Saturday, November 01, 2008
Obama - 53% - 353 EV
McCain - 45% - 185
Obama will win: Kerry + IA, NM, CO, VA, NV, OH, FL, NC (roughly in that order of strength)
McCain will win: IN, MO, ND, MT, GA
The race has been teetering between 6-8%, and I still expect a small tightening going into election day. But the early voting has shown that Obama's groundgame and enthusiasm advantage is real, and it may be decisive even if McCain moves many of the undecideds to his column with a last minute ad barrage. This GOTV gap, an advantage for Bush in 2004, will provide a cushion for Obama.
Democrats will win: VA, NM, CO, AK, NH, OR, NC, MN (in a squeaker). GA will go to a run-off.
GOP will hold the rest (including KY) and win no Dem seats.
Dems +25 seats.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
In this bubble, what's scary isn't the dangerous incompetence of George Bush and his disastrous eight years -- recognized by pretty much all non-wingnuts -- but "socialists" like Barack Obama who wants to raise taxes on folks making over $250,00. And ironically, John McCain, one of the few prominent Republicans who has resisted the wingnut echo chamber in the past, is now completely ensnared in it.
If, in the previous two debates, McCain was a little too caught up in his own personal crusades (read: earmarks; taking on his own party), here was a performance that was launched from wingnuttia, where "spreading the wealth around" is dangerous, where $250,000+ earning "Joe the Plumber" is the stand-in for Mr. America, where "health of the mother" is somehow code for zealots, where only liberal wimps are concerned about storing nuclear power "safely", and vouchers are a cure-all for education.
The pundits thought McCain did well because he was aggressive and forced he debate, but the trouble is the right-wing philosophy he was espousing didn't connect to people, and the shorthand he was using made sense only to the cheerleaders over on The Corner. By contrast, Obama didn't launch into sputtering attacks on the Alaska Independence Party, G. Gordon Liddy, Diebold, Troopergate, the torture memos, US Attorney firings, and any number of other liberal blog causes. The rather phlegmatic Obama, in cool professorial mode, explained his policy proposals in detail, over and over. Unlike the 2nd debate, Barack was off his game and missed a lot of obvious retorts. But he did his job.
And more importantly, Obama looked calm and unflappable. McCain looked like a meth fiend, bulging his eyes, and moving around in his seat like a maniac. Is it any wonder McCain got slammed again in the snap polls?
It's clear that McCain is an uncoachable candidate, and that his downfall was trying to run a Bush '04 base/echo chamber campaign that is both wrong for the times and completely unsuitable for himself.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Polls, Polls, Polls
Obama's now up by about 8 points in the national polls, and looking even better in the electoral college. Polling guru Nate Silver says that Obama has a 1-2 point advantage in the electoral college, meaning that he'll likely get over 270 even if he's trailing by a small margin. Beyond the obvious trends, Obama appears to have a few hidden advantages as well. Silver looked at the cell phone effect and concluded that it results in a 2.8 point error in this election, meaning that one should add roughly 2.8 points to Obama with respect to any poll conducted only by landlines. Then there's the effect of the groundgame. Due to a combination of massive amounts of money, a deep, abiding commitment to building a highly motivated grassroots GOTV organization, and incredible voter enthusiasm, you're likely to see a historic turnout among African-Americans and the 18-30 age bracket, both of which is likely to be devalued in likely voter models. Ann Selzer, the pollster who called the Iowa caucuses right, has consistently used models that weighed for higher youth and minority turnout, leading to a "house effect" in favor of Obama by at least 2 points. If she's right, then we're looking at 4-5 "hidden" points for Obama that doesn't show up in the typical tracking poll. To be conservative, I'd guess that Obama has a 3-point edge based on groundgame/enthusiasm/demographics.
Wingnuts, though, argue that polls are overstating Obama's lead. They're hanging on to their hopes that the Bradley Effect will doom Obama. Never mind that the Bradley Effect is pretty much a myth, as Silver (again) shows. Not only has it not shown up in recent elections, it's unclear there was a "Bradley Effect" in Tom Bradley race in '82, as his opponent Deukmejian's pollster attests. In the era of robo-polls and character smears, it makes little sense that voters will say they're voting for Obama in the polls, but do something else in the ballot box.
That's not to say there isn't a racism effect. In the primaries, Clinton tends to win over the "made up mind in last 3 days" group by large margins, suggesting that, if race were a factor, it may be that undecideds will flow disproportionately towards McCain.
Just to be cautious, let's give McCain 3 out of 4 undecideds. Even so, given the other effects, if Obama can be at 46% in the last round of polls, he'll likely win the electoral college. So Obama can afford to lose a few points from his total right now and still be okay.
Here's where Obama has the biggest advantage. Obama needs 270 electoral votes (or 269, as a tie goes to the Democratic House). Right now, there are basically no Kerry states are in danger, amounting to 252 votes. Add Bush '04 states Iowa and New Mexico, which leans strongly towards Obama and you're at 264. Even if the national race tightens up, Obama will have 264 votes in his pocket as he seeks to poach just one state among: Colorado, Virginia, Florida, Nevada, or Ohio (North Carolina, Missouri, and Indiana would move to lean McCain if the race tightens). McCain has to sweep all five states -- win five coin flips in a row, essentially -- to win.
Bizarrely, the McCain campaign spends time trying to poach Wisconsin, Pennsylvania (where Obama has at least a 10 point lead in every poll taken this month), and Iowa. His tactical decisions remind me of Bush in 2000, when they decided to do psy-ops by going to California in the last week. Right now, McCain's only shot is to win a bunch of battleground states by the slimmest of margins, against an opponent with a 2-to-1 spending advantage. That means he needs to pour all of his resources into the five critical states and make a stand. What he shouldn't be doing is spending time in Pennsylvania just to show he's going on offense.
It'll be about the economy, and I'm afraid McCain simply doesn't have the fluency on this topic to "win." He keeps associating the economy with either tax cuts or earmarks, when in a debate format, discussing the subject calls for half a dose of empathy with half a dose of pandering. That's just not John McCain. And Obama and Biden are baiting McCain to bring up Ayers; I suspect that Obama's got something up his sleeve.
It's difficult to see McCain shaking the race up tomorrow, given the way the two candidates have performed thus far in these forums.
Next three weeks and McCain's constraints
A lot of us expected that the last few weeks of this election will be Wright/Ayers/random bogeyman. But events -- and Steve Schmidt -- have proceeded to neuter the effects of an Atwateresque finale. Events are obvious -- character smears look like obvious petty distractions in the face of this financial maelstrom. And any time McCain goes there, Obama can say he's diverting attention from The Issues.
As for tactics, Steve Schmidt made two enormous mistakes, both of which are stemmed from a kind 2004 mentality that assumes reality will bend to the will of the GOP. The first concerns the voters. It's a widespread assumption that persuadable voters are not knowledgeable and easily manipulated, but Schmidt took this assumption too far and treated voters like complete morons. This tendency to insult the voter was especially pronounced the Sarah Palin rollout, when they came out with doozies like "Palin has foreign policy experience because Alaska was next to Russia" that are just ridiculous on their face. And when nobody bought this story or Palin's vaunted "executive experience", the message team just kept pushing. After the "lipstick on a pig" gambit, it looked like the McCain team were just a bunch of cynical hacks to any voter not in the tank. By repeatedly pushing idiotic messages, McCain whittled away his hard-earned credibility, one of the candidate's longstanding strengths.
The other mistake is the gaming of the media, which is the same mistake Hillary Clinton's team made. Again, the Palin rollout is emblematic. Remember when Palin was introduced, the media took it upon themselves to vet her -- with good reason. And when the media caught her in a lie about rejecting the Bridge to Nowhere, they decided to ignore the media and just brazenly repeat the lie over and over again. This kind of spin is a big F- you to the media, and coupled with Schmidt's furious newscycle-uber-alles approach to politics, really damaged McCain's standing in the media. Remember, John McCain is (or was) the biggest media darling in politics, and instead of capitalizing on that, the McCain campaign re-ran the anti-media Bush 04 campaign. This year, when the GOP's power is at an ebb, the media fought back.
Of course, McCain's media problem isn't just his fault. Barack Obama happens to be the perfect media-friendly candidate: a good-looking, graceful, cosmopolitan, hyper-intelligent black Democrat who is about as earnest as a politician can be in this day and age. He's a once-in-a-few generations type talent, and one precisely plays well with the media. Though I've had serious issues with Obama's message operation, one thing that helps him with the media is that he typically takes a higher road and doesn't press hard on idiotic spin. And the toxic rumors surrounding his exotic background has also triggered the media's paternalistic instincts. This week's newscycles, much of it revolving around right-wing lunatics yelling out hateful remarks at McCain-Palin rallies, evidence this paternalism.
McCain's also been boxed in by two other factors out of McCain's control. One is that the right-wing base consists of a good chunk of troglodytes who shouldn't be let out of the house. The ones they put on TV are of course extremist lunatics mouthing discredited conspiracy theories. Loonies on TV grab viewer attention. But also, the Republican base is way out of the mainstream; these are the Bush dead-enders, the ones that still approve of their leader long after he's been exposed as a total failure to the rest of America. So they're out there hectoring McCain to go nuclear when McCain knows this strategy is a loser. He's in a "damn if he does, damn if he doesn't" position vis-a-vis the base.
The base will also cry foul whenever McCain proposed pandering economic programs -- the only kind that can really help him win over voters. I'm personally opposed to the mortgage buy-back plan proposed by McCain during the second debate, but it seems like with a PR push, it can prove to be quite popular. But alas, with the wingnuts going, well, nuts over it, this proposal really never had a chance. He's not only boxed in tactically, but also on policy as well.
The other factor is the Obama team's savvy pre-emptory moves. Obama and Biden have hammered McCain for trying to "turn the page"; any attempt to engage in character smears will provoke a hearty "this guy's trying to distract you because his plan is the same as Bush's" rebuke. The "erratic" charge, which is taking hold, also restricts McCain's ability to come up with new gambits to try to shake up the race. Both the media and Obama will immediately jump on any gambit and frame it as a desperate stunt. (Obama's team, throughout the election season, has played defense superbly but offense poorly.)
Since the beginning of the general election campaign, McCain's strategy has been to "disqualify" Obama. It turns out McCain probably could've kept it close (and even win) if he concentrated on refining his message and image (which hopefully will be the subject of a "pre-mortem" post). By making so many mistakes, McCain's now in a position where he's simply doesn't have the tools to disqualify Obama. He'll have to hope that some intervening event, or a big Obama slip up, changes the race. In the meantime, I think the experience + POW + divided government message is his best bet to prevent himself from sliding further back as he waits for a prayer to be answered.
Obama likes it smooth and steady. It looks he's sitting on wads of cash, which means he'll win the air wars (even with all of those mediocre message ads). All he has to do is stop McCain's message from penetrating while his GOTV advantage kicks in and Obama should win. So while he's not in prevent defense mode yet, he appears quite content to sit back and trade punts with McCain. It's probably the best strategy; as in the primaries, Obama lacks the killer instinct to finish an opponent off, but why take the chance?
Of course, if he does want a quick knockout, McCain's weak spot is right in the open: Sarah Palin. A concerted effort to hammer Palin (who now have the highest unfavorables of anyone on either ticket) and tie her to McCain's poor judgment (and age) will surely doom McCain. It won't happen, because Obama doesn't need a KO, but I kinda wanna see him try.
Beverly Hills Chihuahua v. Body of Lies
The mood in the country is depressed and anxious; folks what something light, a bit of uplift. Last weekend, the star-studded dark CIA thriller gets walloped by a talking dog comedy in its second week. I hope the Obama team is paying attention and close with some well-produced inspiring, feel-good ads. Like the kind that aired during the Olympics, but maybe with a bit more meat.
Friday, September 26, 2008
LAGs are fun to watch, but it's a high-risk style that's difficult to master, and McCain, it appears, hasn't quite gotten there. As with the Palin pick, you can't blame McCain for taking a big chance. At the start of the week, he was stalling in the polls, faltering in swing states, and in danger of going down with the Dow Jones as the narrative was turning against him. He needed to shake things up. So it looks like his campaign tried to stage some kind of intervention -- the story was supposed to be that the economy was saved by...John McCain! But between the time he decided on this gambit, and his arrival in DC, the GOP House members had gone into open revolt. The incoherent speech by the president failed to add clarity to the stakes here as the perception that this was a "Wall Street bailout" began to be widely accepted. The political pressure ratcheted up as some of the more cynical GOP strategists saw an opening to triangulate against the Dems and the Bush administration.
So McCain couldn't perform his planned Kabuki and instead faced a real dilemma: If he aligns himself fully with the GOP hardliners, he'll make a mockery of his talk of "bipartisanship" and saving the country. Attaching himself to a plan that offers more deregulation and capital gains tax cuts is also dangerous. But if he goes along with the Democrats and Bush's unpopular bailout, he wouldn't be able to distinguish himself from Obama while further alienating the GOP base. Brokering a deal is out as the GOP insurance scheme is fundamentally incompatible with Paulson's plan, which is about a massive federal purchase of of mortgage-backed securities that regulators believe are not correctly priced.
If McCain truly wanted to go all-in, he could have gone against the Paulson plan and played chicken by proposing some kind of populist alternative (there are no shortage of alternative bailout proposals out there) and stuck to his debate postponement threat. This would be the kind of bold positioning that may win him votes. But this plays risks disaster as, as market losses would be blamed on McCain if the Democrats refuse to play ball.
In reality, the financial crisis offered a menu of terrible political choices for all involved. A bailout is probably necessary, but any plan that aims to free up the credit market is a tough sell to voters. Why money to Wall Street? Why not bailout struggling homeowners? Or why not let Wall Street go down in flames? McCain would have been better off this week sitting back and assigning blame. He should have folded and waited for a better hand. Instead, he looked down, saw a 5-3 suited and thought this was the spot to make a move. So the guy raised preflop, raised the flop, got called by a cool and methodical Obama, and folded on the next bet.
Good LAGs make a read and follow through. John McCain made a bad read, tried to bluff his way out, and then folded after he got called. Maybe a good debate performance will change the subject. But this was an unforced error, a play that makes you look like a clown. A few more high-profile botch jobs like one, and McCain will lose the one big advantage he's had over Obama: McCain was supposed to be the safe choice.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
She'll likely not be remembered in the year-end awards, but one actor with no hint of vanity is Frances McDormand, who isn't afraid to play a truly idiotic and despicable loon. Rest of the cast were equally fine. Though many of the other key actors were doing self-parodies, in the Coens hands, these parodies hit exactly the right key: Clooney's his usual garrulous ladies' man, but what's this top-secret device he's constructing in the basement? And Malkovich is Malkovich, but he's the Coens' mouthpiece here, a Man Who Wasn't There, a bitter misanthrope who finally gets fed up with the "league of morons" he's had to suffer all of his life.
This is the Coens at their most delectably nasty, where the [SPOILERS] two likable characters in the picture meet with grisly ends, and the story evaporates into an air of nothingness as the Coens insist, unfashionably, on the meaninglessness of it all. Predictably, the goo-goo critics hand-wring about the Coens' smarminess and misanthropy whenever they go full nihilist, as they do here. But time has validated this line of Coens Brothers movies (Raising Arizona, Lebowski, Burn), comedies that chronicle chains of destructive events caused by overreaching morons. In this one, especially, the Coens take dead aim at aggressive stupidity. We're talking not just about run-of-the-mill dumbness, but specifically the hyperactive, shoot-from-the-hip inanity of folks who devise crazy plans before pausing for a second for reflection. So you can view this as the Coens' comedic coda for the Bush administration -- what with the stupid actors that botch everything they touch and a government that constructs a hopelessly incoherent picture. But for the Coens, this malady was never just a post-millennial affliction: the Coens have been warning us about these kinds of Alpha-tards for over twenty years now. Maybe it's time that people pay them heed.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
01. The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
02. The Big Lebowski (1998)
03. Miller's Crossing (1990)
04. Raising Arizona (1987)
05. Burn After Reading (2008)
06. No Country for Old Men (2007)
07. Barton Fink (1991)
08. Blood Simple (1984)
09. Fargo (1996)
10. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
11. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
12. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Avoided: The Ladykillers.
It's a shame that The Man Who Wasn't There, the brothers' most moving (and I'd argue, personal) film, has become a footnote in their oeuvre.
Friday, September 12, 2008
Are you kidding me? McCain lies about your tax plans, basically calls you a pedophile and envious liar in his ads, and you respond with a snarky ad poking fun of his inability to e-mail? What. The. Fuck. This is the "hard-hitting" new campaign that the Chicago team is promising? If this is the kind of swift counterattack Plouffe and Axelrod envision, please refund my donations and take me off the damn mailing list.
Here's a partial list of items to hit McCain on:
*putting out a smear ad that is tantamount to McCain defending child molestation
*McCain/Palin's despicable record on rape victims (voting against violence against women for him; making rape victims pay hundreds of dollars for "rape kit" testing)
* McCain taxing health care benefits
* the new Department of Interior coke and sex scandal, illustrating the GOP's addiction to Big Oil;
* McCain selling out his honor in order to LIE, LIE, and LIE to win an election
* McCain's 26 years of votes - time to start trotting out some bad votes;
* Generic scary ad on economic downturn and Bush/McCain policies
* GOP trying to use foreclosure lists to prevent votes ("As Americans are working harder for less, and losing their homes, the Republicans have a plan: stop Americans from voting.")
* McCain as craps player gambling on Social Security
* McCain as camera hog who makes terrible predictions on TV.
I'm not even touching on McCain's temper tantrums, Palin's three hundred problems, etc. You can find this list of McCain weaknesses at any time of the day in any major liberal blog.
This is the most pathetic kind of attack ad: an obvious personal attack that doesn't land a blow. McCain's old. Voters know this. If you want to reinforce the issue, use a picture that makes him really old in ads that actually hit him, not mock him for not being able to use e-mail. What demographic is he aiming for here, Wire Magazine subscribers? Apple Genius Bar employees?
My god. Being a Democrat is like being a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. Your team loses every year, so to shake things up, your new GM decides to trade for Matt Morris.
Tuesday, September 09, 2008
I see the Obama team doing the same thing Democrats always do: poll test some issue-based messages, get positive responses, and then the campaign runs with it. For eons now, the Democrats have relied on some model of ultra-rational political behavior completely divorced from how swing voters actually think and behave. It might work in statewide elections, but you give up a ton in national elections, when low-info voters turn out. Meanwhile, the Republicans aim their appeal straight at the brain's reptillian core and win, in spite having dumbass candidates and terrible policies.
They were similarly aware of the argument--it was published right here a little over a week ago--that allowing Palin to define herself would make it difficult to change public opinion if she delivered a strong, emotionally compelling acceptance speech, because once people have formed a positive impression, they will fend off data inconsistent with it. Precisely how and why this happens in the brain is not a secret. Once again they chose to ignore the relevant science.
This is how Republicans govern. They ignore science and rely on faith and intuition. Unfortunately, it's how Democrats campaign. No one should be involved in messaging or strategy in a Democratic campaign who isn't intimately familiar with the 60 years of research in social psychology on persuasion--on what works and what doesn't. This isn't optional reading. No one aware of that research would have made the strategic error the Obama campaign just made on the Palin nomination.
Westen also talks about the campaign taking some tips from the Daily Show. I'd go further: Obama should fire his message operation and just hire the staff of the Daily Show. It's kind of embarrassing how much more effective the Daily Show has been than the Obama campaign in its anti-GOP messaging.
Why haven't we seen an animatronic Marlon Brando yet from Obama?
Friday, September 05, 2008
Lu Bu came to mind as I read recent accounts of Democrats yearning for HRC to be unleashed against GOP's now not-so-secret weapon: Sarah "Spiro" Palin. I'm part of this crowd, too (and not just because I used to drop all my books and run over and anytime someone yelled "girlfight!" in the schoolyard). I kept thinking just wait, you fucktard, Obama will let his female surrogates fight the dirty fight. If Hillary can be stirred to battle, she'll go to town on this well-rehearsed naif. But you know, the warlords who sought Lu Bu's services all met unhappy ends. And with respect to Hillary, not only is she not the fearsome warrior of the liberal imagination, her strengths are almost completely opposite of Palin's. Palin's a force because she's a very good political performer who's culturally one of them, them being the white, Rust Belt working class vote that may decide the election. Like Bush in 2004, Palin's is a perfect GOP general election candidate -- clearly an inept, dangerous dimwit to anyone who's paying attention and isn't in the tank for the right-wing (those of whom are now tarred as "elites"), but a skilled performer who not only electrifies the fact-avoiding GOP base and can also prey on low-information whites by playing up cultural identification markers.
Hillary's a political force in this election not because she connects to working class voters on some root level, but because she has credibility on economic issues facing these people. So while we think Hillary will just go out there and eviscerate Palin, it's really up to her to do it. In fact, Hillary isn't some wildcard warrior, but someone whose skills fit well within Obama's strategy, which is now to re-run 1992, hammer away at economic issues no matter how loud the GOP beats their culture war drums. As much as I would like to see someone besides Andrew Sullivan and the liberal blogosphere unload on Palin, I do remember 1992 very well. Back then, the inexperienced hippie beat the respected war hero.
I'd still call McCain/Palin's plans not just "more of the same" but also "dangerous" or "extremist." And yes, Sarah Palin is new Bush, the bete noire for Democratic partisans. It would be wise to have surrogates define Palin as someone out-of-the-mainstream as early as possible, a book-banning, managerially inept radical rightist. Keep her lies, scandals and hypocrisy in the media, but as a secondary storyline. In general, it might be wise to keep the eye on the ball and not get drawn into the petty newscycle battles that the McCain team wants to play on. I hate this phrase, but yes, it's the economy, stupid.
The Kool-Aid Drinkers keep saying trust the plan. And I guess I should.
Thursday, September 04, 2008
Prior to RNC, this election has been rather painful to sit through, for someone of my sensibilities anyway. Obama is a deft counterpuncher, but he doesn't have a zest for blood and guts, still a source of immense personal frustration. Likewise, it's a bit discomfiting watching John McCain prostrate himself before the wingnut base. McCain's the true Shakespearean (or Lucasian) character this election cycle, a formerly noble man who sold his soul to the miscreants and degenerates populating what's left of the GOP base, the same folks who tormented him and took away what was his. As hungry as I've been for a piece of McCain's flesh these days, it's a little sad to see a politician I once admired live out the Anakin Skywalker story in real time.
Seeing the likes of Mittens and Noun-Verb-9/11 on stage, it's easy to imagine a far more entertaining election cycle. More blood! More explosions! Suppose Hillary went up against Rudy. Wouldn't it be just delightful to see HRC shred that loathsome cretin into mincemeat while Clintonites feed the media wolves the latest oppo research. Or if gasbag Biden went nuclear against Mittens, phony blow-dried politician extraordinaire. Alas.
After tonight, my blood is boiling again. Sarah Palin is obviously an engaging performer and cleared the 4-inch high bar the media set for her. It helps that, like all successful Republicans, she's a fabulously convincing liar. (When there's a photo of you holding up a "nowhere" t-shirt, I think it's time to cut your losses on the lies about opposing the "bridge to nowhere.") But the effusive praise is a bit daft. Is the media overcompensating? This is another instance of a tactically sound McCain move that will lead to no long-term gain. The big miscalculation is the biting, sarcastic tone. Rudy already delivered the red meat to the right-wing lunatics. What Palin needed to do was to cut an image of competence while telling her winning story. Instead, she came off as defensive and smug, throwing bon mots to the whiny ass titty babies in the audience (oh noes! another media hobgoblin will eat us! Oh noes!), and mocking "community organizers" in trying to rekindle the culture wars. This plays well with dittoheads, but with independents and suburban women (typically more focused on pocketbook issues than other voters)? (EDIT: early word is NO!)
Palin would have been a much more effective running mate had she presented a positive story initially. It would've been difficult for the Democrats to hit her hard, and she'd probably come off better to independents. She can clearly turn on the charm. Surely the base needs to get stoked, but Palin's gonna be an issue from now til November 4th. And the more hay the news media makes about Palin (and McCain's judgment and age), the less oxygen for negative Obama stories. Doubling down on the base-feeding is likely a mistake, even if McCain moves hard to the center tomorrow. (Nate Silver makes a very smart case about how an unknown like Palin has very little standing to attack a known quantity like Obama in the manner she did. I'd further add that Palin's attacks largely consisted of sneering allusions to campaign gaffes and memes that made sense mainly to those who've followed it closely, but probably lost on casual election-watchers.) Palin's swallowed the entire newsworld whole this week, and will likely to be a very visible story until election time, as the media hounds continue to sniff around Alaska, looking to break the big scandal. If the idea was to send Palin to the Dick Cheney circuit (interviews with media loyalists only, fundraisers, small rallies with true believers in deep red areas), that's not a reality now. Palin is as much a part of the GOP ticket as McCain -- and that bodes ill in the final calculus.
Truly, Palin reminds me no one so much as a female Dubya, a smug, dumb wingnut who is very adept at pushing Christianist identity buttons. A talent no doubt, but still an eminently definable enemy. And this culture war thing inflames both sides. You can bet Obama raised some serious dough tonight -- I chipped in another Benjy. All the money will be well worth it when they show shots of these fucks on the convention floor ("drill now! burn the Constitution! smart people suck!") weeping in their diapers on November 5th.
Can't say I'm terribly worried as of yet, though it wouldn't kill me if this National Enquirer story pans out.
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
The press has set her up to succeed wildly today. In the weeks hereafter? Not so much.
Note to Democrats: Use the word "extremist" frequently in describing Palin. This word is quite effective.
Friday, August 29, 2008
This sort of Animal House as political campaign is probably the only aspect of McCain's operation that's close in spirit to McCain's appealing 2000 run (there's a wonderful essay by David Foster Wallace in Consider the Lobster that captures the freewheeling, insurgent vibe of the Straight Talk Express; read it and weep at what's become of Mr. Maverick). And this impulsiveness speaks to McCain himself, a man of many virtues but whose disqualifying personal flaw is that he makes decisions on the fly, often as a gut reaction to a provocation.
The choice of Sarah Palin, it seems, is another product of McCain's impulsive, reactive decision-making and the thinking of a campaign that's effective in staying afloat primarily by being good at feeding the news media. McCain surely punk'd Obama for a news cycle or two, and he'll succeed in generating some excitement leading up to next week. But for what?
Thinking about it some more, this pick will almost certainly be a bad one. On August 25, 2008, when Wolf Blitzer went PUMA-hunting and the Democrats took turns mocking McCain's seven houses, this pick would win you a few newscycles. You can see McCain gather up his little advisors that day, wondering how he can poach the Hillaristas and get him some regular guy cred. Hey, how about that Palin? Regular gal. And the wingers like her. How about it?
But have they given thought to this? What's Palin's attack line on the campaign trail? What's McCain gonna say about Obama's readiness, when he can now respond, "you picked a woman a heartbeat away from the presidency, who's never visited Iraq, whose web page on foreign policy was blank space." It gives Obama an easy defense while highlighting Obama's seriousness of purpose in tapping Biden. Then there's the problem of making McCain's age fair game: "On his 72nd birthday, McCain decided that someone two years removed from being a small town mayor will be a heartbeat away from the presidency." What's more, don't they see the huge risk in trotting this neophyte out on the campaign trail in perhaps the most intensely watched and scrutinized campaign ever? And the whole thing looks desperate, especially to Hillaristas fixated on "qualifications." I've seen Hillary dead-enders, and ovaries aside, I just don't see them getting psyched about a beauty pageant winner.
There are the long-term benefits of grooming a GOP future star as McCain's not likely to win. But I'm not sure that's what McCain's really thinking about.
In the four years since he's been on the scene, Obama's delivered a number of terrific speeches -- perhaps all of the best speeches of the last four years. Obama's 2004 keynote address, a brilliantly constructed and delivered oratory that's a bit too utopian and gooey for my taste, is certainly one of the most memorable events in political rhetoric of recent years. I'd personally rank the Jefferson-Jackson Iowa address, which relaunched his candidacy and provided the bones of his primary stump speech (including the "a nation at war, a planet in peril..." formulation), the New Hampshire "concession" speech (with the famous "Yes We Can" passage), the South Carolina victory speech, and the Selma anniversary address right up there among Obama's best addresses.
Last night's nomination acceptance speech didn't soar as high. As rhetoric, it was fairly prosaic and disjointed, with long streches of laundry-list prescriptions and responses to trivial campaign memes. Substantively, he made promises that no one can meet and offered proposals and goals that gave off a whiff of yucky paleoliberalism. (This insightful article from the New York Times shows that Obama is actually a very sophisticated economic thinker, seeking to find that right balance between U. of Chicago thinking, Rubinomics, and Robert Reich-human investment liberalism. Thankfully, he also understands that discussions of "moral hazard" or "cap-and-trade" won't win him too many votes.)
But I loved it. I loved it more than any of the more eloquent speeches. I loved it especially because Obama took the wood to McCain and bashed him in the very area that McCain is perceived by voters as strong, but is actually the main reason why McCain should never be president: McCain is a far-right neocon on foreign policy whose instinct is to rattle sabres in response to any and every foreign threat. McCain is too dangerous to lead. Voters don't understand foreign policy, we all know, and typically will gravitate towards "wrong and strong" rather than "weak and right." But Obama never sounded weak as he argued forcefully to reclaim liberal internationalism but talked tough on Afghanistan and al Quida. With Biden on board, Obama can re-fight the stupid skirmish that flared up earlier in the campaign, when Obama expressed that he would take out Bin Laden in Pakistan with or without Pakistan's permission. McCain, then, was talking about getting a hall pass from Musharref.
Politically and substantively, the right political formulation for a Democrat is to argue for "diplomacy and international cooperation" generally, get out of Iraq "responsibly", but take a hard line on Bin Laden himself. Force McCain to be hawkish on Iraq and make him move to the right and look like a unilateralist.
Obama doesn't have to win the political argument. And he probably can't, given that a lot of people simply will trust a war-hero Republican over a young black Democrat on national security no matter what positions they take. But Obama just needs to make up some ground -- make sure he sounds confident and appears to be a credible commander-in-chief. And he should if he continues to speak confidently and offensively about foreign policy. One thing I loved about the Joe Biden pick is that he exudes confidence on national security. He treated idiotic hawks like Rudy Giuliani with the disdain they deserve. Even if voters don't understand foreign policy issues, a lot of folks can sense which side is confident and which side isn't. By signaling that he won't be in a defensive crouch on national security, Obama won't make the mistake of looking like the typical backtracking Democrat who won't fight for what he believes in. That's the real weakness people sense.
More generally, his speech showed an aggressiveness and messaging savvy that seemed lacking in the last couple weeks. Slamming McCain every which way: that was the change I needed.
When Obama tapped Joe Biden, it indicated that the campaign knows he has some weaknesses that needed to be shorn up, but fundamentally he likes where he's at. If Obama were running scared he would've picked HRC, whom he didn't want, but whose addition would almost guarantee a win.
By contrast, the Palin pick indicates that McCain's campaign believes they're down by a couple of touchdowns, and has figured that their tactical games aren't going to do it for him. With Obama showing last night that he's gonna blitz'em good, McCain's forced to go for a flea-flicker, a big, gimmicky play with high risk and high reward. I think it's a smart move, even if it takes the experience argument completely off the table. The experience angle wasn't going to fly once people see, at the debates, that Obama knows his shit.
Though Palin has winger credentials, she may bolster McCain's tattered maverick image. She's also a pick who will leave no opening for a Bush association. If the key demographic battleground is white middle-income women, McCain's just made a daring play for them.
Pretty savvy, but R.I.P. "Ready to Lead on Day One."
Addendum: After more research, I see the angle. The story that she didn't abort her Down's Syndrome baby will energize Pro-Lifers. That's key. And her presence will soften McCain's "get off my lawn!" image. It also indicates that McCain's entire platform will be Drill, Drill, Drill.
It seems to me the move is smart in the extreme long-term in that, like a Bobby Jindal pick, Palin's new visibility may be the first step in reinventing the GOP not as the party of Angry Old White Guys, but as the party of socially conservative yet competent managers from all backgrounds, the sort of party envisioned by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in Grand New Party. McCain and Palin need to distance themselves from the Club for Growth crowd to really start moving their fossilized party in a new direction, but image-wise, this is a good start.
In the extreme short term, this is also smart. Obviously, this "shocking pick" has undercut the Obama DNC speech hype. But McCain also changes the RNC narrative. If it were a more conventional pick like Pawlenty, the story will be "how can McCain distance himself from the unpopular Republican Party?* Now in the days leading up to the convention, the media narrative will be: "who is Sarah Palin, and will she be able to step up and deliver?" The media will set the bar very low for her. All she has to do is not flub a pedestrian, unoffensive speech, and the media will give her a pass.
But what about the medium-term? Here, I think the McCain team is tactically smart, but strategically questionable. You have a Veep whose notable inexperience will call attention not only to the hypocrisy of McCain's "Ready to Lead" argument, but also to his age and health. Second, the more I read about Palin, the more I see the dangers of likely Quayle moments. In this gaffe-attentive environment, a few slip ups will look extremely damaging. In terms of helping McCain win the election, it's hard to see Palin really end up doing much to help. But then, it's hard to see anyone else really helping that ticket short of Colin Powell.
* Speaking of the RNC, I hope the Obama team spins the media to get them to try to hunt down GOP extremists on the convention floor as diligently as they tried to hunt down HRC dead-enders. There are bound to be some serious haters there; they just need a little nudge.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
But the speech, however good the delivery, did not make a very compelling case for Barack Obama or make a strong case against McCain. In fact the structure is the same: I ran for president because of issue a/b/c/d/e. Obama believes in a/b/c/d/e. Since I'm out, you must support Obama. Bush did terrible things. McCain supports Bush. Therefore vote against McCain.
The law of transitivity may be unassailable logically, but let's throw some red meat out here too.
The only significant line is when she called out the idol worshipping of some of her supporters ("were you in it just for me?"). As noted below, some of the voters needed partisan reminders. But she did not speak to Obama's central problem for many, many Clinton supporters, a problem that she exacerbated: she never made a case about him being qualifed for President.
This is what you hear from Clinton supporters. Click on the comments section of any political news article and any blog. You see the same points. They know that they agree more with Obama, but don't believe he's ready to be commander-in-chief. Someone -- maybe not Clinton herself, but somebody -- needs to make the fucking case that the greatest presidents don't necessarily have a long resume. There's no relationship between a long pre-election resume and a successful presidency. Let's hope Bill take the ball and gets to the finish line on the experience issue. Look, if voters only vote based on agreement on the issues, the Democrats would never lose. So how many fucking elections will they lose before they understand that national elections are about much more than The Issues?
Can anyone play this game here? I've listened to about four hours of this convention so far, and Michelle's moving testimony aside, this is lackluster, aimless stuff. How hard is it to:
* Find a fucking character frame to attack McCain, and keep going. Notice how the GOP one or two character attacks on Obama that they repeat over and over? "Barack Obama is a celebrity who doesn't relate to you. That's why he will raise your taxes/take away your guns." "Barack Obama is a cocky ambitious neophyte who puts his ambition above our troops." I mean, if Dukakis had ran with Ann Richards' "George Bush was born on third base and thought he hit a triple" frame, maybe he would've won.
Here's one: John McCain loves being on the teevee playing pundit, but like pundits he's always wrong. (Hypothetical ad: ten different clips of John McCain on various talk shows saying something proven to be wrong on Iraq, Iran, North Korea, etc. "John McCain loves being a TV commentator. And like TV commentators, he's always wrong. John McCain. Wrong for the country.") Okay, maybe that's too complex, but whatever. You push one or two caricatures over and over and it'll stick. Maybe he's so confused or ambitious that he'll be the puppet of anybody, including the Bush flakies now running his campaign.
It's not enough to keep saying that McCain and Bush have the same policies. Find a character rationale to explain why he's not fit for the office. I have yet to hear one speaker get at McCain on a character level.
* Find someone to reframe the "qualifications" issue. Poll after poll show that this is among Obama key weaknesses. Of course, nobody can give a speech that will boost his resume. But why aren't people talking about Teddy Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, Abe Lincoln, John Kennedy and pound it into people's heads that a long resume has no connection to being a good president.
* Destroy the "cultural elitism" meme. Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy. Astonishingly, these presidents were elected even though they did not affect the kind of pork-grind munching, bruch-clearing persona that connects to "real Americans". To paraphrase Jon Stewart, don't we want presidents who are embarrassingly superior to ourselves?
Books have been written about how the GOP sold this crap to the country. Now the president folks want to barbeque some ribs with has turned out to be the worst president of the last hundred years, the Democrats have a huge opportunity to reframe this issue. You have a guy in Barack Obama who's an electrifying speaker, an extremely smart, sensible guy with a first-class temperament. Instead of spending all your time normalizing him, why haven't people started to push back on this right-wing bullshit? Hey, you want a president who is a smart achiever, not some fucking schmuck who fucking wears cowboy boots but failed at everything he's touched in his life. You know, like that douchebag in the Oval Office. Jon Stewart mocked this kind of idiocy relentlessly. The Democrats would do well to start mocking the GOP for their dress-up populism.
Maybe Barack Obama is the Theo Epstein of the Democratic Party, and this band of losers will finally find a winning formula. Based on what I've seen from this convention, I'm not that optimistic.
Addendum: I just saw James Carville on CNN, and he made a whole lotta of sense. 25 million jobs created under a Democratic president. Real income growth. Budget surplus. When are people going to talk about this? He said, when are the Democrats going talk about how John McCain wanted to put "social security money in subprime mortgages?" Yes! Great way to frame this issue. Hit a couple of these and stop with the fucking litany of traditional liberal goals, and please, please, please for the love of god please fucking stop with the fuzzy paeans to bi-partisanship.
Addendum 2: To put in something positive, I really liked Brian Schweitzer's theatrics. This is the dude I'll be supporting in 2012 if Barack doesn't make it (and I gotta admit, for the first time in this election, I'm not entirely confident about his chances). Watching Schweitzer, I finally understood why I like this guy. Because stylistically he's kind of a Republican in the sense that he can mock the opposition mercilessly and unapologetically. He doesn't need to preface his attacks with some high-minded "John McCain is an honorable man, and I admire his service, his suffering, his devotion to the country, his formerly Mavericky ways, his wonderful wife and children" garbage you get from some others. And he made some good points about energy, a key issue for me.
Addendum 3: Ezra Klein makes a good point about Hillary basically structuring this speech as a party first Democratic call to arms. Which makes this speech perhaps more effective than I initially gave it credit for -- that is, if Obama begins running a more party-oriented campaign as he should.
This is vital because the easiest group of undecideds to swing your way *should be* Clinton supporting (non racist) Democrats. These are folks who are core Democrats on the issues and loathe the GOP. By recent polling Obama's hemorrhaging roughly 20% of Clinton supporters, which amounts about 3 million voters (the margin between Bush and Kerry in 2004). Some of these Clinton supporters are out of Obama’s reach for obvious reasons. But most aren’t. Many are working class Democrats skeptical of Obama’s background, persona and qualifications but despise Bush. And some are hardcore Clintonites who were emotionally invested in Hillary’s candidacy and are still disgruntled. For these purposes, my discussion of persuadable Clintonites do not include the few that are truly “PUMA” dead-enders, who are just attention-seeking idiots, racists, or so emotionally unstable that they are beyond reason.
That leaves the other two segments. The number one objective of the Convention should be to consolidate Obama’s support with these core Democrats. With working class Democrats, I would say the key is to push a partisan contrast and launch intense attacks on McCain’s policies and character. But with Clintonites, I think a more careful handling of the Clintons is important, because you can’t count on either one to be magnanimous and mature on their own.
From my perspective, the Clintons are self-pitying, myopic fools who should’ve known their dishonest tactics and constant whining would damage the nominee. Their die-hard supporters are even worse, viewing the election through a martyrdom prism and viewing everything as some kind of personal affront. But you know what? As flawed as they are, they're power-brokers who exercise uncommon influence over voters Obama needs, voters who, irrational as they may be, have their votes count just as much as anyone else's.
Obama’s made a few big mistakes over the last month. First, would it have been so hard to do a vetting kabuki? Vet Clinton, then demand documents from Bill relating to the presidential library or foundation? (I understand that Clinton indicated that she didn't want to get vetted unless the vetting was serious, but come on.) Or send out obvious cues that Clinton isn’t being considered? Second, just send out a damn e-mail to his supporters about paying off her debts. Sure, I would never give her a penny, but this isn't about efficacy, it's about making a gesture. Third, just have some campaign staff talk up the Clintons. No real harm done, but some sweet notes go a long way with folks like this. These are all soft skills that we'd like to see in a diplomatically-oriented president.
Barack would do very well to talk up the Clinton era as well (references to the Clinton economy has been incorporated into his stump speech, but the point can be further amplified). A persistent problem for Obama (and for Obama supporters) is that he doesn’t really have many tangible accomplishments he can point to. But if he moves towards a more partisan footing, he can lay claim to the recent accomplishments of the party, the most compelling of which was the Clinton economy. The Obama administration: peace, prosperity, but transparency and inspiration instead of scandal.
(And on the negative front, if I were the Obama team, I would also be much more aggressive in circulating – under cover – the stuff about McCain abandoning his sickly wife for a trophy heiress, the Chelsea Clinton joke, his penchant for the word “cunt” and such issues. These kinds of stories, more than the my tax cut is bigger than yours ads, will be effective in influencing a certain kind of voter.)
For the Clintons, they really need to understand that, if Obama loses and the exit polls show that Hillary dead-enders were the cause, Hillary’s presidential ambition is cooked. So the speech tonight looms large for the former rivals. Obama needs her full-throated support; and she needs to provide it. So how does she help him close the deal? Clinton supporters typically raise two key objections to Obama: one is that he’s “unqualified”, an empty suit”; the second is the nonsensical but strongly held belief that he won the primaries through shady means (via DNC help, etc.). I actually don’t think that Hillary Clinton is sufficiently reflective to realize that her campaign fanned these dangerous and wrong memes – extremely damaging to the Obama campaign -- but she has an obligation to walk back from this. I would suggest a speech that hits three points.
Point 1. Obama is qualified. Working with Obama; he is smart and shows good judgment. Good presidents show good judgment, not years in Washington. See Clinton, Bill; Kennedy, John; Lincoln, Abe.
Point 2. Obama wo fair and square. Discussion on how Obama masterfully ran a $200 million dollar campaign and made smart decisions regarding the primaries and caucuses. Only she knows how hard that is because she ran against him.
Point 3. Partisan contrast. Issues Hillary cares about will advance under Obama. Health care, economic disparity, choice, energy. McCain/Bush a disaster if you care about those issues. McCain is also a smear merchant, a war-monger and totally out of touch.
However, I expect that Hillary cannot, for her own political reasons, concede that Obama won fair and square or walk back the "he’s not qualified" frame. Instead I expect that her speech will be first a celebration of the "invisible" hard-working white Americans of whom she now believes herself to be a champion. Then, the speech will build to point 3, a lengthy, hard-hitting partisan contrast between Clinton and Obama on one side, and McCain and Bush on the other. To be sure, Hillary's speech will surely offer plenty of juicy red meat for Democratic partisans to chew on. The press will likely conclude that this speech did everything Clinton could to help Obama. And a speech like this would help quite a bit, with that segment of working-class core Democrat voters that remain skeptical. But you know, if she doesn’t address the "unqualified" and "dirty campaign" misconceptions, she still will be leaving Obama out to dry with the die-hard Hillaristas. Let’s remember: not everyone views their votes in a transactional way, on the basis of issues alone. Voters often get attached to certain narratives fed by campaigns. As her chances for the nomination dwindled after the Wisconsin primary, Clinton continued to sell voters on the idea that Obama is unqualified for the presidency, and that she had the most votes and might have won if not for DNC hijinks with Florida and Michigan. This narrative is at the heart of the resentment of the Hillaristas. She needs to walk this back.
If she does, she deserves all the lavish praise she’ll undoubtedly receive tonight.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Barack Obama's campaign, moving rapidly to exploit what they see as a major opportunity, is deploying high-profile surrogates in 16 states across the country today to highlight John McCain's uncertainty yesterday about how many houses he owns, the Democrat's campaign tells Politico.
The frame: McCain's a confused, out-of-touch rich dude looking to give away money to his rich cronies. Guy can't' even remember how many houses he owns. (I'd add the "trying to bankrupt the country so his rich friends can get hundreds of thousands in tax breaks.") Stick this caricature on the dartboard and the economic contrasts will begin to have some oomph.
As a proud owner of shoes that retail at a higher price point than McCain's much-derided Ferragamo mocassins, I approve of this populist attack. Btw, John, look into grabbing some nice cordovan Edward Green or John Lobb monkstraps, which are more stylish, classy, better made, and less identifiably branded. Those kicks retail at over a grand, but you can easily afford them.
* VP follow-up: Nate Silver, number-cruncher extraordinaire, now likes HRC as Veep as well. Latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that Hillary fans comprise a significant portion of the undecided electorate. As predicted, HRC's desperate campaign message (which, by the end, turned the race into a story about a charismatic, arrogant young punk "not ready for office" being promoted over the experienced, plodding grinder) is resonating with a big segment of the population that otherwise would vote for the Democrat. Had it not been the trusted and beloved Clinton advancing these arguments, these core Democrats would be much more likely tune out McCain's attack ads. Instead, these folks have become uniquely susceptible to "experience" arguments, and have naturally transferred their resentment of Obama over to the general, where they are fed the GOP narrative of an "experienced and qualified" McCain being challenged by an unqualified "celebrity". Any wonder why they're not with Obama?
Easiest way to win them over: make Clinton vice. If she's not, I'm not entirely confident these voters will come home in significant numbers by election day. Maybe they will. However, it's clear HRC's rhetoric now ("I've seen Barack's grit and grace") isn't enough. If she's not the VP nominee, both she and Bill need to explicitly make the case in their convention speeches that Obama's qualified for the job. Bill, especially, needs to draw some comparisons to 1992 -- the young governor of a small state, derided for being inexperienced by a sitting president with the most impressive resume in recent American politics, ended up winning and doing a pretty good job.
* Just bought some Schweitzer contracts on the news that Obama will be in Billings, MT next Wednesday, when the VP nominee is due to speak in Denver. So I've got Biden, HRC, Schweitzer and Bayh all covered. Now watch Barack pick Jack Reed.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
2. Fundamentals will often favor the Democrat, but the Dem will somehow run a feckless campaign that squanders this advantage.
3. Running a campaign in a way that appeals to editorial page writers and high-minded pundits = surefire loss. (Related to No. 2 & 4.)
4. Focus groups and issue polling are imperfect ways of predicting voting behavior, as has been proven over and over, yet the Democrats continue to take these results as gospel. Focus groups and poll respondents are forced to make conscious evaluations of ads/issues/candidates and will often tell the interviewer what they are supposed to say, leading to results like respondents claiming to despise negative ads. In reality, a large number of persuadable voters based their voting on less conscious and rational factors, which is heavily influenced by negative messaging. (O Team: please read Drew Westen.)
5. Obama is far savvier in many ways than previous Democratic candidates, yet I'm still feeling deja vu all over again.
I'm afraid this line of thinking is almost entirely wrong, for the same reasons "Obama beat Clinton in the primaries by being [X/Y/Z], and so he'll beat McCain by being [X/Y/Z]" type of arguments are wrong. It reflects a misunderstanding of the general election vis-a-vis the primary battle. In the primaries, Obama had to distinguish himself from Clinton, the establishment Democrat. Since they agree on most issues, Obama had to find a distinctive identity. He settled on "fundamental change," an insider v. outsider message that dovetailed perfectly with his background and persona. Throughout th early months of the year, Obama talked about himself as the Change Agent while Clinton was said to play "the same old Washington games." This message, based on largely on process and trust in Obama himself, proved especially appealing to two influential segments of the Democratic primary electorate -- the affluent professional class (who are the main donors) and liberal activists -- that are unusually open to the fresh and new. But let's keep in mind that this message hit a wall even during the primaries.
We all know by now that Obama faced considerable resistance from the white working class and the elderly in the primaries, resistance which has carried over the general, where these groups expand as a share of the persuadable electorate, while Obama's base of liberals, activists, and African-Americans are less significant. Some of this skepticism undoubtedly has racial/cultural undertones. But the problem for a lot of these voters -- less engaged and more risk averse -- is this query: how do we know this guy will make our lives better?
Obama's doesn't have an easy answer to this basic question. Supporters like me will cite the quality of his thinking and judgment; others can talk about the symbolic value of his candidacy, or his ability to inspire. But these aren't concrete, easy answers. They don't cut with simple force the way McCain's "I was a POW, and then I became a Maverick Republican who put 'country first'" message does. You can see this dichotomy play out in the Saddleback discussion, where Obama gave beautifully thoughtful answers that rarely referenced real-life accomplishments while McCain referenced his experiences repeatedly. If you scrutinize McCain's answers, they're often simple-minded and ill-considered, but so what? The average persuadable voter does not work for the New York Times Editorial Page, and these kinds of simple concrete answers and explanations are generally much more powerful than meta-messaging and considered policy arguments that Obama offered.
Given this problem, do we really want Obama to keep hammering away at process-oriented messages like "changing the way Washington works" by adding another unknown to the ticket? It's absurd. If you interviewed one hundred persuadable voters, I bet less than ten can tell you what a "Washington lobbyist" actually does. Process arguments like "changing the way Washington works" thrill political junkies and high-information voters, but these voters already know where they stand.
The "brand" that Obama needs to exploit is a more basic one: he's a Democrat and McCain is a Republican. Under the last Democratic presidency we had peace and prosperity. Under the present Republican presidency, we have botched wars and a tanking economy. We have exploding deficits, high inflation, wage stagnation, job losses, high energy prices, environmental degradation, a city almost destroyed, and rank incompetence throughout the government. In this climate of economic anxiety, you want to convey above all a reassurance as to why you'd be the steadier hand. The party-based message is easily understood: your life was better under a Democrat. I'm a Democrat. Your life will be better. (Of course the campaign has also long needed to find a character-based attack frame against McCain, but that's fodder for another post.)
Why do folks want Obama to squander the Democrats' party advantage by making it about outsiders vs. insiders? The overarching message should be obvious: Democratic policies = proven to be good for middle-class Americans; GOP policies help only the rich while fouling it up for everyone else. Obama is far better off making moves, including choosing a running mate, that "reinforce" the party advantage than to keep pushing the process angle.
Wednesday, August 06, 2008
What I learned from this article is that we've a long way from the days when internet trolls were just a collection of potty-mouths, malcontents, and performance artists. Whatever happened to the genius who took on the persona of Thundarr, barbarian movie reviewer? That was a classic troll.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
The Running Mate: Does it Matter or Not?
Generally, the VP selection has no bearing on the race. Studies show that a running mate may move a few points in a few states, and even winning selections like Lloyd Bentsen can’t really give a big boost to the top of the ticket. The Veepstakes is kind of like endorsements in primaries, largely insider-process stories that the press slobbers all over but end up swaying few voters in the end. That said, I think the VP selection is somewhat more significant for the “outsider” candidate, who needs to clear the “is this guy up for the job?” hurdle. Establishment nominees, those who got there by paying their dues like Mondale, GHW Bush, Dole, Gore, Kerry, and now McCain, have too long a record to change their personae by a VP choice alone. Knowing this, these candidates typically pick a candidate from another wing of their own party or patch up a perceived weakness. (My guess is McCain goes with Pawlenty over Romney as the solid, sensible choice.)
Unproven candidates, on the other hand, generally have a thin record of accomplishment. Hence the added scrutiny of the selection of a running mate, which is the nominee’s only tangible major decision that voter can assess before election time. So Bush, seen by many as an affable lightweight, mollified some doubters by picking (what appeared at the time to be) an Old Wise Man, Dick Cheney. Small-time governor Bill Clinton went with wonkish insider Al Gore, who of course also was a youthful Southern moderate that “doubled down” on the ticket’s Southern centrist appeal. And of course, youthful "inexperienced" Kennedy's pick of Lyndon B. Johnson may have been decisive, the only plausible instance of a Veep choice affecting an election's outcome.
Let’s remember that presidential elections are typically decided by low-information swing voters, which leads to other considerations. Though this election overwhelmingly favors the Democrats, the party has ironically chosen as its standard-bearer the riskiest candidate perhaps in the history of presidential politics. Not only is Barack Obama a black guy, he’s a man with a strange name, an exotic background, and just a few scant years on the public scene. (If Obama had been a celebrity senator on his third term, his background would be far less of an issue.) Of course, Obama also happens to be the most talented politician in a couple of generations, which has allowed him to make it this far. But his uncommon profile makes him uniquely vulnerable to smears and character-based attacks that target low-information voters.
So everything’s screwy in 2008. In a year where (1) a generic Democrat creams a generic Republican, (2) where Barack Obama shows himself to be the most charismatic politician in the country running the most impressive campaign apparatus the Democrats have ever seen; and (3) where John McCain shows himself to be a listless, flailing candidate running a pathetic campaign, the race remains tight. Indeed, John McCain can very well beat Barack Obama. No matter how impressive Obama’s candidacy is, how sensible his policy prescriptions are, how much money he raises, how much smarter and more knowledgeable he is compared to John McCain, how much more high-minded his campaign is, and how much better his stagecraft happens to be, Obama remains beatable.
That’s because most low information voters do not pay attention to campaign stories, and so don't register these demonstrated strengths. Instead they focus on other, big picture questions, like the “who is he and what has he done?” One of the classic mistakes by campaigns and among pundits and analysts is to presume that low-information swing voters process political information the same way as highly engaged voters. They don’t. Persuadable voters aren't watching Hardball, reading David Brooks, or view a vote for the 1990 budget deal as a sign of "centrism". Detailed studies of voter cognition and decision-making patterns show that, by and large undecided voters are less partisan and informed. They're mainly leading their lives and tuning in to politics occasionally, obtaining incomplete and often wrong information about candidates. Polls show that pluralities of voters misidentify candidates' positions and generally are misinformed about salient facts.
This leads to the Democrats' greatest problem in 2008, which is that, at the low-information level, they face a severe perception problem: McCain is known as "the cranky old Republican POW who seems to be a straight-shooter", while Obama is the "young inexperienced black guy with a questionable background who is popular with young folks and foreigners." I believe this perception gap explains the closeness of the race. Obama must get enough of these voters to see McCain as an old, Bush-supporting war-monger while making himself acceptable as a mainstream candidate in order to win. He's not quite there yet and probably won't get there for a while.
Essentially, we're stuck with a strange dynamic where Obama should win in a landslide, but doesn’t appear to be opening up a big lead, which results in a lot of pundits and politicos declaring that the election is a referendum on Obama. Under this theory, if Obama crosses some acceptability threshold, he wins. If he falls short, McCain might win a squeaker.
What Obama Needs in a Veep
I generally buy this framework, with the caveat that Obama can win this election even if voters harbor many doubts about him, if he can render McCain toxic. This is one reason why I think his running mate should not be a milquetoast uniter-type, but an aggressive political brawler. A brawler, of course, will damage Obama's above politics "brand" some, but my view is that the vast majority of voters left to be won over aren't going to be swayed reform-of-politics type messages or the arena rallies.
Ideally, the running mate will shore up Obama's liabilities and attack McCain in a way that Obama cannot. Obama’s essentially dilemma is not a choice between “doubling down on 'Change'” or “shoring up the experience gap,” as the chattering class would have it. What’s actually more important for Obama is what I talked about above: mollifying doubts from the less-politically-aware voters about how risky he is. Is he offering too much change? Is this young black guy really ready for the Oval Office? Who is this guy? These are questions often raised in focus groups right now, and it’s clear that this “mysterious stranger” problem remains Obama’s biggest liability. McCain’s strategy has become pretty clear: though they’ll make noises about Obama being a “tax and spend liberal”, they really are going all out to paint Obama as “presumptuous” (read: uppity), an arrogant young whippersnapper with dubious allegiance to the country and who neither has the life experience nor knowledge to be president. What’s left of the GOP echo chamber will continue to push the Obama is unpatriotic meme, while the subterranean elements push e-mail smears.
For the next three months, the Democratic nominee will, ironically, have to run almost a completely different campaign than the one he ran in the primary. The insurgent reformer running a personality and process-based candidacy, which worked so well in the primary, will have to be shelved six days a week (the folks who can be persuaded by political reform messaging are already with him, and the election of a black guy named Obama is already plenty of “change” for most). Meanwhile, Obama will need to emphasize the generic Democratic aspects to his candidacy. Prior to the Barack World Tour, Obama was already doing this, by ratcheting down the rallies and focusing on bread-and-butter Democratic issues at low-key events. He's all but eliminated the up-with-people rhetoric. I expect that will continue, and I’m guessing that they’ll eventually modify the popular slogan “Change You Can Believe In” to a line that connotes something more concrete. The central irony of this election cycle is that the sui generis Obama has to become Just Another Democrat to enough people to win.
So given the strategy, what kind of person should he tab? First, someone not perceived by the voters as risky – someone either very well –known or otherwise appears to be “safe” – will show that Obama’s not some radical hell-bent on destroying the system in order to save it. Second, a politician with demonstrated expertise in either economic issues or military policy will provide a “credentials” boost sorely needed by Obama, who is in this weird position of being able to demonstrate greater mastery of Middle East issues or leveraged-mortgage instruments compared to McCain, but who, being “young and inexperienced,” will likely be given little to no credit by swing voters even after such a demonstration. (My fear is that Obama falls prey to the common Democratic afflicting of believing that undecided voters largely understand the implications of policy prescriptions.) Third, the ticket-mate must have proven campaign skills, being both a disciplined messenger and an eager attack dog. In our vicious 24-hour media cycle, every gaffe is magnified, so message discipline is extremely valuable. “First do no harm,” they say. And since Obama’s generally a far more comfortable counterpuncher, it’s very important to have a strong, aggressive running mate who will capably deliver the hard low blows when called upon. And it goes without saying that these candidates should be carefully vetted so that distractions (see John Edwards) won’t pop up at inopportune times.
With that bit of throat-clearing out of the way, here are my personal preferences, in order.
1. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (NY)
No, really. Last month this looked like a pretty bad idea, and she still might be a poor choice, for the reasons that others have expounded on (polarizing, turns off independents, Bill Clinton’s shady dealings, Clinton fatigue). And the arguments typically brought on her behalf are nonsensical. Worse still is that her vicious attacks on Obama (“hasn’t passed the commander-in-chief threshold,” etc.) in the primary will be revived by Republicans and the press constantly. Plus, the often racist and petulant dead-enders still supporting her defunct candidacy are the most contemptible people around. No one wants to cave in to their idiotic demands.
Yet there are a few overwhelming factors in her favor. One, she’s the only potential VP who can truly be said to have voters in her pocket. Polls usually show that anywhere from 10-20% of HRC primary voters resist Obama. While I expect close to half of those voters to eventually come on board even without Clinton on the ticket, HRC’s presence would pretty much guarantee that a majority of these dead-enders will pull the donkey lever. This persuadable dead-ender group, largely older white women, is worth maybe 3%, enough to swing the election. She’s the only Veep who can likely swing an important slightly-lean-McCain state, Florida, to the Dems. And while HRC presence would turn off independents and some persuadable Republicans, that effect is wholly speculative (though she will probably hurt more than help in the unconventional states Obama is really going after in the Mountain West and Virginia.).
Just as importantly, Hillary is as well-known as any politician in America. Even if some folks hate her, non-wingnut voters tend to believe she’s at least competent, experienced, and won’t run the country into the ground. She’s also become an extremely effective campaigner, proving to be a disciplined and on-message candidate who’s grown to be more personable on the trail. With the economy overtaking Iraq as the most important issue in the election cycle, Clinton’s fluency and credibility on economic issues look far more appealing. If Clinton’s on the ticket, Obama will gain the benefit of being associated with the 1990s economy without having to run on a restoration theme. And Clinton’s celebrity means her events will generate far more media coverage (and scrutiny) than a less well-known running mate. The “Dream Ticket” will have a mic four times as loud as McCain’s.
Lastly, she’d make a great attack dog. In the primaries, Clinton showed that she can play whatever the part calls for, from robotic “inevitable nominee” to working class hero to Earth Mother. And like fellow VP-hopeful Mitt Romney, she’s capable of saying anything with a straight face, even if it contradicts something she said two minutes earlier. A presidential candidate that unctuous would surely be in trouble, but a cynical, vicious and disciplined running mate? I'd take it.
And they look good together.
2. Senator Joe Biden (DE)
Biden’s a gaseous blow-hard. He’s also the most obvious of the “sifu” model, being a long-in-the-tooth senator who looks and acts the part. The reason I like Biden here is that he's media-savvy, a good campaigner, and can be an eminently quotable attack dog. His attacks on McCain, especially on foreign policy, will have instant credibility with the press. Biden’s also well-known, to some degree. Well, let me put it another way: with the exception of Clinton, John Edwards (now not a possibility), Colin Powell, and Al Gore, the names mentioned for the Veep spot are not well-known to the average voter, Biden included. However, if Biden is picked, the media’s familiarity with Biden will translate into a “this is an experienced old hand” narrative, which will then be absorbed by voters (“oh, Obama’s picked an old experienced guy.”). So while most voters can't pick Biden out of the lineup, if he's picked, they'll learn that he's that loudmouth who's been around forever.
I suppose Biden’s working class Catholic roots will help, too, but he’s now a pro-corporate Senator with a pompous bearing, so it’s difficult to see him really connecting with those magical white working class voters in the Rust Belt. But hey, at least he used to be one of them. The main problem with Biden is his penchant for gaffes. In a campaign where the slightest misstatement is dissected, Biden’s imprecision may end up dragging the ticket down.
(Still, I'm rooting for this guy, if only because of my InTrade bet.)
3. Governor Brian Schweitzer (MT)
A total unknown, Schweitzer is in my judgment the best of the “doubling down on change” choices. A noted expert of alternative energy (who can speak Arabic), he can talk about this major issue with some authority. His plain-spoken, gun-totin’ rancher persona would nicely balance Obama ‘s exotic rock star thing. Being a burly, doughy faced guy, he also provides a great visual balance to the slim, elegant standard-bearer. And having a guy like Schweitzer campaigning hard in decisive “live and let live” Western swing states like Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada can only help. The Montanan is an incredibly appealing politician, and the best demographic complement -- the “find a guy who has personal relatability with the white working class” candidate -- of the plausible nominees.
Downside is that the guy has no foreign policy experience, and so may expose the ticket to the “these guys don’t know what they’re doing” problem. To me, the upside is greater than the downside, but I just think that, with the Veep selection, Obama needs to address the “too risky” problem more than the “cultural alien” issue.
4. Senator Evan Bayh (IN)
A dull, almost generic VP candidate, and useful precisely for that reason. If the Indiana senator is tabbed, the media narrative will likely be positive as in, “Obama picks moderate red state senator and former governor with long track record." And I imagine his white-bread persona may help marginally with some of the suburban Rust Belt independents. Big brownie points for possibly moving a few points to the Dems in Indiana, which is surprisingly close right now, and for being a Clintonite (which will trigger a narrative of unification and contradict the Obama’s too entitled and arrogant meme).
Like Biden, he’s not well-known to the average voter, but I expect his experience and credentials will be loudly trumpeted by the establishment press. As a boring, stolid choice, he’d be a letdown to be sure. But Bayh offers the least downside of anyone. Liberals might object a bit, and picking him might tarnish the “change” brand some, but this is the case with any senator. On the positive side, Bayh’s reputed to be a very disciplined, if uninspired campaigner, which may be all that Obama needs. I’d go with someone more aggressive on the attack myself, but Bayh wouldn't be a bad choice. (Man, I wouldn't have written this two months ago as Evan Bayh does nothing for me.)
Gaffe-prone to be sure, but Clark will fire his shots with the best of them. The stars on Clark’s chest may also inoculate the ticket from the patriotism attacks that will only increase in volume and intensity. Will his ill-advised (if true) statements that McCain’s POW experience is not a qualification for the presidency doom him? Probably. But if Obama takes a chance, having a foreign policy pit-bull like Clark (who very significantly was against the war from the start) as his number two will free up Obama to concentrate on domestic issues. Pretty much a classic gamble pick, but not a bad one, if folks think that Clark can be controlled.
Obama die-hards are most enthusiastic about the red state govenors, Tim Kaine and Kathleen Sibelius, who are both reportedly on the very short list, favored by supporters who want to "double down on Change". Generally, though, Obama's strengths are so distinctive and powerful that he doesn’t need doubling down. The other argument is that both are appealing to centrists and moderate Republicans. Indeed, Nate Silver offers some data showing that Kaine and Sibelius are extremely popular among voters who know them best, which is a strong data point, but I'm still not convinced the milquetoast political unknown is what Obama needs.
Virginia governor Kaine is the current front-runner, if the buzz is to be believed. But I’m a skeptic. Virginia a pretty important state in Obama's electoral strategy, so I see some advantage electorally. And the decent, deeply religious Catholic guy persona is nice. But if Obama’s most glaring weakness is the lack of tangible accomplishments, why pick a running mate with the exact same problem? Further, I don’t think the red state governor factor is a huge plus (not sure voters really make a huge distinction between "executive" experience and legislative experience) and the Washington outsider thing doesn’t need to be reinforced.
The same problems would dog the selection of Sibelius, the governor of Kansas, who has a longer record of accomplishment compared to Kaine. Obama likes her, as he does Kaine, and they appear to be competent moderate outsiders. She also has Ohio roots. But can either governor withstand the scrutiny on the trail? Will either one make an effective attack dog? Will they help dispel doubts about Obama’s readiness to be president? Sibelius does not seem to fortify Obama's weaknesses nor will her easygoing style aid him in attacking McCain. It's great that they have good rapport, but I don't see the upside.
Sam Nunn seems to me too clearly a “bolster my national security bona fides ” type choice – he doesn’t really bring anything else to the table. I mean, a really old Southern white guy running with Obama might provide too much contrast, and Nunn doesn’t provide any of the campaigning strengths you find with the others. It's a pick that will win huzzahs from pundits and editorial pages, but that's a currency Obama doesn't need.
One interesting aspect to this: if he tabs Bayh or Kaine, it would suggest that the Obama team is very confident of victory, and simply go with someone with low downside and low upside. If he goes with someone like Biden or Nunn, I think it'll show that Obama is more concerned than he lets on. HRC is very unlikely to be chosen, but the media will go bonkers if she is.