As Barack Obama is getting ready to bring his foreign trip to a close, it seems evident that this past week will be remembered as one of the important moments of the campaign. When all is said and done, and whatever happens in the coming months, pundits will look for clues in the events of the past few days. But did Obama’s international journey really impact the race ?
Unless polls shift in one direction or another in the coming days and do so consistently (Obama jumped to a 5% and 6% lead in the Rasmussen and Gallup tracking polls today), we won’t have a definite answer to that question for a while. This type of event - important enough for people to take notice, but not instantaneous game-changers like a convention speech or a debate /victory - has the potential to change the hidden fundamentals of the race and influence people’s impressions of the candidates and their choices down-the-line without shifting poll numbers overnight.
What were the Obama campaign’s hopes and calculations - and what did Republicans hope they could gain out of this week?
To the Obama campaign, these theatrics could improve voters’ perceptions of the Democratic Senator by casting on him a presidential stature many voters are afraid he lacks. The campaign hopes that this electorate that is yearning to vote Democratic will massively move towards Obama once it has some of its questions and doubts answered - which was the point I made two days ago by establishing a parallel between this election and that of 1980. If the campaign is right that the kind of imagery that we have been seeing over the past few days is what the electorate was looking for and if voters were paying attention, then Obama’s trip will no doubt help him tremendously and make voters more comfortable with his candidacy. That might not translate in polls right away, but it will down-the-line.
Meanwhile, Republicans hoped to portray Obama’s trip in a more negative light by (1) arguing that Obama is acting arrogantly by going around the world like he has already been elected, and (2) using Obama’s popularity abroad to hurt him in the US. Here again, whatever success the GOP might have with this line of attack (Obama is cocky; Obama is foreign) could only as part of a broader argument. If voters do indeed feel that Obama’s trip is more elaborate for what a candidate ought to do and that his “citizen of the world” line aligns him a bit too much with “un-American” forces (whatever those are), it might make them more receptive to future Republican attacks.
These dual scenarios differ on whether the American electorate is (1) more receptive to international approval than it was in 2004 and (2) paying close enough attention for any of this to matter.
Beyond these considerations, however, there is no doubt that the Obama campaign organized a flawless trip and succeeded in what it had set up to do, whereas McCain had a weak week. In short, Democrats did everything they had to do to benefit from Obama’s trip whereas Republicans suffered from the ineptitude of McCain’s campaign.
Obama got a week of extensive media coverage, some phenomenal pictures against some gorgeous backdrops; he delivered an international speech that did not sound like a campaign speech and which an estimated 200,000 Berliners attended, conducted high-profile meetings and press conferences with a number of world leaders, received a semi-endorsement by the Iraqi Prime Minister, all of this without any significant mistake. Some on the Right attempted to make Obama’s “citizen of the world” line from the Berlin speech into a repeat of John Kerry’s “global test,” but it turns out Ronald Reagan had used the same line in 1982. And the main screw-up of the trip (Obama’s canceling his visit to a wounded soldiers hospital yesterday) was quickly put on the Pentagon’s back.
On the other hand, McCain spent a day riding around in a golf course with Bush 41 and had to cancel a trip on a drilling base off the coast of Louisiana because of bad weather. He was supposed to spend the week discussing the economy and thus own that topic, but the campaign insisted on having access to broadcast television this week and as a result McCain spent a lot of time in interviews that followed up those Obama conducted, forcing McCain to react to whatever Obama was saying all week and focusing him once again on international affairs, yet another failure at staying on message. And worst of all, McCain is the one who committed a major foreign policy gaffe by wrongly suggesting that the Anbar awakening occurred after the surge only a few days after having referred to the inexistent Iraq/Pakistan border. How was the McCain campaign supposed to hit Obama on his inexperience when its own candidate was flubbing such facts?
It is too early to say how voters will react (or whether they will react at all) to Obama’s trip, and whether there will be a long-term impact. But the contrast between the Obama campaign’s flawless execution and the McCain campaign’s disorganization should reassure Democrats that the GOP wasted whatever opportunity it had this week and that it is much more likely that the week’s images of McCain’s hurt the Republican ticket than those of Obama hurt the Democratic one. Given that Obama had embarked on a high-risk international trip and that McCain had stayed here to occupy himself in the meantime, that alone is a remarkable feat for the Illinois Senator.
Yet, remember that McCain has had a number of bad weeks in the past two months but he has remained remarkably competitive. Today, the RNC and the DNC put out competing statements summarizing the state of the race. Jonathan Martin summarizes them as such: “Says the GOP: In a brutal climate, McCain is still in contention. Say the Dems: McCain had a horrendous week. Again.” The paradox of this presidential election is that these two seemingly incompatible statements appear to both be true. And that alone justifiably gives Republicans hope that their candidate could pull an upset on Election Day.