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Obama's Polldrums

A friend who is overseas called me in a panic (at a dollar a minute, he confessed) to ask what was happening to Barack Obama’s prospects. I told him to save his money and that I would send him an email, which, out of immodesty and at the risk of repeating some things that are obvious, I’ll share with TNR’s readers. 


John McCain’s rise in the polls reflects the fact that he and the Republicans had a very successful convention. He energized the Republican base (which was resigned to, but not excited about, McCain’s candidacy) and, more important, his disentangled his own candidacy from the presidency of George W. Bush and even from the Republican party. Hurricane Gustav helped by canceling Bush and Cheney’s appearance and by reinforcing McCain’s theme of “country first,” but what helped above all was McCain’s reiteration of his own biography.

I didn’t realize it at the time, because I have done several profiles of McCain, read his life story in his books and books about him, and by the time he spoke on Thursday night, had heard it repeated ad infinitum in every meeting of a state delegation (to which McCain’s campaign sent his fellow POWs from the Hanoi Hilton). But most of the public (and even a TNR editor who writes sometimes about politics) didn’t know most of the story--maybe, I would guess, five percent of the voting public knew what McCain had endured and had survived. And I think that story--combined with theme of “country first” and the commitment to “reform”--created a credible gap between McCain, on the one hand, and Bush and the Republicans on the other. By the convention’s end, he was running as an independent--a “maverick,” in his terms. 


That change in McCain’s image--or, better, that filling in of McCain’s image--accounts above all for his rise in the polls. Some of the polls have reported massive defections among white women, which they attribute to Sarah Palin’s candidacy, but I don’t believe these are accurate. I go with Gallup, which saw the greatest change among independents and conservative Democrats. The convention gave independents a reason to vote for McCain and deprived conservative Democrats (who are still anti-Republican) of a reason to vote against him. What about Palin? I agree with my colleague Noam Scheiber who argues that Palin’s main effect is not to attract new voters to McCain (OK, Alaska is no longer in play), but to attract attention to McCain--beginning with the convention. I expect that by November, as her sheer novelty wears off and as voters focus more on her qualifications, she will have proven to be either of no effect or a liability to McCain.

Will the bounce last? It is a bounce--the result of the massive infusion of national publicity from the convention--but the lasting effect of voters’ acquaintance with McCain’s life story should not be discounted. In the absence of a major misstep by McCain or, perhaps, Palin, I would not expect Obama to enjoy again the kind of margin he enjoyed in late June and early July. This is going to be a close election. Obama is going to have trouble winning Ohio (with its white working class)  and Virginia (with its pro-military seacoast), two states on which the campaign has counted. He may have to win Colorado, New Mexico, and New Hampshire to take the election. 


One good effect of the McCain bounce has been to rid the Obama campaign of its overconfidence. Obama has now pulled out of Georgia, and I suspect North Carolina will be next, and is focusing on states he can win. He has removed the leash from the 527s. And he is meeting with Bill Clinton to get him on the trail. That’s all to the good. I was excited at the time about Obama’s convention speech, but I worry that he has done little to solidify the impression it created. He may need to be much more concrete about he plans to do, and to frame those plans in a way that will create a sharp contrast with McCain--the way Clinton did in ’92 with George H.W. Bush. 


McCain himself has clearly demonstrated that he’ll do anything to win. In 2000, he ran an honorable campaign. Leave aside what he advocated--he tried to win on the merits. This year, he has been willing to distort and lie about his opponents. It really started with the way he dealt with Mitt Romney’s positions on the Iraq war. But he has gone all out since the convention. That, combined with his choice of entirely unproven Palin for vice-president, has been enough to remove whatever lingering sympathy I had for the man. But as has been clearly demonstrated in seven of the last ten presidential elections, my sympathies don’t necessarily match those of the voters. In my view, this election is going to depend a lot on the debates. And even with the strong Democratic tailwind behind him, Obama may need some kind of slip-up by McCain or Palin to carry the day.

--John B. Judis