Thursday, August 21, 2008

Barack Smash

* This is the kind of attack that sends tingles up my leg. More like this:

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

Five things I've learned as a lifelong political junkie

1. If you repeat a claim about a candidate's character enough times, a non-trivial number of the electorate will believe it, irrespective of the truth of that claim.

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.

Stupid political meme of the year: "reinforcing the brand"

If you read a lot of smart bloggers, you'll find of them talking about "reinforcing the brand." In fact, the sharpest commentators during primary season, guys like Al Giordano and Kos, talk incessantly about how Obama's "brand" is change, and so he needs a Veep that reinforces change. [Name of establishment Democrat] undercuts the "theme of change", the argument goes; Tim Kaine or Kathleeen Sibelius would double down on change. This outsider-fetishism is echoed in the Obama-sphere by his most ardent supporters, who are themselves outsiders.

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.