Sunday, October 5, 2008

Is Obama Moving In For the Knockout?

First thing's first. You gotta love Tina Fey. Once again last night on SNL the comely and uber-intelligent comedienne nailed her parody of Sarah Palin, this time with respect to her performance in Thursday's Vice Presidential debate. "What, you mean we're not gonna do the talent portion?" she asks, near the end of a pitch-perfect send-up that lasted over ten minutes and featured, as an added bonus, the eerily resemblant Queen Latifah in the role of Gwyn Ifil. (Thanks to a loyal reader for calling The Key Grip's attention to the link.) The Governor's performance--initially applauded by this author for its lack of stupendous gaffes--has been widely criticized for its machine-made texture and in-bred evasiveness, including a quick jab by NBC's Brian Williams on Friday Night's installment of The Late Show With David Letterman.

Indeed it wasn't a terrific day for the McCain/Palin ticket all 'round--though anymore that isn't saying all that much, now is it. Specifically, a Republican party activist in Alaska made public her recently-filed lawsuit against Governor Palin, demanding full disclosure of e-mails sent as official business from Palin's assorted private accounts. (Proving once again that being a "barracuda" doesn't always play so well when the people being bitten are from inside one's own organization.) Elsewhere in the same state, a judge agreed to let several of the Troopergate subpoenas proceed, including that of the Governor's husband, Todd Palin, virtually guaranteeing that Mr. Palin will have to testify in this festering scandal which still carries the potential for massive embarrassment and possibly even criminal charges against the Vice Presidential nominee herself.

At the precise moment when Palin's boss is most sorely needed to rescue the fortunes of his own candidacy, Mr. McCain announced yesterday that he will instead be disappearing from public view altogether until Tuesday night's second Presidential debate. The one thin ray of good news for the Republicans here is that a credulous and more-lazy-than-biased mainstream press has completely missed this story, relaying its factual content as if this were the most reasonable thing imaginable, instead of wondering aloud if there might be insidious--perhaps even terrifying--reasons why the candidate would want or need to be out of the public eye for four of the most important days of his political life.

With early voting already underway in Virginia and Ohio--both of which are crucial to McCain's electoral fortunes, and in both of which Mr. Obama is comfortably ahead--tempers on the part of the Republican bully foot-soldiers are beginning to sour. Specifically, a would-be vote intimidator in Ohio has filed a lawsuit with the state to try to force his way into an "observer's" role in Franklin County (which contains Columbus), despite the fact that the state has no such provision in its constitution. The case will be heard by the Supreme Court, but without either a legal precedent or a statute in state law on which to fall back, the outcome seems hardly in doubt and the episode is bound to play in the Buckeye State as the naked play for disenfranchisement that it surely is.

Meanwhile, in his ongoing and highly successful effort to expand the electoral map, Barack Obama has managed to put the second congressional district of Nebraska--and area skirting the cities of Omaha and Lincoln--squarely in play. Over and above what it says about McCain's general prospects, this ugly little tidbit specifically demands that the already resource-strapped and defensively postured McCain team expend precious time and energy to hold the district, primarily out of fears that this single electoral vote will make the difference between a 269-269 tie and a clean win for Team Blue, which it certainly could. As a sign of how seriously they take the threat, the campaign has dispatched Sarah Palin herself to Omaha. Anything could still happen, of course, but when the Republican ticket for President is trotting its top draw onto a stage in Omaha with a month to go, we may take it as read that things are going very badly for them indeed.

Very few people in this great land of ours are so naive or under-informed so as not to know what's coming next from Team Crankypants--the final, Hail-Mary attempts to portray Barack Obama as a scary boogeyman. Yesterday, as the ground-level side of these efforts began in earnest with Sarah Palin's pitiful attempt to link Obama to William Ayers, Steve Schmidt announced that the ticket would pull virtually all of its remaining positively themed television ads, replacing them with negative spots intended to portray Obama "and his liberal allies" as big-government spenders, who took no stand on the bailout, and who bear the primary responsibility for jobs being lost to overseas markets. Elsewhere on the airwaves a battery of newly-formed 527's is expected to make its presence known with more personality-driven attacks on Obama and his supposedly shadowy, supposed connections to Ayers, Rezko, and Rev. Wright.

The Obama campaign, ever mindful of its larger, cooler-headed strategy, has saved its most adroit response to the changing circumstances for its most beneficial moment: In rapid succession they released new, policy-specific contrast ads of their own--portraying McCain as the candidate under whom one's tax liability would actually increase--and, even more deftly, announced that they would beat Mr. McCain's newest attack ads onto the air with a commercial suggesting that such attacks are an attempt by McCain to change the subject. In a rare moment of confluence between a national Democratic campaign strategy, and the untrained armchair intuitions of this author, the Obama people are about to make the nature of McCain's campaign into a campaign issue unto itself, labeling McCain's behavior from last week as "erratic" and suggesting--quite forcefully--that the forthcoming negative ads against their candidate are an attempt by McCain "to turn the page," something the middle-class in middle America can't do quite so easily. It's an amazingly effective ad, precisely because it's all true.

Most pundits will tell you that personality-driven attack ads are highly effective. The public doesn't like them, we are asked to believe, but they move voters anyway. This is true when viewed through a macro lens like this, but it becomes less true when the specifics of the race are taken into account: Negative ads work very well when a significant portion of the electorate hasn't yet made up its mind in a permanent way (e.g., Dukakis), when the reason to vote for the person being attacked is structurally insufficient (e.g., Kerry), or when the ads resonate with people who'd already come independently to the same, specific negative opinions in advance (e.g., Gore).

They don't work nearly as well when the principal knock against the candidate has already been dispelled by his own public persona (e.g., Reagan), and certainly not when the the person being attacked is prepared to turn the nature of the attack itself into a talking-point (e.g., Clinton). In these cases, particularly after a series of attempts to shake-up the dynamic of the election on the part of the attacker have already publicly and spectacularly failed, the attacks themselves are far more likely to be dismissed by the persuadable middle as shrill and desperate. Jimmy Carter, lest we forget, didn't stop running negative ads just because Reagan dispelled their content in the debate; they just stopped working.

It would seem that Barack Obama is indeed now in a position to drive the final nail, and isn't hesitating to do exactly that. With effective ads articulating the hidden tax burden of McCain's supposed credits, he keeps the discussion squarely focused on domestic policy--where his thumb is so firmly on the scale already that he gained eight points in tracking polls during meltdown week before he'd even uttered a single word. By nullifying McCain's personality-play in advance, with an even more effective ad that switches us back to domestic policy once again, Obama preempts the last, desperate move of a desperate campaign, framing them as vulnerable and rudderless in the final precious hours leading into the first Presidential debate that anyone will actually get to see, since it won't be broadcast at nine o'clock on a Friday night.

Predictions about what might happen next are always dangerous, but with this decided reversal of air-war fortunes it would seem less dangerous than it might otherwise, to predict a big night on Tuesday for Barack Obama, and a further separation in the popularity of the two tickets as a result. It seems likely that McCain will deal with the nullification of his ugly tactics at an emotional level, perhaps behaving even more erratically than he had during the time-frame depicted in Obama's new commercial. Certainly the drinking-game word for the night could, if this author endorsed such things, be "erratic"--and even more certainly, the McCain/Palin ticket will signal its accession of defeat if that word leaks from their own guy's mouth even a single time.

I believe that we are witnessing, in real time, the end-game of this election, with Obama pulling just the right levers, in just the right order, to close the deal on becoming our nation's first African-American Chief Executive. There's a month left, of course--but it took McCain six weeks of summer to whittle a lead that was half the size with his Paris Hilton / Celebrity play, and a goodly chunk of that time Mr. Obama was either overseas or on vacation. Even October surprises that are external to campaign strategy may not be enough to save McCain, now.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

1 comment:

Doug said...

The best part of Fey's performance? Hopefully the word 'Maverick' has been so tarnished now that it has been removed from the Republican playbook and lexicon.