Something has happened to the McCain campaign. Just a few weeks ago, it was brilliantly succeeding in transforming this election into a referendum about Barack Obama: his readiness, his naivety, his commitment to the troops, even his shady connections. Republicans understood that the only way they could win this election was to convince the majority of voters who are looking to vote for a Democrat, any Democrat, that they shouldn’t vote for this Democrat - and they applied this strategy effectively. The celebrity ads were mocked, but they instilled doubt about Obama.
In the past month, however, Republicans lost track of the fact that their primary objective was to disqualify Obama, and they let the spotlight shift to McCain. Today, undecided voters are asking themselves as many questions about the Arizona Senator - does he have the temperament to be president? how different is he from President Bush? would we trust his vice-president to take over? - than they are about his opponent.
That is a recipe for disaster.
Some of McCain’s slippage is due to the financial crisis, which led the year’s pro-Democratic environment to reassert itself. But that environment had never disappeared to start with. It had been temporarily muted by the GOP convention but the McCain campaign had taken only a few steps to ensure it was silenced permanently.
What is at fault is the lack of a coherent offensive message. In August, McCain’s core attack against Obama was clear, and it could be encapsulated in one sentence: he is not “ready to lead” because he is all talk, no substance. Repeated endlessly on cable news and in television ads, that core attack was starting to stick.
Two months later, what is McCain’s core attack?
His September attacks ads were a mix of attacks on his liberalism, his ties to corrupt business executives, and only sometimes did McCain bring up Obama’s lack of experience. No coherent picture of Obama emerges out of all of this. Republicans seemingly renounced the urgent task of painting a portrait of a vividly risky Obama they wanted voters to see.
Nowhere was this more obvious than at the GOP convention: Palin’s selection forced organizers to change the speeches to downplay brutal attacks on Obama’s experience. Instead, some speakers emphasized that the Democrat is not ready, others questioned Obama’s commitment to the troops. And the dominant mode of attack was sarcasm - make fun of his years as a community organizer, for instance. But that is not a strategy that is effective in a long-term against a candidate who is not already an object of ridicule: It might have worked against Kerry, whom the GOP managed to quickly turn into a caricature, but they have certainly not been able to do the same to Obama, whose favorability rating have remained consistently strong.
Four factors in particular explain McCain’s failure at developing a coherent attack. First, the McCain campaign did not go back to the experience argument even after the convention; instead, it chose to emphasize change and reform, ground Obama is most comfortable on. That did not work, and all polls show Obama remains the candidate of change. In other words, McCain abruptly gave up all the groundwork the celebrity ads had laid throughout late July and August to try and went in the wilderness.
Second, the strategy Republicans are privileging right now is to attack Obama as a traditional tax-and-spend liberal. A new ad hits the Illinois Senator for having supported tax hikes, for instance. But that strategy is not adapted to the current environment. In 2008, voters are willing to vote for a liberal candidate - in fact, they are wiling to vote for anyone but a Republican. That is what happened in 2006, when Democratic candidates seemed immune to the GOP’s traditional anti-liberal arguments.
McCain has somewhat managed to convince voters that he is different enough from your typical Republican to warrant consideration, but he has made no progress in his argument that there is something particular to Obama (not to Democrats in general) that makes him so threatening. Quite the contrary, in fact: McCain now seems determined to show that there is nothing that distinguishes Obama from his fellow Democrats, and that is a big strategic mistake. This year, voters want a Republican to not be a Republican, but there is no sign that they want a Democrat to not be a Democrat.
Third, one can question the wisdom of putting so much emphasis on little incidents like “lipstick on a pig.” If Obama had been the underdog, that might have prevented him from finding his footing. But all the fundamentals still favored the Democrat and the burden was still on Republicans to disqualify him - and do so fundamentally to get voters who want to vote for him away from the Illinois Senator. Was “lipstick on a pig” going to do the trick? Were ads (or rather video press releases) portraying Democrats as a pack of sexist wolves?
Finally, I have repeatedly praised McCain’s determination to take gambles, and I have explained that such unexpected maneuvers are necessary for McCain to halt Obama’s momentum and keep McCain alive. But McCain’s latest gambles have been the wrong kind. In particular, the suspension of his campaign shook up the race, but it did so in a way that left McCain alone under the spotlight - and then backfired, as voters appear to have taken that as a sign of erratic behavior rather than steady leadership. But even in the best case scenario, McCain might have improved his own favorability, which is no longer the key to his victory: whatever voters think of him, he will not win in such a Democratic year without impacting Obama’s image.
As a result, we now find ourselves a month from Election Day, and Obama has barely been impacted by Republican attacks. His favorability remains high, he undoubtedly passed a qualification threshold in the first presidential debate, and he has adopted a very efficiently offensive tactic of his own against McCain.
So what is the GOP to do? They need to develop a more coherent attack scheme - and they appear to be going back to where they started, going after Obama’s character, something they pursued more consistently in the spring and summer. A Washington Post article published this morning found that Republicans are “readying a newly aggressive assault on Sen. Barack Obama’s character,” and it didn’t take long for us to get confirmation in Sarah Palin’s new stump speech.
“Well, I was reading my copy of today’s New York Times and I was really interested to read about Barack’s friends from Chicago. Turns out, one of his earliest supporters is a man who, according to The New York Times was a domestic terrorist… [Obama] is not a man who sees America as you and I do - as the greatest force for good in the world. This is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country.“
We will be hearing a lot about Obama’s worldview, his Americanness and his patriotism in the coming weeks. And Palin’s direct references to Bill Ayers suggest that he will be at the center of Republican attacks. This could be an effective strategy, since polls have long suggested voters have doubts about Obama. But is it not too late?
Let’s say it again: We are a month from Election Day, many voters have already cast their ballot, others are making up their mind as we speak and have already developed a firm impression of both candidates. Can Republicans suddenly reinvent an attack strategy and get it through to voters, even as the Obama campaign has millions it can spend in quick response ads? Is it not too risky to dramatically dial up the volume of attacks so close to the election, especially when the country is focused on the economy? After all, a narrative has congealed around McCain’s meanness and tendency to stretch the truth, and the GOP has to be very careful to not feed those impressions further.
To make matters worse, McCain has a money problem. He is limited by the public financing system, and he has to rely on the RNC’s war chest to stay afloat. Any heavy attack on the Illinois Senator would have to be made in conjunction with the RNC, and that committee certainly has a lot of money. It raised a very impressive $66 million in September alone. But as I have said many times, you cannot simply add up McCain’s cash on hand to the RNC’s.
There are two ways in which the RNC can help McCain. First, it can produce and run an ad through its independent expenditure division, but that prevents any coordination between the ad’s makers and the McCain campaign, which thus has no control over messaging. Considering that the lack of a coherent message is the main problem McCain is facing right now, this only exacerbates the problem. Second, an ad can be a common expenditure which both the RNC and the campaign pay for; but in that case the spot cannot just be aimed at one candidate. This is why a number of McCain’s recent negative ads have attacked “Obama and his liberal congressional allies.”
Those broad attacks mean that a portion of the ads is wasted with meaningless - and sometimes counterproductive - segments. In some of these spots, Obama’s image is juxtaposed to that of Senators no swing voter will recognize - Byron Dorgan, Chuck Schumer. And only the first half of the latest GOP spot is devoted to Obama’s tax cutting habits. The rest is wasted on attacking unnamed congressional liberals:
The requirement to attack multiple Democrats is particularly damaging to Republicans in this environment. Voters want to vote Democratic, and the McCain campaign needs to convince them that there is something wrong with this particular Democrat. Associating him to “liberal” congressional leaders might have hurt in another political environment, but it also makes Obama a more familiar figure.
In 2008, that’s all a Democrat needs to be.