It has been noted in these pages before, but it bears repeating: the biggest risk of political analysis in any medium is imposing that which you wish were true, onto that which is. Things a person can wish were true about the last few days in our election cycle include:
- That the hypocrisy of choosing a running-mate who was mayor of a town of 5,000 people a year and a half ago, after telling us for that entire year and a half that experience is the only thing that counts, would have turned lots of people off as cynical and gimmicky
- That McCain's clunky, widely panned speech would have failed to persuade a large swathe of undecided voters to tell pollsters that they support him
- That Governor Palin's claim on Wednesday night of having said "Thanks but no thanks" to the Bridge-to-Nowhere would be widely known (in advance!) as a willful counterfactual, and that it would have tarnished her star
- That Palin's church video asking parishioners to pray for a pipeline would have been instantly made into a commercial by Team Obama, and played everywhere
- That persuadable voters would take Palin's reticence to be interviewed as the clear-cut sign that she is wholly out of her depths, and respond disapprovingly
Many columnists more practiced and celebrated than this author have made the same mistake over the last week, of assuming that just because the things listed above are the reasonable reactions to what has happened, they must be the reactions that are occurring among the public at large. And make no mistake, that's a mistake: The general public makes its decisions on the question of whom to vote for based on extremely low-calorie heuristics, often simple gut impulses driven by the question of which choice will afford them greater social cover in defending their actions at the lunch-counter on November 5th.
This may sound like an elitist rant about how the rest of the country is too stupid to see things the right way, but before one dismisses it on that ground, it might be worth noting that a more-or-less random sample of north Florida community college students, asked routinely every semester what it would mean if a candidate ran for office on a promise to "balance the budget," has rarely produced even a single correct answer per class. The modal response when this question is put to them is that it must have something to do with peoples' credit cards.
More to the point, the second-best heuristic argument, as elitist as may sound, it is also doubly accurate when it comes to voters who still haven't decided which of these tickets they're planning to support. As much of some of us would like to believe that nagging little details like sinking us into another Cold War and having an avowed racist a heartbeat away from the top job should matter to most people, it is nothing short of electoral malpractice to assume that a voter who has not yet made up his or her mind yet will be swayed by such things. Were that voter participating actively enough, were that voter engaged enough in the dialogue, were that voter someone prepared to listen to reason and weigh the factual consequences of his or her choice, we wouldn't still be talking to that voter because that voter wouldn't still be undecided.
This is something that Republicans instinctively get, that Democrats do not: By the first of September, a Presidential election inescapably is a popularity contest. The ticket that can put on the convention with the most silly hats, the biggest laugh-line, and the sexiest mother of five, will have the inside track to winning-over anyone who hasn't already been won, precisely because anyone who wouldn't be swayed by such nonsense is already off the table.
Alas, the poll numbers have swung dramatically for the team of Lost 'Nam / Lose Iran, and all the hand-wringing by left-leaning, low-circulation nobodies like yours truly isn't going to change the reality that what should have been a garden-variety bounce for that team is suddenly, on the first Monday morning of the fall finish, bearing eerie similarities to the sea-change in dynamic that took place before, vs. after, the 2004 Republican Convention. At the moment that this column is being written, McCain/Palin are polling as much as four points ahead in some national tracking polls -- and the explanation for their sudden up-rush of support need be no more complicated than that they made it easier (both in the chronological sense, and as compared with the Democrats) for an as-yet undecided voter to articulate his support.
Those of us who are politically conscious enough to pay attention to the consequences of our actions in the voting booth concluded (pretty doggone unanimously) that Barack Obama's acceptance speech ten days ago was an amazing performance--at once stirring and unifying and emotionally uplifting, and yet somehow peppered with just the sort of policy specifics for which his campaign had been criticized for its apparent shortage. And make no mistake, delivered to a room full of thoughtful, civic-minded participants in the American democratic process, it was.
But now ask yourself this question: if you weren't already involved enough in this discussion to have settled on one candidate or the other, how exactly would you explain your decision to commit to Senator Obama, in the four-word sugar packets that lunch-counter conversations demand, on the basis of that speech? Okay, perhaps you could--in a pinch--but it seems far more reasonable to assume that you'd sit relatively quietly at that lunch-counter for fear of sinking yourself into a long-winded policy debate for which you were neither factually nor emotionally prepared.
Fast-forward a week, and imagine the same morning-after conversation following the Republican show, and the sugar packet is far, far easier to tear open and distribute over your relationship-authority with your friends. "That Palin woman's got spunk," seems to do the trick quite nicely, and that particular stab at it didn't even require the support of the author to devise. Suddenly, the decision is simple: stick with the brand that has paid dividends at the lunch-counter in all but three of the elections since 1964, reduce the matter to an un-debatable, finish your tuna sandwich and go back to work.
America seems today to be divided into a group of people who wish this wasn't true, and a group of people who know that it is. And if you hesitate to agree, it's worth remembering that the same party who just got done bringing us the Sarah Palin who stands for reform, straight into the teeth of unusually intense press scrutiny exposing her as no such thing, is also the party that quite successfully brought us the "we will keep you safe" message in 2004, after having fired the man who told Condolezza Rice that Al Qaeda was going to attack America from bases in Afghanistan. Anyone who insists that it cannot work again is, at some level, pretending that it hasn't worked already. It has.
Fortunately there is a wellspring of good news lurking inside this storm cloud for Team Obama. To begin with, it is all but inconceivable that 252 electoral votes worth American public could have turned out for one of the most spectacularly ineffectual campaigners in Democratic Party history, if the simple message of today's column were entirely unqualified, and the reason it happened is simple: just as the remaining persuadable voters aren't going to be swayed by policy content or even basic factual contradictions by a candidate, it is also true that not every voter is still persuadable. The ones who were locked-in for Senator Kerry by the time of the '04 conventions, stayed locked-in for Senator Kerry and turned out for him in numbers that came within a much closer margin in Ohio than Diebold and Ken Blackwell would like you to believe. This year, for the first time in my lifetime, those numbers favor the Democrat.
Then there is the much-documented and genuinely formidable Obama ground machine, to which McCain still has not responded in anything like a substantial fashion. So called "banked" voters--people who've pre-selected themselves as Obama fans--are chronicled in huge and glittering databases arising from having signed up to receive the Biden announcement, among other vectors for their capture. As has been reported in these columns before, the Obama campaign outnumbers the McCain campaign in field offices by a roughly six-to-one margin--and that margin only gets bigger in states where Republicans are not in the habit of playing defense. It's nine to one in North Carolina, and more like eleven to one in Indiana.
But for all that, the Obama campaign is definitely, it seems fair to say at this point, running with a second-best strategy for its air campaign. Their ads are insufficiently negative, insufficiently targeted to a single mode of contrast to their opponent, and insufficiently willing to stoop to the level of lunch-counter heuristics in making their points. The reason, we are asked to believe, is that the campaign can't stoop to the level of lunch-counter heuristics without running the risk of alienating some of its less solid supporters, particularly women.
But this argument has seemed to this author for a long time now, to be hollow--precisely because it assumes that an ugly voice-over saying patently untrue things about John McCain is the only alternative to the ads we're watching now. It's the box that Kerry believed he was painted into in 2004, same as the box Gore perceived himself to be stuck with in 2000, just like the box Dukakis talked himself into in 1988, which looks in hindsight a lot like the box Mondale perceived himself to be trapped inside in 1984. In all of those cases, the simple and (this year, in particular) devastatingly effective advertising strategy that has not been capitalized upon at all, as far as this author knows, is that of simply stepping out of the way and showing your opponent speaking in his own words.
Never mind yet another hypertext link to Sarah Palin asking her congregation to pray for a pipeline. Indeed, never mind the reportedly forthcoming video of that same Sarah Palin at that same church, speaking in tongues. It is Mr. McCain himself who has said, on camera, that he does not disagree with the need for instituting a draft, that he isn't an expert on the economy, that he thinks social security is a disgrace, that he didn't wear body armor when he toured Iraq, and that he wouldn't mind if American soldiers stayed there for the next hundred years. All of these are gifts to Senator Obama's campaign and, so far at least, they all sit quietly forlorn at the back of the electoral Christmas tree, unopened.
Senator Obama has already shown (most recently with his Bill O'Reilly interview) that he has no intention of going down in history as another John Kerry. His ads are certainly more contrast-oriented than Kerry's, and his desire to win is both self-evidently stronger and self-evidently more self-evident. Now the job becomes, in these last sixty days, to remind those lunch-counter undecideds that the real reason they're undecided is that they're unhappy with the way the last eight years have gone. Now the job becomes, to borrow a phrase, that of proving that if elected the McCain / Palin ticket really will be "more of the same."
("The Key Grip")