Barack Obama bought 30 minutes of time last night on seven television stations to present an infomercial detailing his policy proposals and his vision for where he would like to take the country. The ad focused mainly on the economy, but also touched on energy independence, education, and health care. John McCain has been trying to shift the discussion back to national security and experience over the past few days, but this ad helps refocus the nation's attention on the economy, to McCain's disadvantage.
The ad talked about many issues, but was particularly striking not for what was said, but rather what was not said. This ad did not mention John McCain or Sarah Palin at all. And only a passing reference was made to President Bush by talking about "the last 8 years." Rather than criticize his political opposition, Obama kept his message positive by speaking directly to the American people and relating their stories.
It is no coincidence that the families highlighted in the ad were from battleground states (such as New Mexico, Missouri, and Ohio) and that several of the public figures who endorsed him on camera were from red and purple states (Claire McCaskill from Missouri, Tim Kaine from Virginia, and Bill Richardson from New Mexico). Even a retired general and the CEO of Google gave testimonials in support of Obama, no doubt an attempt to appeal to military veterans and small business owners. The ad also showed an interview with Michelle Obama and the family laughing together. This helps humanize the Obama family which is still battling perceptions of being elitist, aloof, and foreign. This ad was a direct appeal to Middle America.
The diversity of the families and endorsers featured in the ad (Whites, Blacks, and Latinos) was a subtle reminder of Obama's message of consensus and unity. The commonality of their concerns (plants closing down, not being able to make mortgage payments, arthritis and health care costs) showed that regardless of what they look like and where they came from, they are not alone in their experiences and should work together to overcome these struggles. This is a direct contrast to some of the rhetoric that has recently come from McCain-Palin rallies, such as "pro-America" parts of the nation and "real Virginia."
No new policies were introduced in the ad, but Obama's rhetoric may have struck a chord with conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans when he talked about personal responsibility, the importance of parents taking a more active role in their children's education, and how growing the economy was more important than growing the size of the government. While it might not be a fair characterization, Democrats are not seen as the party of personal responsibility. (This does not mean Democrats don't care about personal responsibility; it's just that Republicans were able to seize this message and brand it as "family values" and "rugged individualism.")
Transitioning from the ad to the live campaign rally in Florida was an appropriate coda that seized on the momentum the ad had been building and connected viewers to the enthusiasm of his rally and the message that accompanied it. It is not known how much this will translate into campaign donations or calls to volunteer, but it was very shrewdly done. And having the late night rally with Bill Clinton a few hours later only ensured that the only thing people would talk about last night was the Obama campaign and not McCain's interview with Larry King.
Needless to say, John McCain was not thrilled with this ad and revived his criticism of Obama for breaking his promise regarding accepting public campaign financing. It is true that Obama did not keep his word regarding this, so McCain is right to call him out on this. CNN's Campbell Brown also rebuked Obama for this broken promise earlier this week. The Obama campaign may counter by reminding voters that their average campaign contribution is $86 which they could say is an example of "public financing," but the fact remains that for whatever reason, Obama did not keep his word.
The problem for McCain, however, is that after the many arguably out of bounds attacks he and his campaign made on Obama this fall (i.e., wanting to teach children about sex before they learn how to read, accusing him of "palling around with terrorists," and calling him an advocate of socialist policies), it seems unlikely that voters will care much about McCain's hurt feelings. And as far as broken promises are concerned, McCain broke his promise to run a dignified campaign. That broken promise may be more of a political liability for McCain than Obama's broken promise is.
And it must be stated that underneath McCain's ridicule of Obama's infomercial lies a bit of envy. The cash-strapped McCain campaign would love to have 30 minutes of uninterrupted airtime to get their message out and dominate the headlines of the 11pm and morning news cycles. There are not a lot of news cycles left before the election, so at the very lest, Obama's 30 minutes of fame were able to crowd McCain and his message out just a little bit longer.
Regardless of how this election ultimately plays out, Barack Obama has clearly redefined the role of political advertising, grassroots organization, and campaign fundraising. Look for future politicians in both parties to closely study his campaign structure and media strategy because the traditional way of politicking seems increasingly antiquated and insufficient.
The risk of this ad is that it may make Obama seem presumptuous to some. After all, 30 minutes is a long time to spend uninvited in America's living rooms. However, I would venture that for any voter who is not a plain old curmudgeon or permanent skeptic (Sean Hannity, for example, called it "just bad" and "almost embarrassing at times"), this was good television that was well produced, visually appealing, and able to draw the audience into his message. While it probably won't significantly alter the electorate in terms of polling, at the very least, it reminds soft supporters of Obama why they like him, soft supporters of McCain why Obama might be a better choice, and Obama supporters in general of their responsibility to turn out the vote next Tuesday. Obama has already passed the threshold in terms of looking like a president because of his debate performances. This video just confirms it.
Barack Obama bought 30 minutes of time last night on seven television stations to present an infomercial detailing his policy proposals and his vision for where he would like to take the country. The ad focused mainly on the economy, but also touched on energy independence, education, and health care. John McCain has been trying to shift the discussion back to national security and experience over the past few days, but this ad helps refocus the nation's attention on the economy, to McCain's disadvantage.
In the lull between the early primaries and Super Tuesday in late January, I wrote about the presidential semifinals pitting Hillary Clinton against Barack Obama and Mitt Romney against John McCain. I was not bullish on the probability of an Obama-McCain general election matchup, but offered this warning in the event that this happened:
"In the event that the general election comes down to McCain vs. Obama or Romney vs. Clinton, there is a much greater risk of a landslide because if experience is what matters to most voters, then the party who nominates the candidate lacking it would be out of touch with most voters. Similarly, if the nation is hungry for change, the party who chooses an establishment politician as its nominee will be setting themselves up for a huge disappointment. 'Change' is not just a Democratic desire, nor is 'experience' simply a Republican one. Some concepts transcend party lines and are important to everyone."Given the national and state polls, it looks like Obama has a very good chance of winning this election, and winning it big. As of this writing, according to Five Thirty-Eight, McCain has a 3.3% chance of winning this election with a bare majority of electoral votes while Obama has a 48% chance of winning in a landslide (375+ electoral votes).
This race has clearly gotten away from McCain and there is no shortage of pundits who are pointing fingers and placing blame. It's Palin's fault. His surrogates weren't disciplined enough. His staff didn't develop a serious campaign apparatus in critical states. The list of usual suspects goes on and on. In the end, however, John McCain is the one who is running for president and he is the one who calls the shots in his campaign, so the primary responsibility for his political fortunes rests solely with him.
Poor political communication is at the root of McCain's woes. This is not merely talking about his campaign's poor message discipline because tactics alone are not what's destroying McCain. McCain's communication problems at the strategic level are far more debilitating than his problems at the tactical level.
First of all, McCain went wrong by running on a losing message. At the conclusion of the primary season, I noted that this is a change election and that experience did not matter. McCain should have heeded the lessons of Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden. Continuing the policies of the last eight years is seen as a greater risk by voters than having a thin resume. This is why Obama's characterization of McCain as "Bush's third term" is so powerful.
Of course, "experience" is legitimate political argument. It might not be a winning argument in this particular election, but at least it is an argument. This leads to McCain's second mistake in terms of political communication. He surrendered his core message with his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. While there will probably never be a consensus on who is more inexperienced (Obama or Palin), the fact remains that McCain can no longer cleanly make the experience argument. Anytime he touts his experience, someone can always say "yeah, but" and point to Palin, thus causing the message of "experience" to become "experience with caveats," a far weaker message.
In light of the diminished potency of the "experience" argument, McCain tried to run on Obama's message of "change" by describing himself as a reformer or a maverick. This is fine, but the fact remains that he never completely abandoned the "experience" argument. Even now, McCain is running ads warning about Obama's inexperience on the international stage, courtesy of Joe Biden's latest gaffe. So he is running on experience and change at the same time while not being credible on either issue. As a 25-year veteran of Congress and a member of the same political party as the unpopular President Bush, Obama could easily make the argument that McCain is not the true "change" candidate. So now McCain can't be the candidate of "change," and his "experience" argument has caveats. This leaves McCain with no issue to himself that he can run on without contradicting himself, thus revealing McCain's third mistake regarding political communication. If it's not experience (because of Palin) and it's not change (because of his time in Washington), what does he represent?
Critics may bring up veteran senator Joe Biden and how he contradicts Obama's message of change. The problem is, like Republicans commonly said shortly after Sarah Palin came onto the national stage, the race is about the top of the ticket. Since this is a change election and change is at the top of the Democratic ticket, Joe Biden's three decades in Washington are secondary. Secondly, Biden is a reassurance pick that shores up Obama's weaknesses on foreign policy. Sarah Palin does not shore up any of McCain's weaknesses; all she does is energize the base. And more importantly, it is easier for Obama to defend Biden in terms of being able to bring about change because he's a Democrat and in touch with middle class voters than it is for McCain to defend Palin as experienced enough to ascend to the presidency in the event that McCain is no longer able to serve. For McCain to have been able to credibly make this argument, he would have had to choose a more experienced outsider (read governor) as his running mate. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Charlie Crist of Florida, or Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey likely would have left McCain in a far better position a week before Election Day than Sarah Palin.
The final mistake regarding political communication concerns the latest entry to our nation's political lexicon: Joe the Plumber. The person himself is not the problem, but rather the argument that accompanies him on the campaign trail. Both McCain and Palin commonly invoke "Joe" at their campaign rallies and use that as a segue into a discussion about entrepreneurship and "keeping taxes low." It's a traditional Republican argument in a year in which Republican ideas are not popular. So while McCain and Palin are able to connect with voters on a personal level because they may identify with "Joe," they are then turned off because they've heard the same Republican arguments about not raising taxes year after year. In light of the current struggling economy and growing federal deficit, both of which were preceded by President Bush's tax cuts, talking about more tax cuts distributed in the same way that Bush's were undercuts the "change" argument. McCain and Palin are essentially reinforcing their own Republicanism when talking about taxes. But again, this is a "change" election. How can McCain hope to win a "change" election by reminding voters that he's a Republican?
Another point to remember is that the economy entails more than just taxes, so all this talk about not raising taxes on small businesses only makes McCain appear even more out of touch with voters who are worried about health care, their pensions, and their investment portfolios. And McCain's promises not to raise taxes while continuing to prosecute the war in Iraq make his pledge to balance the budget in four years seem unrealistic, thus further undercutting his "experience" argument.
Barack Obama had nothing to do with any of these strategic blunders. While it is not prudent to say this race is over, McCain is now at the mercy of an Obama meltdown or an international calamity. There is not much time left for either of those to happen. Changing his message yet again will likely be of little use because it may lead to more media stories about message inconsistency. McCain needs the media to focus on his strengths in the waning days of this campaign, not his inconsistencies.
Should Obama win this election, he would be wise to govern from the center-left in the first few months of his administration, rather than the far left because a significant portion of his support comes not from pro-Obama voters, but rather anti-McCain and anti-Palin voters. Given the misdirection and strategic misfires that have come to characterize McCain's campaign in terms of basic political communication, it is easy to understand why so many Republicans may be more inclined to punish their own party.
Joe Biden stepped in it over the weekend by undercutting Barack Obama and suggesting that "he will need help" because "he will be tested" within his first 6 months in office by some sort of international crisis. These remarks suggest that Obama is not prepared to handle the rigors of the presidency and that he will need a strong vice president to give him counsel and support. Of course, McCain pounced on these remarks by reminding voters of Obama's inexperience and warned voters that we shouldn't choose a president whom our nation's enemies wanted to test.
Obama and his advisers have to be pulling their hair out over this. This gaffe gets Colin Powell's endorsement, Obama's ailing grandmother, McCain's false claims of socialism, Obama's advantage in early voting, and Obama's lead in the polls out of the headlines, at least temporarily. Even worse, it takes attention away from the economy and forces the Obama campaign off message. Instead of touting Obama's economic plans, his surrogates have to spend time explaining Biden's remarks.
John McCain has to be pleased with this development because it gives his campaign a new opening from which to chip away at Obama's lead in the polls. In politics, if you're explaining, you're losing. And even though Obama is leading in the national and state polls right now, two weeks is an eternity in a presidential campaign. After the third presidential debate, I argued that McCain no longer controls his destiny. Because of how far behind he is in the states he needs to win and the number of states in which he is struggling, McCain cannot make up as much ground as he needs without help. Joe Biden just provided some of this help because his remarks threaten to undo some of the progress Obama had made in terms of conveying that he is a competent and credible potential president.
However, this gift from Biden may end up being a booby trap that is better left alone. Even though Biden's remarks shift the narrative back to experience and portray Obama in an unflattering light, McCain may pay a major price if he returns to an experience argument for several reasons.
First of all, as I've argued several times before, experience isn't the most important issue in this election. Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, and even John McCain himself have all proved that the experience message is not as potent as the change message.
Also, voters have had the chance to interact with Obama over the course of almost two years and more than 20 debates. Obama more than held his own in the presidential debates and concluded that he is indeed credible on the presidential stage. So even if McCain hammers Obama on his experience, voters in Obama's camp may have already concluded that his resume is not disqualifying.
More importantly, the country desperately wants to talk about the economy. McCain has tried to talk about foreign policy, Iraq, and experience before, but it didn't gain much traction. In light of voters' current economic anxiety, why would it gain any new traction now? In other words, McCain can attack Obama's inexperience, but it may feed into the narrative that McCain is out of touch because he's not talking about the primary issue on voters' minds.
A fourth risk to McCain is that it reintroduces the contrast between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. Even though Biden undercut Obama, the Democrats could plausibly ask voters whom they would rather have advising the president in a crisis: Biden or Palin. Most non-Republicans don't think Palin is qualified to be vice president, so the more McCain defends her, the more he risks having his own judgment be called into question.
The most important risk for McCain switching to an experience argument now (even though Biden certainly offered him low-hanging fruit) is that it heightens the sense of message inconsistency that is coming to characterize the McCain campaign. Over the past week, McCain started off attacking Obama over William Ayers before switching to Joe the Plumber and most recently settling on "socialist" economic policies. Switching from the ideological "spread the wealth" attack that was beginning to gain traction to an experience argument further inhibits the McCain campaign's ability to develop a consistent message that defines his campaign. The Obama campaign is aware of this inconsistency, so McCain might want to think twice about taking this unintended bait.
Joe Biden is almost certainly being taken to the woodshed over this ill-timed gaffe. Instead of really turning the screws on John McCain, his campaign has to go off message and spend valuable time defending Biden and clarifying his awkward remarks. However, the McCain campaign should think carefully about how to go about capitalizing on this gift. Because of the potential risks and ways in which any such strategy could backfire, it might be in McCain's best interest to leave it alone.
Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman and Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama over the weekend on NBC's Meet the Press. There had been a lot of speculation that Powell would endorse personal friend and fellow Republican John McCain, give only a lukewarm endorsement of Barack Obama, or not publicly endorse anyone at all. However, Powell's endorsement made major news because it was not only thorough and forceful in favor of Obama, but also scathing in its criticism of John McCain, Sarah Palin, and the Republican Party.
Normally, endorsements don't matter much because, after all, in a democracy, the vote of the opinion leader has just as much weight as the vote of the average person at a local diner. But Powell's endorsement may be a bit more significant for several reasons.
To start, Powell is a Republican. Anytime a person endorses a candidate of another party, it's news. This is why Joe Lieberman's support of John McCain and Chuck Hagel's support of Barack Obama were such a big deal. Being endorsed by a high profile Republican allows Obama to tout his appeal to a wide variety of voters, regardless of their political leanings. John McCain has talked about bipartisanship before, but now Barack Obama can say that he actually practices it. This is why Powell's support of Obama matters more than McCain's support from other Republican Secretaries of State like James Baker and Henry Kissinger.
Secondly, this endorsement puts Obama back in the headlines. After the debate, McCain was beginning to gain a bit of traction with "Joe the Plumber" and Obama's "spread the wealth" comment. For McCain to win this election, he needs to dominate the daily news cycle like he did during the first half of September. When you dominate the news cycle, you get free air time at the expense of your opponent. Barack Obama raised a stunning $150 million in September, so he certainly doesn't need the free advertising. And because the election is in two weeks, there is not a lot of time left for McCain to turn his campaign around. The Powell endorsement is on the first page of the major newspapers and has been the lead story on the morning news programs today. That's one more day of media coverage that the McCain campaign can't get back.
Third, Powell's indictment of his fellow Republicans and their rhetoric of race-based, religion-based, and patriotism-based insinuations speaks directly to disaffected Republicans who would rather not vote for Obama, but are disappointed with their own party. The unnecessary mentioning of Obama's middle name, the impugning of his patriotism, and the attempts to cloak him as "not one of us" is very off-putting to a significant segment of the electorate. Powell is essentially telling these disenchanted Republicans and conservative-leaning independents that they aren't alone in their sentiments and that it's okay to support Obama as a means of sending the Republican Party a message that it is veering too far off track. Barack Obama would be wise not to overestimate his support because even though the bulk of it likely comes from pro-Obama voters and solid Democrats, a significant portion of his support also comes from anti-Republican Republicans who may revert to their traditional partisan leanings in 2012 or even in 2008 if McCain changes the tone of his campaign in their minds.
And of course, Powell represents the latest high-profile Republican to come out against Sarah Palin. Kathleen Parker, David Brooks, George Will, and William F. Buckley Jr. have all concluded that Palin is not qualified. Sarah Palin has created a schism within the Republican Party that is pitting ideological Republicans against partisan Republicans. John McCain will have great difficulty winning this election without a united Republican Party behind him. At this stage of the game, it's not just about getting Republicans to come home and support McCain. It's about getting Republicans to drag other Republicans to the polls or to field offices to volunteer. Powell's criticisms represent yet another impediment to this objective.
Although Obama has largely acquitted himself in the eyes of voters in terms of his heft and command of the issues courtesy of the three presidential debates, his greatest weakness has been the leadership quotient. While Obama has indeed made great progress in this regard, being validated by Powell serves to reassure voters in a way that Obama himself could never do. This endorsement blunts the impact of the William Ayers attacks and also helps answer the loaded question of who Obama is.
Some people may try to diminish Powell's endorsement as one Black man supporting another. However, this is problematic for two reasons: 1) Nobody says much when a White person endorses a White person, so it makes it sound like race is only an issue when non-Whites are involved, and 2) Colin Powell is one of the rare individuals of color who is not primarily seen in racial terms. Other people who fall into this category include Oprah Winfrey (the influential television personality), Will Smith (the respected actor), and Michael Jordan (the king of basketball). Nobody would put Colin Powell in the same group as Whoopi Goldberg (the Black comedian), Clarence Thomas (the Black conservative), and 50 Cent (the Black musician). In other words, Colin Powell is more likely to be addressed by his military or cabinet-level experience, rather than his race. So one can't reduce his endorsement to race-based politics without disrespecting his record of public service and ignoring his cross-racial appeal.
Another criticism of this endorsement may stem from the fact that Powell tarnished his legacy by selling the faulty intelligence about Iraq to the United Nations. However, Powell was clearly reluctant to do so and may view his endorsement of Obama as "a transformational figure" as a final step in his journey of clearing his conscience. Powell's support of Obama is similar to that of Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel in that they have both shifted from being forceful advocates of the war to strident critics. One can't criticize Powell without criticizing Hagel and even Joe Biden, who ended up as Obama's running mate. And of course, the idea that the only people who can support Obama are those who have always been against the war is silly because Obama's appeal extends far beyond Dennis Kucinich and Russ Feingold.
Regardless, at the very least, this endorsement temporarily drowns out McCain and his message while also portraying him and the Republican Party in an unflattering light. Even if nobody remembers this endorsement on November 4, the longer this story consumes the headlines and political talk shows right now, the easier it becomes for Obama to run out the clock. And the fact that Colin Powell is one of the rare statesmen who is well known and respected by people of all political parties makes this endorsement matter considerably more significant. McCain was gracious about not receiving Powell's support, but his campaign was clearly hurt by it.
The final presidential debate of the 2008 campaign season took place last night at Hofstra University in New York. Given Obama's favorable position in the polls and his growing momentum, his main goal was to hold his own and not make any fatal mistakes. The onus was on McCain to have what pundits call a "game-changing moment." While I believe these "moments" are exaggerated in terms of their frequency and magnitude, it cannot be denied that the stakes coming into this debate were far higher for McCain than they were for Obama.
This debate represented McCain's last chance to present his case to voters before an audience of tens of millions of voters. It also represented McCain's last chance to draw blood by catching Obama off guard or exposing an Obama vulnerability in real time. And of course, this debate also provided McCain with his last chance to look more presidential than Obama on the same stage. So rather than analyze this debate in terms of a scorecard or best and worst moments, it is more prudent to analyze this debate in terms of McCain's ability to take advantage of this last best opportunity.
Unfortunately for McCain, he did not accomplish what he needed to in order to reset the race. He may have slowed Obama's momentum a bit, but likely did not change the overall dynamics of the race. Obama is still the frontrunner, and McCain is running out of time.
McCain had two major problems: 1) temperament, and 2) message consistency. Regarding his temperament, throughout the debate, McCain looked irritated, frustrated, and unhappy to be on stage. During the split screens, Obama looked composed and mature while McCain looked as if he could barely control his anger. There was a lot of eye-rolling, sighing, pouting, and fidgeting on the part of McCain that likely did not make undecided voters feel comfortable. During these times of economic anxiety and fear, voters are probably more comforted by reassurance and composure than by anger. As a result, Obama again looked like the mature grown-up on stage.
Message consistency was perhaps an even worse problem for McCain simply because the consistency wasn't there. I wrote about the McCain campaign's poor message discipline earlier this week, and now the consequences of failing to rectify this problem could be observed by all. McCain had a lot of attack lines, but the way he delivered them made it sound like he was just trying to launch whatever he could at Obama to see what would stick. McCain attacked Obama on his connections to ACORN, William Ayers, raising taxes, negative campaign ads, and poor form at campaign events. There was no central or overriding narrative, however, that captured why voters should disqualify Obama and throw their support to McCain instead.
The worst example of this occurred when the debate focused on Congressman John Lewis, who likened the rhetoric and stoking of anger at Sarah Palin's campaign rallies to that of former segregationist George Wallace. After it looked like both candidates had said what they wanted or needed to say about the topic, McCain kept going and somehow went from talking about Congressman Lewis to talking about taxes. In addition to devoting far too much time and emotional energy to an issue that ranks pretty low with most voters, McCain's complaints were incoherent and allowed Obama to take the high road by trying to pivot back to voters who are more interested about their homes and pocketbooks than about what one Washington figure said about another.
There's also another unintended consequence of McCain's poor message discipline. One thing he did keep repeating last night was "Joe the Plumber." McCain did this to show that he cared about average people and small business owners. The problem with this was that he repeated it so much that it lost its potency and began to sound more like pandering or a gimmick. And even worse, the news stations are giving "Joe the Plumber" a lot of airtime today because he's the unintended star of the debate. This has to infuriate the McCain campaign because two minutes of talking about "Joe the Plumber" on CNN is two minutes of NOT talking about "McCain the Tax Cutter." So McCain essentially stepped on his own message by allowing someone else to overshadow it.
McCain also did himself no favors by not firmly stating that he would appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court. Surely his conservative base didn't like that. Of course, he may have been trying to appeal to moderate or independent voters, but he destroyed his chances with them when he mocked the "health of the mother" aspect to abortion rights. He tried to portray Obama as an extremist on the issue while displaying a bit of insensitivity to women whose decision to get an abortion rests on their own health concerns. Look for women's groups to slam McCain over this in the coming days.
Perhaps the final indictment against McCain came in his defense of Sarah Palin as a competent president in the event that she needed to take over. To be fair, McCain had no choice but to defend her on the national stage. But after her disastrous interviews with Katie Couric, the cementing caricature of her as vapid and illogical, and her harsh rhetoric on the campaign trail, most voters have concluded that she can't be taken seriously as a possible Commander-in-Chief.
McCain took a huge gamble by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate. It certainly paid off in the short term, but it has proven to be a major drag on his political fortunes in the long run. To non-Republicans, his defense of what they consider an obviously unqualified running mate may have made them feel even less comfortable about the McCain-Palin ticket because McCain's own judgment could come into question. He was defending the indefensible. To his credit, Obama stayed away from attacking her and took away any opportunity for Palin to respond with a hot zinger of her own.
I've mentioned this before, and I'll mention it again. John McCain cannot win this election with conservatives alone. McCain seemed to be talking more to his base in the debate than the moderates, independents, and Democrats he needs to create a winning coalition in the purple states. Sarah Palin has pushed a lot of these voters away from McCain, and McCain did little to win them back. Again, all the attacks about ACORN, William Ayers, and raising taxes probably pleased voters in conservative bastions like Texas, Kentucky, and Idaho, but voters in Virginia, Florida, and Colorado probably could have cared less.
The reason why McCain lost this debate is because he no longer controls his own destiny. His presidential campaign is now at the mercy of an Obama blunder, an international catastrophe, or a new video showing Barack Obama shaking hands with Osama bin Laden or using racial epithets against Whites. In other words, John McCain can no longer win this election without help from sources that are beyond his control.
The McCain campaign has about 19 days left to let its surrogates, advisers, and advertising team whittle away at Obama's lead just enough to capitalize on any lingering doubts or suspicions voters have about Obama on Election Day. There's always the prospect of another round of buyer's remorse that may cause soft Obama supporters and undecideds to give McCain a second look. But with early voting already taking place, that makes McCain's task more difficult.
Let's not kid ourselves or try to portray this race as dead even. It's not. Barack Obama is ahead of John McCain, often by considerable margins. Obama's initial path to 270 was defined as winning all of the Kerry states and flipping Iowa, New Mexico, and Colorado. He is now ahead in all three and is on his way to flipping Virginia and Florida. Virginia is now much more multicultural and Democratic because of the growing Washington suburbs, and Florida is particularly hard hit by the housing and economic crisis (think of all the retirees living there). Obama also has a serious chance of winning Ohio, Missouri, and North Carolina. Missouri and North Carolina!
Here's how tough McCain's electoral math is. He could win Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, and even Pennsylvania (a state that is now more solidly in Obama's camp) and still lose the election if Obama wins Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Virginia. Note that Obama is ahead in all four of these states. For McCain to win, he must sweep Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. But based on current state polling, it appears that Obama has a better chance of sweeping these states than McCain does. The fact that this is even possible shows that McCain did not do what he needed to do at Hofstra last night.
Election Day is three weeks away and most polls show Barack Obama with a comfortable lead over John McCain. State polls are also suggesting that Obama could amass more than 350 electoral votes in a Democratic rout. He is saturating the airwaves with advertisements and sending his wife, the Clintons, and the Bidens off on the campaign trail to campaign solo, thus allowing the Obama campaign to cover more ground in less time. The economy has pushed every other political issue to the side and caused states that were once wishful thinking to real possibilities (e.g., North Carolina, Florida, Indiana, and Missouri). While the Obama campaign certainly wishes today were November 3 instead of October 13, they have to be feeling pretty good about their political fortunes.
Optimistically, John McCain claims that despite all this, "we've got them just where we want them." It is unclear if "them" refers to the media, Obama, Democrats, or his Republican skeptics, but it is clear that having been written off before, McCain relishes being the underdog and is bullish about his chances.
However, what McCain doesn't realize is that to an extent larger than he realizes, the economy, the Obama campaign, and the media are not what is hamstringing his candidacy. It's his own campaign. For all the high paid consultants, spokespeople, press secretaries, surrogates, and ad designers, McCain has consistently bungled one of the most basic tenets of effective communication: message consistency.
Message consistency has three components: 1) speaking with one voice, 2) not putting out messages that conflict with each other, and 3) sticking to a single message long enough so that your audience comes to automatically associate the message with your campaign. These three basic tenets comprise not just the foundation of effective political communication, but effective communication in general. Any college journalism student should understand this, which is what makes the McCain campaign's violations of these rules all the more difficult to understand.
Let's examine these three components one at a time.
1. Speak with one voice. Before dispatching any surrogates to engage in battle before the cameras or on the nightly news shows, McCain and his senior staff need to ensure that they know what the message of the day is and that everyone sticks to this message. Unfortunately for McCain, some of his surrogates seem to have a penchant for shooting from the hip and creating new news. While these surrogates may indeed be McCain supporters, they don't seem to be well integrated with his campaign.
The most obvious example of a supporter gone awry is Carly Fiorina. McCain was incensed after Fiorina claimed last month that neither he nor running mate Sarah Palin were qualified to run a corporation. Fiorina was trying to make the point that competence in politics does not necessarily translate into competence in economics:
"It is a fallacy to suggest that the country is like a company. So, of course, to run a business, you have to have a lifetime of experience in business, but that's not what Sarah Palin, John McCain, Joe Biden or Barack Obama are doing."But that didn't matter. Rather than reporting on Fiorina defending McCain's economic policies, the media had a field day with the idea of McCain being trashed by his own campaign staff.
A more recent example of not speaking with one voice concerns the recent McCain campaign leak that they had to "change the subject" from the economy to Obama's character. Who was this McCain official, and why was he or she giving this information to the press? This unauthorized leak only fed into the narrative that McCain had no economic solutions and was out of touch. And if McCain had indeed been planning to pivot from the economy to Obama's character, what good would it do them to give Obama and everyone else advance notice by talking to the press beforehand? This unauthorized disclosure to the press had the whiff of "Okay, I'm going to attack you now! Get ready!" That most definitely was not the message McCain wanted to get out.
2. Don't put out messages that conflict with each other. John McCain himself is guilty of breaking this rule. Who is John McCain? Is he the candidate who wants his supporters to "be respectful" to Obama, or is he the candidate who is going to whip" Obama's "you know what?" Is McCain the candidate who believes Obama is a "decent family man," or is he the candidate whom his running mate says "pals around with terrorists?" Is John McCain the candidate who wants government to "reduce spending" and "get out of the way," or is he the candidate who voted for the recent $700 billion economic relief bill? Is John McCain the candidate who rails against all earmarks, or is he the candidate who voted for $2 million in tax breaks for wooden arrow manufacturers? It seems that McCain is trying to have things both ways.
3. Stick to a single message long enough so that your audience comes to automatically associate the message with your campaign. Barack Obama has done a stellar job of following this rule. Notice that with his campaign, rarely does an interview go by without a mention of the words "change," "judgment," or "Bush." People know that when they are voting for Obama, they are voting for "change." They are voting against McCain because they know he represents "a third Bush term." Now the Obama campaign is pushing the word "erratic," though it is unsure how well that will stick. But the repetition of "change" and the constant linking of McCain to Bush have really helped brand the Obama campaign.
What is McCain's message? What is the McCain "brand?" He has tried several messages, but he keeps minimizing their effectiveness by not repeating them enough or by changing them before voters have a chance to internalize them. To describe himself, McCain has used the following terms: maverick, experience, reform, strength, and country first. Obama simply uses one word: change. To attack Obama, McCain has used the following terms: celebrity, risky, liberal, tax-hiker, naive, and radical. Again, Obama simply uses one word: Bush.
There is simply too much clutter in McCain's message. As a result, it's difficult to pin down exactly how McCain is trying to portray himself. McCain needs to choose a message, any message, and stick with it. If he gives voters an easily digestible encapsulation of his campaign, it will help them better focus on what he has to offer. And in the meantime, he needs to exercise greater control over his campaign and ensure that everyone associated with it, be they surrogates, campaign staff, or even Sarah Palin herself, understand what the message of the day is and stop making news that distracts the media from covering what this message is.
The economy and the Obama campaign may be working against the McCain campaign, and one could argue that the media are working against them as well because of their interest in having the first person of color winning the presidency. But that's no excuse for the McCain campaign to be working against itself.
John McCain's campaign is in serious danger right now. Obama is now on offense in reliably Republican states like Indiana and North Carolina, and he is leading in the purple states of Colorado and Virginia. McCain's path to 270 requires him to run the table as far as the battleground states are concerned, but he is trailing in several of them and the polls are getting precariously out of hand. This is a result of the natural advantages Democrats have this year (e.g. an unpopular Republican president, better fundraising, and increased voter registration). But now the economy, a Democratic issue, has dominated center stage and McCain is not sure how to deal with this.
In light of this, McCain has tried to change the subject from the economy to Barack Obama's identity and character. He is invoking Obama's past associations with William Ayers and is suggesting that voters can't trust Obama or his judgment. If voters can't trust Obama, then perhaps, McCain is hoping, they can't trust his presidential stewardship.
McCain has successfully changed the subject before by changing the discussion from Obama's European trip to a talk about celebrities and from coverage of Obama's successful convention to coverage of Sarah Palin. However, may have gone to the well one too many times because changing a subject that is increasingly difficult to ignore is politically foolish.
The main issue this election is the economy. As long as this is an election about people's pocketbooks, paychecks, and portfolios, McCain will lose unless he runs on the same issues. Right now, McCain is trying to change an election about the economy to an election about Obama's identity. There are several problems with this strategy, however:
1. Enough voters are comfortable enough with Obama's identity to make McCain's attacks have less resonance. The economy trumps identity right now. Reigniting culture wars might have worked in 2004, but it is a much harder sell this year because voters are genuinely worried about their finances.
2. McCain is giving free license for others to attack him on his own identity and associations. Sarah Palin's husband was once a member of the Alaska Independence Party, which supported seceding from the Union. And McCain himself has sought the endorsements of Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, conservative icons who have blamed the September 11th attacks on homosexuals, feminists, and abortions rights supporters.
3a. The tone of the attacks on Obama's character by McCain and running mate Sarah Palin are venturing into dangerous territory that threatens to prompt serious security concerns. Some conservatives have even called Palin cancerous. If Palin in particular is seen as too negative and McCain doesn't rein her or the fans at his rallies in a bit, McCain will lose the election and Palin's political ambitions may be irrevocably lost.
3b. The Obama campaign is beginning to challenge McCain on these loaded attacks. If Obama challenges McCain to say these attacks to his face in the final debate, it could make McCain look like a coward because there's no way McCain will hint that Obama may be a terrorist to his face. And McCain would lose the talking point too.
4. The more McCain wants to talk about Obama's identity while voters want to talk about the economy, the more it makes McCain appear out of touch. Pay attention to polls that ask which candidate cares more about people like you.
5. It opens McCain up to questions about why he didn't bring these concerns up earlier. Republicans had the chance to invoke the character issue at their convention and in the weeks that followed. McCain also had the chance to invoke these concerns at the presidential debates, but passed. Doing this now may lead to accusations of political opportunism.
6. McCain cannot win this election with conservatives and Republicans alone. Whipping up conservatives with this red meat may only push away moderates and independents who respond unfavorably to negativity.
7. Republicans further down the ballot may be reluctant to hitch their campaigns to McCain's ship. It's already a tough enough year for Republicans. Not being able to run with your own party's presidential nominee or the current president may leave a lot of incumbent Republican senators and congressmen feeling lonely and vulnerable. This is leading to stories about the end of the conservative era and the rise of a new Democratic-friendly one. This only further saps the motivation from Republican voters and pumps up Democrats.
Obama was clearly underperforming his party earlier this campaign season. A generic Democrat was consistently beating a generic Republican by more than Obama was beating McCain in most polls. McCain's competitiveness and/or Obama's weakness was attributable to several factors:
1. McCain had the benefit of being able to blunt Obama's message of bipartisanship because, to his credit, McCain has challenged Republicans on campaign finance reform, immigration, and the Bush tax cuts.
2. McCain had the benefit of wrapping up the Republican nomination relatively quickly, thus allowing him to consolidate his base and begin his national campaign. Meanwhile, Obama was locked in a bitter primary fight with Hillary Clinton and unable to present his case before the national electorate. So Obama was being hammered by Clinton and McCain at the same time.
3. Obama was a relatively unknown and untested candidate. Despite his electoral victories, fundraising, and positive buzz, his Achilles' heel was his relatively thin resume. This weakness opened Obama up to two types of attacks: 1) reservations about his inexperience, and 2) questions about his true identity. McCain is clearly trying to attack Obama on the second point now.
The problem for McCain is that now Obama is closing the gap between him (Obama) and the generic Democrat. Clinton is out of the race, her supporters are mostly in his camp, Obama has come across as competent and presidential in both presidential debates so far, and voters are becoming increasingly comfortable with Obama--including his resume and his identity. Some voters may be supporting Obama because the economy has compelled them to vote for a Democrat. However, at the very least, this suggests that party affiliation matters more than character or identity. In other words, Obama's party is more important than Obama's identity and resume.
For McCain to win this election or at least make it more competitive, he needs a new, detailed economic proposal that is of his own creation. This would tie the economy in with "the maverick" and help him reclaim the leadership mantle he has partially ceded to his Democratic rival. Obama has not presented a specific economic proposal of his own, as he hasn't had the political necessity to do so. Running against President Bush, Republicans, and Wall Street is politically sufficient for now. He's just riding the wave. McCain has the opportunity to pull the rug out from under Obama, but as long as he and his campaign keep talking about guilt by association and "Hussein," he will cement his political destiny as ending on the floor of the United States Senate, rather than the Oval Office.
The second presidential debate took place tonight in Nashville, Tennessee. Unlike the first debate, this one was conducted in a town hall format which would incorporate questions from regular voters in the audience. Because John McCain had been criticizing Barack Obama for not joining him in town hall debates over the course of the campaign, McCain arguably had higher expectations to meet because this format was his specialty. And because he's trailing in the polls, he really needed to deliver a strong performance to reinvigorate his campaign.
That didn't happen.
McCain had three problems with this debate. First of all, he spent a lot of time talking about Ronald Reagan, Tip O'Neill, the KGB, Teddy Roosevelt, and even Herbert Hoover. That reinforces McCain's age and portrays him as representing the past. He seemed to have no new ideas, no new goals, and no sense of where he wanted to take the country. By contrast, Obama talked more about the future. He mentioned the 21st century several times and America's role in an ever-changing world. Obama spoke with greater vigor and had a more forward-looking vision.
The second problem was that compared to Obama, McCain tended to speak more in platitudes. Obama used a lot of generalities too, though not as often, but at least his generalities seemed to have greater relevance to average voters' lives. He displayed a greater sense of empathy and a better understanding of average people's lives. He mentioned sending children to college, rising insurance copayments and deductibles, and how energy independence was in our national security interests. As a bonus, he gave a far clearer explanation of how the problems on Wall Street are threatening the lives of regular people. All of this is undercutting the common attacks on Obama as being an elitist or "not one of us."
Meanwhile, McCain threatened to portray himself as the candidate who is out of touch with voters. For example, instead of talking about sacrifices McCain would ask the nation to make, he delivered a long diatribe against earmarks. Do voters really care about a $3 million telescope in Chicago when their 401(k) lost $30,000 in the stock market over the past week?
McCain's generalities sounded more like empty platitudes and slogans:
"I know how to get Osama bin Laden." (So tell President Bush and go get him already!)
"Social Security is easy to fix." (Then tell us how!)
"We can solve this problem by working together." (That's a solution?!)
The third problem concerned McCain's tone. Perhaps the town hall format actually worked against McCain in that unlike the town halls he's used to experiencing, this one did not feature a partisan Republican audience. So perhaps McCain had trouble adjusting to the fact that some of the jokes or applause lines he would employ on the campaign trail before friendly audiences fell flat or were otherwise inappropriate at the debate tonight.
Also, by attacking Obama using mischaracterizations of his record, he is by extension insulting voters' intelligence by distorting Obama's positions right after they heard them. Claiming that Obama wanted to "attack Pakistan" after Obama said he would launch a strike in the event of actionable intelligence regarding Osama bin Laden's whereabouts sounded dishonest. Such instances threaten to erode McCain's credibility and make future assertions from his campaign fall upon deaf ears. Sarah Palin's credibility beyond the Republican base is limited, so McCain has to be careful not to squander his own.
Here are some key moments that will likely crystallize in voters' minds:
1. "That one." This was an inexplicably rude way for McCain to refer to Obama. Both are United States senators who are running to be President of the United States. For McCain to essentially call Obama an "it" will likely feed into the burgeoning narrative of McCain's ill temperament. Obama consistently referred to McCain as "Senator McCain" or "John McCain." However, McCain's dehumanizing "that one" remark showed the contempt he has for Obama and his candidacy. Despite their differences in age, experience, and life histories, Barack Obama and John McCain are equals on stage. "That one" is not a comment befitting a statesman, much less a president.
2. "Bomb bomb bomb Iran." One of Obama's strongest retorts of the night came after McCain talked about Obama's provocative remarks regarding foreign policy and military action. McCain tried to emphasize that an inexperienced, bombastic Obama could have disastrous effects regarding foreign policy and national security. Obama then turned McCain's rhetoric against him by reminding the audience that McCain's "bomb bomb bomb Iran" quip contradicted his own rhetoric and undercut McCain's own credibility on foreign policy.
3. "Health care is a right." John McCain made the conservative argument that health care is a responsibility. That's a valid point. If you don't want health care, you shouldn't have to purchase it. But you should because it's the responsible thing to do, and the onus for purchasing it should be on individuals. However, that is not what voters wanted to hear. Obama said that America is a first-rate nation in which Americans should have the right to quality medical care. That statement tapped into the anger and frustrations many people are experiencing and showed that Obama understood their feelings.
Obama is looking increasingly plausible as a future president. He appears even-tempered, pleasant, empathetic, reasonably competent on foreign policy, and in touch with voters on the economy. On the other hand, John McCain is looking increasingly cantankerous, unsteady, tired, out of touch, and stale. McCain clearly lost this debate and lost his last best chance to boost his campaign. It is true that there is one debate left, but the problem is that this final debate is about the one subject McCain wants to avoid: the economy and domestic issues. Obama was able to establish himself as McCain's near equal on foreign policy in both debates so far. McCain will be hard pressed to establish himself as Obama's near equal on the economy in the final debate next week.
One trap that many politicos, journalists, and pundits fall into is the tendency to call the presidential race even. It's common to hear phrases like "too close to call" and "in a dead heat." Part of this is because they don't want to appear biased and risk losing their credibility in their quest to be objective. Others think a close race makes for a better storyline than a blowout. However, this race is clearly getting away from McCain. The race as it stands right now is not even. Barack Obama is leading almost every national poll and is on offense in a lot more red states than McCain is in blue states. Because of the town hall format, again, which is McCain's specialty, McCain really had a chance to change the campaign narrative and eat into Obama's lead. But he squandered it.
This campaign has shifted from 2004 to 1980 with a bit of 1996 mixed in. (Read more here.) If all the McCain-Palin ticket has to go on is earmarks, media bias, William Ayers, Ronald Reagan, experience, and taxes, November 4th could be a long night. McCain may well lose this election handily, but the new danger is that he threatens to take Republicans down the ballot with him. For him to right his ship, he needs a new, credible, and unique economic plan--and he needs it now. It is the issue of the election, and there's not a lot of time left to sufficiently address it.
Last week's debate between Senator Joe Biden and Governor Sarah Palin may not have lived up to the hype in that Biden didn't have to extract his foot from his mouth and Palin didn't experience a nuclear meltdown on stage. However, the debate was highly instructive in that it showed the clear contrast in the debating styles and political appeal of both candidates. The format, which allowed for considerably less back-and-forth between the two candidates, clearly advantaged Palin and allowed her to stay in her comfort zone. And because this debate served as Sarah Palin's much anticipated coming out party, this was both candidates' last and best opportunity to make the case for their respective tickets. After the debate, both candidates will likely fade into relative obscurity while Barack Obama and John McCain regain their traditional positions on center stage.
Joe Biden delivered a strong, competent, and substantive performance. He spoke at great length and in great detail in response to almost every question and clearly understood what he was talking about. Even on the occasions when he may have been a little loose with his facts, he came across as strong and knowledgeable. One can only wonder how many Democrats lamented the fact that their ticket wasn't flipped with Biden running for the top job and Obama running for the second slot. And because Palin was the only other person on stage, he came across as mature, presidential, and steady.
Unfortunately for Biden, this debate put him in a no-win situation. He didn't want to further legitimize Palin by spending more time going after her than hammering home Barack Obama's policies. He also didn't want to risk setting himself up for a zinger from the feisty Palin even though he was clearly tempted to go on the attack. And of course, debating a female presents unique challenges to male politicians because they can't risk turning female voters off by being too aggressive or patronizing. And given the low expectations Palin had coming into this debate and all the attention she was getting, he was clearly the second person on stage. Thus, Biden he had to be very careful with finding the right balance between ignoring Palin's attacks, scoring clean hits off of her, and defending Obama's policies at the expense of McCain's. Palin was considerably less encumbered.
Biden's opponent was clearly John McCain. Whenever he did go after Palin, he did so by trying to drive a wedge between her, McCain, and the Republican base. For example, when the subject of energy came up, Biden congratulated Palin for implementing a windfall profits tax on energy companies so that this money could be invested in exploring alternative energy sources. Republicans, of course, are averse to any and all tax increases, so Biden's lauding Palin for raising taxes may cause the McCain-Palin ticket to have to explain why she did so on the campaign trail.
Another deft political move by Biden, though it was certainly not intentional, was when he turned the sexism card back on Palin by saying that men too know what it's like to raise children as single parents. He choked up, obviously remembering the tragic death of his wife and infant daughter more than 30 years ago. For voters who commonly viewed Biden as a windbag or a pompous, stale senator, this was a humanizing moment that certainly connected with voters.
Sarah Palin, on the other hand, had a different mission altogether. After being lampooned by comedians and Saturday Night Live for her series of embarrassing interviews with Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson, she had to show voters that she was 1) not a lightweight and 2) a serious candidate for vice president. This debate had the potential to ruin McCain's campaign had she bombed because his own judgment would have been called into question. Fortunately for Palin, she did not replicate her performance with Katie Couric and displayed the fire and energy that characterized her successful debut at the Republican National Convention last month.
While Biden was tapped by Obama to shore up his political weaknesses, Palin was tapped by McCain to shore up his Republican base. Palin's audience at the debate was nervous conservatives, rural voters, independent women, and people who are fed up with the federal government. Her primary appeal is her nonpolitical way of speaking. Instead of coming across like a stuffy Washingtonian, she comes across like an average approachable person that you'd meet at a local farmer's market. Policy heft is not her strength. Emotion and tapping into identity politics are the engine driving Palin's appeal.
In terms of her debating skills, Palin had a tendency to ignore the questions that were asked and talk about subjects she was more comfortable with. The moderator let her get away with this, presumably because she (Gwen Ifill) did not want to be tarred as biased against Palin in light of the book she's writing that some argue makes her pro-Obama. Palin even flat out said that she wasn't going to answer the moderator's questions because she wanted to "talk directly to the American people." When she did answer a question directly, she employed a strategy of answering it quickly before going off on a different subject and spending the majority of time addressing this new subject, rather than the original question that was asked. This likely irritated Biden because he had no idea what to expect from her and because she was not following the rules of the debate. (Of course, there are no real rules.)
Palin used a lot of red meat in her responses that the Republican base liked. She accused Biden of "wanting to surrender" in Iraq, kept talking about how Obama wanted to raise taxes, and accused Obama of cutting off funding for the troops. To his credit, Biden did a good job of parrying most of Palin's attacks, but he spent more time on defense than he would have liked because at times, it seemed that Biden's refutations were ignored. (Palin accused Obama of cutting funding for the troops in Iraq more than once, for example.)
Regarding her substance, Palin made several assertions that likely raised a few eyebrows among policy wonks. For example, she said she wanted to increase the powers of the vice presidency. After Dick Cheney's term, this may frighten a lot of voters. And secondly, she wants to relocate the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. That has obvious foreign policy implications. Will voters be alarmed by these two statements? Or have we entered an era in which facts don't matter as much as they used to?
I mentioned earlier that Palin had two goals coming into this debate: 1) not coming across as vapid, and 2) showing that she was ready for the vice presidency. She definitely accomplished the first goal, but arguably not the second. Because the expectations were so low for Palin prior to the debate, a "win" for her is accompanied by statements like "she can speak in complete sentences" or "she's sounded more coherent than she did in her previous interviews." That's not the same as "she's clearly ready to be Vice President." She did herself a huge disservice by quipping, "I've only been at this for, like, five weeks" and using that as an excuse either for not knowing how to answer a question or for making a mistake.
Palin may have endeared herself to voters by winking to the audience and giving shout-outs to third graders at her local elementary school. However, the huge risk for Palin is that because she had dug herself into such a large hole because of her previous poor interviews, these "cute" gestures may make her come across as anything but serious. Voters expect a certain level of decor from their elected officials and using expressions like "say it ain't so, Joe" does not display the maturity that many voters expect from their national leaders.
Voters who were against Palin before the debate are likely still against her. Voters who loved her before the date are probably ecstatic about her now. She is clearly the more polarizing of the two vice presidential candidates, so the more popular she becomes with one segment of the electorate, the less popular she becomes with the other. Voters not in the Palin camp probably did not hear a lot of substance in her remarks, and they might have found her to be incoherent at times. But perhaps that's not what matters to a wide swath of the electorate who is sick of politicians in general, especially after the congressional wrangling over the past two weeks.
Ultimately, I believe the Palin pick may be an unsuccessful strategy for John McCain for one particular reason. Even though Palin is designed to energize Republicans, the Republican base is smaller than the Democratic base this year. Palin's appeal beyond Republicans and conservative-leaning independents is considerably reduced.
To voters who were skeptical of Palin, they probably found her to be arrogant, annoying, immature, and perhaps a bit rude. After Biden choked up when talking about single fathers, Palin coldly answered her debate question without acknowledging Biden's tragedy. And when Biden mentioned that his wife was a teacher with a PhD, Palin mocked her by saying that "her reward is in heaven." She also needlessly corrected Biden for botching the Republican chant of "Drill Baby Drill." These kinds of wisecracks may be what endear Palin to Republicans, but they are quite off-putting to everyone else and may remind them of George W. Bush. It is up for debate who is the more refreshing burst of fresh air: the casual "every Mom" from Alaska or the intellectual from Delaware.
It must be stressed however, that Palin did just fine at the debate, especially as far as Republicans are concerned. However, she may have done more good for herself than the actual McCain-Palin ticket because her tone may have reinforced the temperament issue that is creeping into the political dialogue. However, even if McCain loses this election, do not be surprised to see Palin on the national stage again in 2012. Biden delivered a strong performance as well, but probably got lost in the shuffle because of all the attention Palin was garnering. At least he didn't do Obama any harm.
Coming out of the debate, the storyline now switches to the economy and the recently passed economic relief bill. Joe Biden spent a lot more time talking about so-called kitchen table issues like health care and jobs. Sarah Palin spoke in more general terms about winning in Iraq, cutting taxes, and drilling. She also tried to get voters to identify with her with her populist (e.g., folksy) way of speaking.
At the very least, Palin got the jokes about her intelligence out of the headlines and should receive more favorable press coverage from now on. However, questions may still linger in voters' minds because they might not know which Sarah Palin is real. And if she continues to stay away from the national media, these questions might not go away. Of course, if the media still complain, that works to Palin's advantage because she's not just running against the Obama-Biden campaign. She's running against everything that is not Fox News and talk radio.
John McCain can now breathe a huge sigh of relief.