Shifting tides: McCain’s mixed messages

30 October 2008

Incapable of articulating a cohesive message, the Senator from Arizona is not waving but drowning

One could be forgiven for thinking that John McCain was trying to lose this election. If nothing else, his failure to settle on a cohesive message has led to him skipping from gimmick to attack and back again without ever landing a clean blow on his opponent.

Things seemed to start off so well for the Arizona senator at his September convention. His selection of Sarah Palin and sensitive handling of Hurricane Gustav negated the Democratic bounce following Obama’s roof-raising speech; for the first time he was propelled into a narrow lead. The Democrats were looking jumpy.

However, the Palin-effect, though an adrenaline shot to the Republican base, was an ephemeral phenomenon. In the course of several awkward interviews, it swiftly became apparent that she lacked the experience and gravitas to compete at so high a level. Mercilessly sent up by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live, McCain’s ‘maverick’ sidekick was reduced to little more than a synonym for ignorance and incompetence in the eyes of independent voters and international observers.

But the real damage was done to McCain himself. Having embraced a statesman-like ‘Country First’ posture, his VP pick exposed a willingness to engage in naked politicking. Given McCain’s considerable age and the increased probability of his anointed deputy assuming power, the choice came to be seen by independents as intolerably dangerous. It was a gamble that the selection of a charismatic and vital female running-mate would swipe some of the 18 million voters left alienated by Hillary Clinton’s defeat. He failed. Female voters continue to favour the Democrat by wide margins. Instead, McCain has sacrificed the strong standing he once had with independents and gained very little for it.

If questions over his judgement weren’t enough, McCain was then faced with an economic meltdown. The economy is never an easy area to navigate for Republicans. Their assiduous self-promotion as the party for de-regulation is an effective vote-winning tool in a healthy financial cycle. However, when a crisis is widely viewed as a failure of government regulation, as is the case now, they lie open to charges of willful negligence.

All Republican candidates have faced the problem of the Democratic reputation for greater economic competence. Only Herbert Hoover, however, has had to deal with an international crash and a hugely unpopular incumbency. He was defeated in a landslide. While Obama travelled the country promoting his 4-point rescue plan for the American taxpayer, McCain was forced to spend valuable time shaking off the economic legacy of President Bush. The accusation that he has “voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time” is among the most damaging of all the charges laid at the candidate’s door. Consequently, he has never been able to gain traction on a sensible economic message. Instead, he has tested a variety of short-term economic tactics, roundly derided by academics. The gas tax holiday and the suggestion that the government buy up Americans’ mortgages are two such examples.

Despite these handicaps, there is no denying that many of McCain’s troubles over the economy are self-perpetuated. His statement on September 15th that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” struck many as at best trivialising and at worst thoroughly out of touch. His half-baked attempt at reassurance only served to strengthen doubts over his suitability for an office that has so much power to influence the direction of the US economy.

It was under this cloud of economic turmoil that the debate period began. Aware that allowing the economy to dominate proceedings would be tantamount to political suicide, McCain sought to change the look of the game completely. Where, before, personal attacks were left to his pit-bull of a running-mate, he began actively to instigate the ruthless interrogation of his opponent. The campaign’s focus shifted from who John McCain wasn’t to who Barack Obama was.

The Republicans launched a two-pronged attack based on concerns that have dogged the Obama campaign throughout: his Chicago connections and his liberalism. Persistent references to his history with former Weather Underground member, Bill Ayers, sought to invoke the spectre of terrorism and re-awaken old suspicions over Obama’s Muslim heritage and the period of his youth spent in Indonesia.

If this increased probing appeased the bloodhounds of the Republican base, there was a fatal flaw in the McCain campaign’s decision to go negative at this point. Had they engaged in these kinds of attacks from the middle of August, rather than their lacklustre ‘Obama is a celebrity’ push, they might have had some success. McCain’s problem was that, at the very moment he was trying to raise concerns that the public did not know enough about his opponent and his history, Obama was proving far more efficient at actually introducing himself on the national stage. In the debates he came across as cool and calm, a far cry from the angry black man that many voters had seemed to fear. On the back of his reassuring performance, polls of viewers reached the overwhelming conclusion that Obama had won the debates.

Thus at the third debate McCain made his final message shift of the campaign.

Joe. The. Plumber.

It was quite incredible to watch. With one stroke, McCain dedicated the rest of his campaign to the cause of an Ohio man named Joe Wurzelbacher, whom his staff have apparently never vetted. It was McCain’s last-gasp attempt to wrest the economic advantage away from Obama by labelling him as a socialist determined to “spread the wealth.”

The shift in message seems to have had a limited effect; whether it will prove enough at this late stage of the game is another matter entirely. ‘Socialism’ is no longer the bug-bear word it was twenty five years ago and Obama has no need to fear the term sticking to him.

McCain’s campaign has been a exemplary instance of message indiscipline, a ‘how-not-to’ case study for the political operators of the future. He was dealt a bad hand, there is no denying it. But instead of sticking to a carefully crafted message and hammering it home relentlessly, in the manner of the Obama and, for that matter, the Bush campaign, he has been unfailingly erratic.

The pivoting from ‘Obama is a celebrity’, to ‘Country First’, to ‘Who is Barack Obama’ and finally to ‘Obama is a socialist’ has been as breathtaking as it has been bewildering. Haunted by the memory of the Gore’s final minute disintegration, however, the Democrats aren’t counting their chickens just yet. Indeed, as McCain’s camp have been contending frantically for the last week, the race is far from over.

Should any of a number of eventualities occur, the gap between the candidates will shrink by a considerable margin. It could transpire, for example, that the poll numbers responsible for the current predictions of a Democratic whitewash are fundamentally flawed. The phenomenal success of Obama’s grassroots campaign has meant that his supporters are far more likely to take the time to answer a pollster’s questions than McCain enthusiasts, thus skewing the sample sharply in the Democrat’s favour. The thought of vast swathes of previously undeclared McCainiacs turning up on voting day has many of his detractors waking up in cold sweats.

Potentially responsible for a similarly deceptive inflation of Obama’s numbers, the Youth demographic that has so electrified his rallies could simply fail to turn up. Furthermore, for all of the passion they have demonstrated, each of them still only equates to one vote. An enthusiastic Obama voter is no more valuable in the polling booth than a grudging McCain one.

Finally, and most disturbingly, Obama faces the possibility that, for all his efforts to the contrary, race still rules the table. The finding of an Associated Press survey that his skin-colour could cost him as much as 6 points sounds a little far-fetched, but it is certainly plausible that countless voters who have hitherto denied harbouring negative attitudes towards black people could allow their prejudice to spill out in the privacy of a voting booth. This could very well come to the fore most significantly in Pennsylvania, a state once famously described by James Carville as made up of the more liberal cities of ‘Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in the middle’. If racism plays a role in swinging the election anywhere, it will be here.

It should be stressed, however, that none of these possible scenarios are anything that McCain can bring about himself. They are potentialities, but ones that will have to develop and evolve entirely on their own. His decision to set up shop in Pennsylvania, a state in which Obama’s current lead stands at an intimidating 11%, smacks a little of desperation, but at this point it may be his only hope.

Jess Touschek and Matt Horrocks.