In politics, the best way of knowing which candidate is gaining the upper-hand is to monitor the campaigns’ degree of negativity. Yesterday, I wondered whether Obama’s trip had an impact on the race and whether voters are now more comfortable with the idea of an Obama presidency. One answer to that question is provided by the tracking polls, in which Obama continued to inch ahead today (6% in Rasmussen and 7% in Gallup).
Another answer is the fact that the McCain campaign has upped the tone of its attacks against Obama this week, suggesting that they are worried that the Illinois Senator might be gaining an edge and that they have to go negative to cut his momentum. Here is the ad McCain released today:
The ad will air in Colorado, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC (where it will reach voters in Northern Virginia). It is very similar to the ad the McCain campaign unveiled last week - just before Obama left for Afghanistan - except that (1) it has been slightly modified to reflect events of the past week and (2) it contains a more frontal attack on Obama’s character.
First, Obama is blamed for never having held a Senate hearing on Afghanistan. As I said last week, I do not understand why the McCain campaign is so determined to make this one of its main attacks against Obama. Will voters even know why he should have held such a hearing? Are they at all familiar with the fact that Obama chairs a Foreign Relations subcommittee in which he might have had the authority to hold hearings on Afghanistan?
Second, and whereas last week’s ad says Obama “has” not been in Iraq for years, this week’s has been updated to say that “he hadn’t been in Iraq for years,” with graphics showing that more than 900 days had gone by since Obama’s previous trip. Here again, I am unsure that this charge could be very effective. Will voters consider the less than 3 years Obama spent without going to Iraq that excessive a time - especially if they don’t know McCain has gone to Iraq 8 times (the ad makes no mention of that fact?
The main difference between the two ads is the charge that Obama “made time to go to the gym” but “canceled a visit to wounded troops.” (Jonathan Martin points out that the footage used by the ad when Obama is said to have had time to “go to the gym” is one of Obama playing basketballs with US troops.) This refers, of course, to the hospital for wounded US soldiers Obama was supposed to visit in Germany; the Pentagon warned Obama at the last minute - weeks after the event was in the works - that he could not visit the troops accompanied by campaign staff, leading Obama to cancel the trip at the last minute.
The ad goes on to say that “it seems the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras.” This last charge is as personal as a McCain ad has gotten up to this point in the campaign, as it clearly implies that Obama is only feigning interests for the military to get elected (whereas McCain “is always there for our troops,” the ad informs us). It echoes a new line McCain has been using despite a lot of criticism over the past few week: “It seems to me that Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign” - a line that comes as close to accusing Obama of treason as anything McCain could say.
Just like last week’s spot, then, this one seems to me to be inefficient for a very simple reason: It attacks Obama on obscure details that can only resonate with voters who are well acquainted with campaign news, who know Obama’s role in the Senate or who are aware of how often other Senators go to Iraq. No undecided low-information voters is likely to have heard of any of this. In short, it seems that the McCain campaign is so eager to knock Obama down a notch on national security issues that they are taking what makes them snicker at staff meetings on air as their main message.
However, the ad’s potential should not be dismissed, and the aggressive tone reveals more about McCain’s strategy. Through this ad (and through McCain’s implied accusation of treason) the GOP is trying to build up the theme that Obama is not interested in protecting the country in the hope that this can undercut Obama’s appeal and feed voters’ doubts. By themselves, the lack of Senate hearings, the 900 days out of Iraq and the canceling a troop visit are unlikely to change anyone’s mind.
But put together and hammered continually by the Republican machine, these pieces of information are meant harden voters’ anxieties that there is something about Barack Obama - his inexperience, his opportunism - that will not keep them safe. As has been obvious for months, McCain’s only chance to win the presidency in a Democratic year is to make the election about Barack Obama, make voters doubt his character and whether he has the temperament to be commander-in-chief. This ad is one of the first steps in that direction and, as Ben Smith notes, it even picks up the themes of debunked e-mail smears.
The GOP is now clearly worried that Obama’s trip was executed flawlessly enough and generated enough coverage that it will blunt this storyline and that it will boost Obama upwards. When a campaign feels that it is falling behind, it often has no choice but to air more outrageous attacks. The McCain campaign’s new sense of urgency explains their decision to up the attacks over the past week. There are greater risks in going more negative, but there are also more rewards.