Is it sometimes better in the long term to lose an election?  Time will tell.

(Dispatch from an alternate universe ends: The quantum connection between the universe where Kerry won in 2004 and this universe is fading…I’m afraid this is the only entry I could retrieve.)

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McCain’s Pennsylvania Gamble

John McCain appears to be defying conventional wisdom that Pennsylvania is pretty much tied up for Obama, who enjoys double digit leads in most polls.  The McCain camp is pouring a lot of time and money into trying to flip the state to the their side.  Why?

First, McCain’s pollsters are no doubt polling whether or not support for the candidates is soft or firm.  Presumably they are making decisions based not on raw totals, but on whether they think it’s possible to flip enough voters in a state to their side.  In Pennsylvania they are no doubt detecting a large amount of “soft” Obama support.  These are the Hillary Clinton voters in western Pennsylvania, called “bitter” early in the campaign by Obama, and “racist” and “redneck” more recently by Jack Murtha.   Moreover, since the state doesn’t have early voting, the advantage Obama has in other states to have more time to make the ground game work isn’t true here.

So what does McCain gain if he wins Pennsylvania?  It makes winning the election slightly easier, but still a long shot.  In addition to states he currently leads, he’d need Ohio, North Dakota, North Carolina, Florida, and Virginia.  Then he’d need to keep either Indiana or Missouri.   There are other variations (e.g., lose Virginia but get Nevada), but it’s an uphill climb.  On the plus side for McCain, these are all states he should win.  These are states that have traditionally gone to the Republican, and if one predicted earlier in the race that McCain would win that list of seven states it would have seemed a safe bet.  So if he can flip Pennsylvania and if the electorate in states friendly to Republicans comes back around to the GOP, McCain could eek out a narrow victory.  And, as George W. Bush proved in 2000, a narrow victory is as good as a landslide.

If this were an election like that in 2000 and 2004, I’d expect the polls to tighten and likely predict that McCain would be able to pull this off.  However, he has obstacles today that seem overwhelming.  First, Obama is ahead in most of those states McCain would need to win.  Even stalwart North Dakota is a battleground state.   Second, there is intense early voting in Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio.  Obama has placed a focus on Florida, a state McCain absolutely needs in order to have a chance.  Third, Virginia seems to be slipping from McCain’s grasp, especially as his campaign has needlessly insulted northern Virginia at least twice.  Finally, Obama has resources.

Boy, does he have resources!   He is outspending McCain in television ads by 4 to 1, and building strong organizations in every one of the states McCain needs to win.  He still has a longshot chance to take some states McCain currently leads.  McCain’s Pennsylvania strategy relies on him holding the other states with minimal resource investment.  Time and money spent in Pennsylvania the last two weeks of the campaign is time not spent in those other states.  Only if there is a real nation-wide shift towards McCain, which would pull those states along with it, does it seem possible for him to overcome that disadvantage.

Is it a smart strategy?  In a word, yes.  I don’t have access to McCain’s internal polling, but no doubt Pennsylvania’s support is softer than other states he’d have to focus upon, such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado and New Mexico.  Moreover, Pennsylvania borders Ohio, meaning that he’s essentially battling for that 41 electoral vote region.  As they look over their polls and see gloomy scenario after gloomy scenario, McCain’s strategists probably realized that the only real shot they have is if they flip Pennsylvania.

One other thing working against McCain is that with limited funds and a lot of ground to make up he has to focus on the negative.  Negative ads work, but their value is limited.  Without a corresponding positive message a campaign looks shrill and desperate.  Ronald Reagan’s campaign was certainly negative on Jimmy Carter, but he won because he exuded optimism and gave a positive vision for the future of America.  Obama is just as negative as McCain, but has the resources to devote a lot of money and time to a positive, hopeful message.    It will be hard for McCain to break through that.

And that leads to the other scenario: by gambling on Pennsylvania and losing resources that could be devoted to Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Missouri and Virginia, McCain could be making an Obama landslide more likely.   This could also hurt the GOP in the Senate and House if the campaign doesn’t work to strengthen it’s appeal in states where there are tough races that need an injection of enthusiasm.   If Obama runs the table instead of McCain, he’d end up with 378 electoral votes.  He could reach 400 if he ran the table and flipped states with softer McCain support, like Georgia, Montana and West Virginia.  The highest imaginable level of support one can see McCain getting is 286 if everything went his way.

Clearly, the odds are heavy against McCain at this point.

The national polls all show Obama pulling towards double digit leads, even the ‘traditional likely’ voter at Gallup, the most reliable of the polls, has gone from having Obama up by 2 to up by 7.  Only one poll is an outlier, the GWU/Battleground poll.  It has the race at one point, and McCain closing fast.  However, it collects only 200 interviews a night (Gallup does 1000), and has been prone to wide swings.  If it somehow is the only correct poll, then McCain’s chances are much better than they seem.  But the odds are against that as well.  And, while some McCain supporters recall Truman’s comeback against a young Tom Dewey in 1948, Dewey didn’t fight hard to the end and didn’t have the resource advantage Obama does.  That was a different political age.

So that’s where the race stands.  McCain isn’t out of it, and has probably chosen the strategy with the best shot and turning the race around.  I’d put Obama at a 90% likelihood of victory, barring something unforeseen (and, of course, the anti-Obama folk are rife with rumors which look more like wishful thinking).  Some are worried about Obama taking time off from the campaign to visit his ailing Grandmother in Hawaii.   At this point, pictures of a caring grandson with his elderly (and white) Grandmother will probably do Obama more good than two days of rallies.

So, given my read of the race, if I had to make a prediction at this point it would be Obama 355 McCain 183.  But let’s see how McCain’s Pennsylvania gamble pays off.

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Can Obama Close the Deal?

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?

Not necessarily.

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.

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What if Obama Loses?

Although things look good for Obama, there is still a chance that he could lose.  The McCain campaign has unleashed “robo-calls” in swing states or states where one would expect the Republican to be strong.  McCain’s campaign is down to one desperate measure: to try to make Obama appear risky and scary.  In swing states DVDs are put with newspapers to warn of “Muslim extremism,” the robo-calls suggest that Obama coddles terrorists, and McCain himself has taken to calling Obama a “socialist.”   Politico has reported that 100% of McCain’s ad spending is negative.  Normally this would have no chance of working, similar efforts against Bill Clinton failed dramatically.  There is one way it could work this time: if Obama’s funny name and the fact he is black cause enough whites to be far more sympathetic to those arguments than they otherwise would be.

Most McCain voters are already decided, and would be voting Republican no matter who the Democratic nominee was.   Others like McCain personally and their votes is based on that.  They fear either a Democratic majority in Congress plus a Democratic President, or in general believe the GOP best protects them against big government.  Culturally and ideologically, they would never vote for Obama, even if he were white and his name was John Smith.

I want to make that clear upfront so no one misunderstands this analysis.  I am not arguing that it is racist to vote for McCain, or that most McCain supporters are racist.  Yet I believe that if McCain wins this election it will be because a chunk of voters decided that Obama was “to different, strange or risky” to be President.

The polls show Obama with a comfortable lead in the swing states, and early voting in North Carolina and Georgia suggest he may even have a chance in those Republican stalwart states — making an Obama landslide possible.  Yet one cannot yet assume an Obama victory.  Most of Obama’s support emerged in the wake of the financial crisis, and thus is soft — many people could shift to McCain at the last minute.  Rather than trying to make the case in a positive way, McCain’s chosen to focus on attacking Obama, with the idea of making people fear that he is a risky choice.

If this works against Obama, it will be primarly because of race, and the inability of some segments of the American public to accept a black President.  If it doesn’t work against Obama, then that shows that Americans have indeed moved beyond the kind of racist reaction that in the past would have made an Obama candidacy impossible.   One could point out that similar efforts, including robo-calls by the same company employed now by McCain, helped George W. Bush defeat John McCain in 2000.  At that time he was bitter and angry about the dishonest campaigning.  Apparently, though, he’s learned that such is the way the game is played, and with the stakes so high, “anything to win” becomes the watchword.  So if negative campaigning can work, why would it be a sign that race is a factor of it does this time?

Here’s why:  right now the structural factors are all in favor of a Democratic victory, regardless of the candidate.  The economy is hurting, the public is more willing than ever to accept more governmental action, and McCain is a relatively weak candidate.  Obama has won the three debates, and McCain’s VP choice is the subject of ridicule.  Obama is outspending McCain by a large margin, and the public tends to agree with Obama more on the issues.  Structurally everything points to a Democratic victory and the Republican nominee is focused on a very specific, and sometimes even dirty, strategy to raise doubts about Obama the man.  This is meant to suggest that Obama is somehow “strange and different,” thus appealing to the racist elements still existing in American culture.

If that happens, there will be a lot of disillusion and anger, especially among minorities and the youth.  Again, Americans will have shown that they prefer a tired, old white guy against a vibrant, hopeful black.  If Obama loses, it will also show that people like me over-estimated the power of Obama’s ground game.  I believe that the intense voter registration and get out the vote campaign is a game changer, that could give states that still look unlikely for Obama (like West Virginia and Georgia, let alone North Carolina and Virginia).  But that’s speculation; an Obama loss would mean that these efforts had a minimal impact.  If that happens, there will be a lot of anger and disillusionment among people who have become very energized for the campaign.

Still, if Obama loses, the real lesson in this election season is how far we’ve come.  The fact that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could make it this far shows that we are becoming a different kind of country than we were in the past.  No longer the white picket fence conservatives, we embrace diversity and are learning to truly accept blacks, women and others as viable leaders of this country.  Even if Obama falls short, it has to be remembered that 20 or 30 years ago this candidacy would not even have been possible, let alone capable of being truly competitive.

So, while I still expect a large victory for Barack Obama, in one sense the election already has reflected well on the American people.  Even the choice of John McCain, who rose from the ashes and was considered all but dead by the GOP because his maverick status and stance on immigration made him persona non grata for a large chunk of conservatives, is positive.  Of all the Republican candidates, McCain was probably the best.  And if he becomes President, he would be an improvement on what we have now (and Palin would be an improvement on Cheney).

To be sure, it’s sad that such intense and mostly quite dishonest negative fear mongering could even have a chance to succeed.  Yet if this kind of ‘gutter politics’ fails to stop Obama, that will show that the American public is becoming immune to those kind of fear tactics.

The bottom line is no matter how this is decided on November 4th, this has been a fascinating, historic election.

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Samantha Power for Secretary of State

She was born in Ireland.  She’s only 38 years old.  And she had to resign from Barack Obama’s foreign policy team during the primaries when she called Hillary Clinton “a monster.”  But with an inside the beltway Vice President in Joe Biden, Barack Obama, should he win the election (which is looking increasingly likely), could send a clear message by choosing Power as his Secretary of State.

A more likely role for her would be national security advisor.  Since she isn’t a native born US Citizen (she moved her at age nine, when her mother left Ireland because it did not allow divorce), she would not qualify for the Presidency should a disaster kill the four people in line in front of her.  But in a world with new challenges, Power would symbolize a new American foreign policy ready to go in a fundamentally different direction.

First, she has taken head on some of the more difficult issues in American foreign policy: human rights, and our inability to act in crises like Rwanda and Dafur.  Her book A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide is a must read for people concerned about why we are so quick to intervene in places like Iraq or Bosnia, but ignore other parts of the world with far worse atrocities taking place.   She has worked as a reporter for some of the top publications (The Economist, The Boston Globe, US News and World Report, and The New Republic), and still has columns appear regularly in Time.   She knows how to communicate, and in her reporting has demonstrated a wide range of knowledge about different world perspectives.

That in and of itself is important.  American Secretaries of States have seen their role as selling American foreign policy ideals to the world.  They use US power, status and promises of aid (or threats of reprisals) to try to get other countries to behave the way we want them to.  That’s how a superpower, especially one with a kind of neo-imperial reach like we’ve had at least until recently, operates.  However, that era is fading.  We need someone who actually understands the world, and tries to negotiate not simply to sell our preferences and get our way, but work out compromises and build partnerships.   That’s how to deal with 21st century problems.

Of course, being a journalist alone doesn’t qualify her.  She also has a law degree from Harvard, and currently teaches at the Harvard affiliated John F. Kennedy School of Government.   She is currently the Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at the Kennedy School.  Her academic credentials in foreign policy may not match those of Condoleezza Rice or Henry Kissinger, but compared to most Secretary of States in recent years, she would come to the job with a strong understanding of how the world works.

She would also counter the tendancy that Joe Biden might bring to see the world through the lenses of the “old school.”  Biden understands foreign policy, and I still think his idea of partition for Iraq may ultimately be the final outcome in that country which is not near as far along the road to stability as the Republicans want to pretend.  But he’s been shaped by an era where the US was the dominant actor, and our morals and values were accepted as universal goods.  Our goal was to spread democracy and human rights the American way.   Diplomacy was real, but built on a premise of American power as a given.  It is the kind of thinking that leads to fiascos like Iraq, or miscalculations like Kosovo.

Power would bring a new way of thinking to the role.  The US has to redefine its foreign policy in terms of global values rather than raw national interest.  Not because national interest is bad, but that in the 21st century it’s actually the development of global values that will best serve the national interest.  The dirty little secret of globalization is that it’s not just the ability to buy cheap Chinese goods or allow investment across borders.  It creates a new kind of interdependence whereby sovereignty no longer is the central defining role of the international system.  States remain nominally and legally sovereign, but their ability to act to control their destiny is shaped by forces outside their control.   Big, powerful states like the US and China can avoid having to deal with that for a longer period of time than smaller states, but it’s catching up to us now too.   The 20th century is gone.  That world is not coming back.

Power’s work focuses on the conjunction of how to create transnational values and the nuts and bolts of foreign policy.  She considers not just the power calculus, but the human side of world events.  That’s necessary if we are to escape the kind of power oriented approach that has shaped our approach in the past.   (Glibly: Power would bring to foreign policy a different perspective on power).  The old way isn’t going to work in the future.   And, though she did call Hillary Clinton a monster, she hasn’t been a divisive partisan figure.   Nonetheless, reports I’ve seen suggest that everyone who knows her considers her extremely strong.  She is said to have both a keen intellect and persistence — traits we need in our first diplomat.

This would be an ‘outside the box’ pick.  Most likely the Secretary of State job will go to someone with more inside political connections as a way to create a balanced Presidential cabinet.   Obama may even reach to a Republican like Richard Lugar, who could end his career with a very distinguished position.  And, to be sure, I’d be delighted to see her as National Security Advisor too.   But, though she’s covered the Yugoslav wars and certainly understands security issues, her background and approach seem better suited for the highly public Secretary of State role, rather than the more private and bureaucratic National Security Advisor position.

So I’m putting my plug in early for a daring but I think sensible and symbolically powerful choice for Barack Obama’s Secretary of State: Samantha Power.

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Obama wins again

First the post-debate poll results.

CNN: Obama 58 – McCain 31
CBS:  Obama 52 – McCain 22

This is one of the widest margins of any of the debates, and thirty minutes into the debate I’d have predicted otherwise.  McCain came out strong early, and Obama clearly was playing it safe.  I was already thinking about my post-debate critique.  It would be either McCain wins, or perhaps a draw.  I’d note it would mean a tightening race, and compare Obama to a football coach that plays it too safe too early.

But after the first half hour it was all Obama.   First, McCain spoke primarily to his base.  The stuff about class warfare, William Ayres, etc., will rile up the hard core Republicans who can’t understand why these issues don’t get everyone moving away from Obama.  More importantly, McCain appeared fidgety, angry, had inappropriate facial responses while Obama was talking, and just seemed a bit strange.  I believe this is why the CNN poll shows Obama being seen as “more likable” by 70%.  McCain didn’t fall so far behind on points — Obama was playing it safe, trying to make sure that he avoided being too negative or doing anything that could be read as unpresidential — but he appeared more the grumpy old man than the dignified President.

This was also seen in the response to the question asking each to compare their Vice Presidential choices.  The most negative thing Obama could say about Palin was that “The American people would decide” if she was qualified.  McCain went heavily negative on Biden about foreign affairs of all things.   Obama appeared Presidential, at best McCain’s attacks appeared Vice Presidential.

McCain did get the best line with the “I’m not George Bush” response, but as the debate wore on his smiles seemed forced and it appeared he was getting downright angry at times.  His strongest argument was that Obama was too liberal, but he again talked to the base.

So what next?  McCain blew the debate.  He needed to be steady and Presidential, instead he looked emotional and desparate.  Obama needed to stay cool and disciplined, and he did.  So in terms of the McCain comeback strategy I outlined a few days ago, McCain’s already failed to deliver on his first task.  Now, baring some kind of totally unexpected development, Obama is likely to cruise to victory.

Still, McCain has to finish the game.  Unless things move his way soon, the goal has to shift from winning the election to protecting incumbants in Congress.  That means the RNC shifting funding away from support of McCain towards important Congressional races, and McCain and Palin need to focus their schedule on what helps the party, not what gets them elected.   It’s not there yet — McCain has another week to try to at least show some movement in the polls.  But after this debate, Obama is in a commanding position.

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McCain Comeback?

I posted last week, and still believe, that the campaign is essentially over and that barring something completely surprising, Barack Obama is on course to become our 44th President.  However, there is three weeks left in the campaign and McCain could still turn it around.  The reasons not dismiss completely the idea of a McCain comeback aren’t compelling, but are real: 1) Obama may be peaking too early, and if the financial mess fades from the headlines, people may start to rethink their position; 2) Obama had trouble closing the deal against Hillary Clinton, so he may not be able to finish as strong as he needs to; 3) Obama’s support is softer than McCain’s, and thus there is a greater chance people currently supporting him could change their minds; and 4) undecideds who haven’t been swayed to go for Obama by the current financial mess are perhaps more like to end up voting for McCain than Obama.   So despite appearances, the GOP still has some hope.  And for me, an interesting question is what kind of strategy would McCain need to come back?

First, he needs some help from the environment.  No more negative stories like the Sarah Palin interviews or troopergate report.  The financial crisis needs to fade in relative importance (though no one thinks the economy won’t be issue one), and there can be no bad surprises from Iraq and Afghanistan.  In short, the environment has to be such that McCain has a chance to control the story line during the final three weeks of the campaign.

Second, he needs to win Wednesday’s debate.  He doesn’t have to “whip Obama’s you know what,” as he boasted he’d do, he just needs to pull off what most analysts might say is “his best performance,” one that will “do him no harm.”  Debates are only a small part of the campaign; if he overshoots and tries for a KO, Obama will likely be able to out manuever him.  But make no mistake, he needs a strong performance to mount a comeback.

Third, he needs to avoid the temptation to try any more “hail Mary’s.”  At this point he may be tempted, gambler that he is, to try for something big.   But his attempts to do so in the past — the choice of Palin, the decision to suspend his campaign and then to back off, off and on attempts to inspire anger among the GOP faithful, and shifting reactions to the financial crisis have created doubts that this 72 year old is really on top of things.   Since his job in the next three weeks will be to create doubt that Obama is up for the job, he has to work to overcome the reputation he’s getting for being erratic himself.  He can’t undo past mistakes, but he has to be steady as a rock for three weeks, and avoid looking like he’s desparate.  Like a football team behind by three scores at the start of the fourth quarter, he needs to focus on ‘one touchdown at a time,’ and not panic.  If he’s behind by 10 on November 2nd, he can throw deep.  Otherwise, he needs to steady his game.

Beyond that, he does need to continue to have his surrogates and his campaign talk about Rev. Wright and William Ayres.  I know, those of us who prefer Obama find such attacks to be a distraction, unfair, and based on fear mongering and racism.  They are a sign of a candidate behind who is willing to do anything he can to win.  But McCain is behind, and putting on a strategist’s hat for the moment, the key is to do whatever it takes to win.  So being Machiavellian about this — the “is” rather than the “ought” — it seems to me essential that McCain foster seeds of doubt about Obama if he is to have a chance.   To work this must not be the centerpiece of his campaign.  If it gets too much push, McCain will appear again erratic and desparate; Americans don’t want a negative campaign at this point.  He needs to have it present, but subdued.  It need not itself sway voters, it must only ‘soften up’ already soft Obama voters, and make them more willing to change their minds.

McCain must then have a persistent, steady approach that stresses small but effective government, tax relief, a bold but not bizarre plan to deal with the financial crisis (no ‘special prosecutors’ or anything like that), and reinforce the idea that the American people have “always known and trusted John McCain to be a conservative pragmatist.”  The only way McCain can win this is not to have people suddenly think Obama is a scary terror coddling socialist.  Rather, for people to decide that though they think Obama a decent and well intentioned man, at this point McCain is a safer choice.

The main reason why I think that even if McCain does everything right he won’t be able to pull this off is Obama’s spending advantage, get out the vote effort (untested and thus uncertain, to be sure), and disciplined campaign.  True, he didn’t deliver a knock out blow to Clinton.  But he held back, he knew he’d need to win the support of Hillary, Bill and their supporters.  Most have switched to Obama now and as I noted then, the intense primary race probably helped rather than hurt Obama.   Still, McCain has a chance if he eschews efforts for dramatic hail Mary’s, let’s Palin take care of the base, has an environment without further shocks and disruptions, and mixes a continuing negative line of attack against Obama with a postive, steady message.  His first job will be to win — even if very narrowly — Wednesday’s debate.

With the mood of the country the way it is, Obama’s job is much easier.  He must convince voters that he is qualified by temperment and character to be President.  He has gone a long way in making that sale in the first two debates, and with a lot of ad money available, will have every chance in the world to make that case during the next three weeks.  He needs to fend off the negative attacks from McCain, and maintain the subtle criticism of McCain as desparate and erratic.   If he can make McCain look risky, it undercuts McCain’s efforts to make Obama look risky.  Finally, he can’t just sit on his lead, he has to keep doing what he’s been doing, and continue to use any negative attacks from the right to motivate his base.

About 15 years ago the Buffalo Bills erased a Houston Oiler lead of 32 points early in the second half to come back and win the game, a feat called by some the greatest comeback ever.  A McCain comeback now would be on a par with that one.  Perhaps McCain should try to contact Frank Reich, the Bill’s Quarterback on that day, to see if he can come manage his campaign.

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Fear, Racism and the Campaign

The following is from a story in Politico (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1008/14479.html):

“Fearing the raw and at times angry emotions of his supporters may damage his campaign, John McCain on Friday urged them to tone down their increasingly personal denunciations of Barack Obama.

It won him two rounds of boos from his own supporters.

“I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States,” McCain told a supporter at a town hall meeting in Minnesota who said he was “scared” of the prospect of an Obama presidency and of who the Democrat would appoint to the Supreme Court.

“Come on, John!” another audience member yelled out as the Republicans crowd expressed their dismay at their nominee.

Another woman went even further.

“I’ve heard that Sen. Obama is an Arab,” she said.

McCain, who had shared his wireless microphone with the voter, yanked it out of her hand.

“No, ma’am,” the Arizona senator assured. “He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”

Thank you John McCain.  The stories today about the anger and the increased negative campaign tactics from the McCain-Palin campaign have created a kind of divisiveness that the country doesn’t need at this time.  John McCain is doing what must be done to prevent that, though his campaign still can be blamed with “going negative.”

Even George Will has been critical about the McCain campaigns sudden shift into negativity.  McCain and unsurprisingly FOX news has been trying to tie Obama to a 60s radical turned education professor.  FOX seems to trumpet this story constantly and for long periods of the last couple of days has Ayres image on the screen, as if trying to create a story from nothing.  This has helped incite growing anger and emotion at McCain rallies as polls increasingly suggest the odds are very good that Barack Obama will be the next President.  The campaign seems to want to focus less about issues, and more about raising questions about Barack Obama’s character.

If Obama were white, this kind of tactic wouldn’t stand a chance.  President Bush the Elder tried a similar line of attack on Bill Clinton, and it backfired.  Then as now the campaign realized in the last month that it was losing to a young, untested and inexperienced upstart, and decided the way to win was to focus on Bush being experienced and steady, while Clinton was a womanizing draft dodging dangerous dilettante.  The arguments against Clinton were far more powerful than the arguments currently against Obama.  Bush could call on Clinton’s past, both documented and alleged, while the best McCain can do is try a weak guilt by association ploy.

The facts first: William Ayres was a 60s radical involved in violence.  He later became a professor of education (he was acquitted for his crimes due to illegal government wiretaps and the like), and a leader in Chicago education reform.  He has been embraced by Chicago Mayor Daley for his efforts (Daley has been praised by McCain), and was part of a project that received funding Annenberg, an organization created by a conservative Republican.  Obama served leading a board overseeing how that grant was spent, a board on which many people sat, conservative and liberal, including Ayres.

How, one might wonder, could this possibly be used against Obama?  Should he have refused to participate in a grant that helped Chicago children get an education by indignantly refusing to have anything to do with someone whose past contained radicalism?  And what about the conservative organization funding the grant, or the others on the board?  There is no way this can possibly be seen as negative against Obama; compared to the charges heaped on Clinton in 1992.

Absurd?  Yes…unless…unless there still is within a large segment of the American electorate a real racism that needs only a slight bit of stoking to invoke fear.  The idea here is that people already see Obama as different.  He’s a Harvard educated lawyer, black, raised by a single white mother and his white grandparents, and his biological father was from Kenya.   He lived for a while in Indonesia, and his name is different:  Barack Hussein Obama.  The middle name has been stressed more at McCain campaign rallies in the last week.  Hussein…is he Muslim?  Of course not.  But perhaps because he’s black and his name is different, well, people will wonder about him.  Perhaps hinting at an “association with terrorists” will paint a picture of a man who might be friendly to Islamic extremism.  Perhaps we can’t trust this black man with the strange name.  Maybe it’s safer to vote for the old white guy.

I pointed out yesterday, not only do people vote for the person rather than the issues or ideology of a candidate, but it is rational to do so.  If McCain can raise doubts about Barack Obama the man in the mind of voters in swing states, maybe he can alter the dynamic of the election.  It’s a cold, cynical, even dirty strategy.  But politics is a cold, cynical dirty business.

The Obama campaign has a strategy to respond.  They have been airing “bio” ads stressing his “Americanness,” and is going to buy half hour ad blocs on major networks the week before the election.   Given how disciplined, effective, and cash-rich his campaign has been, one expects that they will be pro-active and effective in countering the mud slinging strategy.  They will likely sling some mud of their own, using indignation for McCain’s strategy as a rationale.

We don’t know what the impact of race will be on this election.  We don’t know if the higher vote turn out that is expected from Obama will actually occur, or if it will offset the “race factor.”  And, to be sure, Obama is hoping for a high minority turn out, voters who will be voting explicitly for him because he is black.  Race in this contest is a complex issue.  Until election night, there will be some uncertainty.  But as the McCain campaign, after a series of stumbles, heads into negativity, emotion and anger as their primary attempt to turn the dynamic around, the next few weeks will say a lot about what kind of country America has become.

Some quotes suggesting that this is a dangerous direction, first from John Weaver, former top strategist for John McCain:

“People need to understand, for moral reasons and the protection of our civil society, the differences with Senator Obama are ideological, based on clear differences on policy and a lack of experience compared to Senator McCain,” Weaver said. “And from a purely practical political vantage point, please find me a swing voter, an undecided independent, or a torn female voter that finds an angry mob mentality attractive.”

And CNN commentator David Gergen:

“One of the most striking things we’ve seen in the last few day, we have seen it at the Palin rallies and we saw it at the McCain rally today, and we saw it to a considerable degree during the rescue package legislation. There is a free-floating sort of whipping-around anger that could really lead to some violence. And I think we’re not far from that.”

John McCain has the moral and ethical responsibility to fight against such things, and not feed the flames.  The quote at the top about a campaign stop in Minnesota suggest he recognizes that while an energized base is important, he can’t let it devolve into an angry mob.

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