Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Dance of the Seven Death Rattles

It's easy for us to forget that most Presidential elections aren't particularly competitive. Typically by this point in a campaign one candidate is pretty-well dependent on the fickle finger of current events to change his fortunes, and typically they don't. And when these things become apparent, even to opinion leaders within that candidate's party, even within the campaign itself, there follows a sort of dance of the seven death rattles in which a clear philosophical trend emerges, away from securing victory and toward explaining away defeat.

It begins with the "hail Mary" death rattle. The trailing candidate holds a secret pow-wow with his inner circle and the group of them decide on a bold move to "shake up the dynamic" of the election. These bold moves rarely work under the best of circumstances, especially if timed too far down the calendar to be accepted on good faith by the persuadable middle--but in election 2008 the supposedly "steady hand at the tiller" has undertaken not one but several such extreme, inaptly timed gambles, most of them coming across to an increasingly distrustful press pool as rash, impulsive, and fraught with contingent down-side. Chief among this host of questionable calls were the two biggest decisions by the Republican operation this season--McCain's two "three-A.M. moments," as it were--the choice of Sarah Palin and the decision to "suspend the campaign," both of which are now all but universally derided as excessively long risks.

There follows the "tough choices" death rattle, in which the struggling campaign announces its reluctant decision to pull out of some high-profile battleground (like Michigan), to concentrate on a smaller electoral map. There's never a good time to make such an announcement, of course, since a not inconsiderable swathe of persuadables will shift into the other camp out of simple fear that they might be seen backing a loser--but the story of election-2008 will almost certainly contain at least a passing mention to McCain's inexplicable timing for their team's call to abandon such a big and relatively competitive electoral prize. And in case you've forgotten, they made this announcement about three hours before Sarah Palin was to appear on a national debate platform opposite Joe Biden.

Next we have the "biased access" death rattle. The trailing campaign, having found itself in a self-amplifying cycle of lower fundraising totals, followed by sinking polls, followed by lower fundraising totals, endeavors to paint the other side as an advertising bully who won't let the scrappy underdogs be heard on the television airwaves. "Senator Obama signed a piece of paper saying he'd accept public financing if I did," McCain has said on numerous occasions--despite the fact that no such piece of paper was ever signed by Mr. Obama, and he knows it, "and now that he's broken that promise, he's out-advertising us four-to-one." Setting aside the fact that the RNC was still free to raise as much money as it wished, and could have spent all of that helping McCain become President, consider instead how this statement sounds to a fence-riding observer. I don't know about you, but if I were still trying to pick a candidate, this comment would not inspire me to shift my allegiances squarely in the direction of the man doing the complaining.

It should also be noted that this year the Republicans have introduced a chilling twist to this "we lost because we couldn't get a word in" pre-explanation: the idea that their loss is the direct result of ballot-stuffing by ACORN. There is simply no evidence, not a scintilla, that ACORN's system of paying volunteers for collecting registrations could ever have resulted in a single fraudulent vote being cast, but this hasn't stopped the extremist right-wing opinion leaders from their coordinated campaign to de-legitimize an Obama Presidency before it even begins.

Somewhere along the line the trailing campaign gives-in to the "biased media coverage" death rattle, of course. This is an increasingly time-honored tactic with Republican campaigns, who seem to get more traction with their own base than Democrats do, when claiming that the press is some monolithic body that has one impenetrable agenda for tilting the story of the election. The problems inherent in this move are two-fold: First, it only sways people engaged enough in the election to corroborate the claim against their own perceptions, which automatically rules-out any of the people the trailing candidate would have to win over. Nobody who's still undecided about who to vote for in this election has formed an independent conclusion that Mr. McCain is being treated unfairly by the press. But the bigger risk is that this complaint is dangerously self-fulfilling: the more acrimonious a candidate's relationship with his own traveling press corps, the less likely that press corps is to "give him a pass" when the time comes.

A word or two also seems in order on the subject of whether the claim is particularly justified or not in this election. Several reports have been recently publicized, chronicling a higher percentage of unfavorable news stories being reported about the McCain campaign than about the Obama campaign, and this has prompted even some neutral to left-leaning columnists to speculate on the question of whether Mr. McCain is being treated unfairly in the media. He isn't. When one of two campaigns is behaving in a way that is structurally and consistently more odious than the other, and less competently to boot, impartiality in the reporting of the campaign demands a proportionate allocation of unfavorable stories about that campaign. If by contrast Senator Obama was getting just as much bad press about his commercials as McCain got for the one claiming Obama wanted to teach sex education to kindergarteners, the press would actually be biasing the coverage in favor of Senator McCain, by suggesting that the two teams have behaved in a way that is equally dishonorable--which flatly isn't true.

As the matter becomes more and more entrenched (and time grows shorter), the death rattles become that much more difficult to spin. The inflection point, I would argue, is the "we'll win anyway" death rattle. The polls aren't acurately reflecting the state of the race, we are led to believe, since the candidate's internal numbers show a race that is much closer. Segments of certain states (the "real" places in those states, apparently) are being under-polled, there is hidden resentment for the leading candidate among undecided voters, and in the end the turnout war will favor the trailing candidate and the media will be left on election night with the monumental task of peeling a thousand-pound omelet from its collective face, for having called the matter too early for the front-runner.

For this tradition we may thank the anonymous copywriter who penned "Dewey Defeats Truman," but if 1948 seems increasingly like a long time ago, there's a good reason for that: The front-runner in this election is the one likely to benefit from all factors that would otherwise suggest hidden support. Exclusive cell-phone usage is disproportionately young and Democratic, and even pollsters who claim to be reaching these individuals are probably getting screened by most of the people who would say that they were voting for Obama. As has been widely publicized, the Democrat has committed huge resources into his field operations, and is already out-performing his own polling numbers in early voting--something Democrats have never done before in the short history of voting before election day.

Once the die has truly been cast in this fashion, the collapse begins to take on its own momentum, notably in the sixth of the seven acts, the "down-ticket treason" death rattle. I can still remember being nervous about the outcome of the 1992 Presidential election in its final days, until I saw a story about the decision that had been made by the Senatorial campaign of Alfonse D'Amoto to print up buttons saying, "I'm voting for Clinton and D'Amato!" and after that moment I knew without any further doubt that Bill Clinton would be our next President. The same thing apparently happened, in reverse, in a significant number of down-ticket races in 1980--even before Mr. Reagan trounced Jimmy Carter in their one and only debate. This year's installment? Appointed Senator Roger Wicker, of Mississippi, running so scared for his own reelection that he has produced a series of commercials in which African-Americans extole the virtue of casting a ballot for Obama and Wicker--in some sort of alternate universe where African-Americans would be caught dead voting for Roger Wicker, even on a bet.

The last of the death rattles is of course the biggest and (this year, at least) the most sinfully pleasing one to watch: the "blame game death rattle." As the outcome becomes obvious to even the most seasoned veterans of campaign comebacks, the first true calling of every politician--that of advancing his or her own fortunes--begins bubbling up to the surface, and in short order the highest-placed operatives and surrogates are sending unattributed or semi-attributed signals that the impending doom is not their fault. "In the movies, when there's a crisis, everyone is shown running around, giving orders, shouting into telephones," Henry Kissinger once said, when commenting on the fall of Saigon. "In a real crisis, what actually happens is that everyone is in his foxhole, and occasionally tosses up a message that he wasn't responsible."

In McCain/Palin land there have been several high-level and high-profile incidents over the past, most crucial week, of people taking time off from rallying the campaign to stab each other in the back--most notably with respect to Sarah Palin and the decision to add her to the ticket. The most damning of these (so far) may be the unattributed quote provided to Politico by a "senior McCain adviser," describing Sarah Palin as a "whack job"--a term that doesn't afford much hope for Administrative cohesion if Mr. McCain should indeed pull a rabbit out of a hat next Tuesday. Indeed the dissension would seem to have spilled over to the candidates themselves, at least according to political columnist Robert Draper, who claims that McCain and Palin sat a few feet away from each other on a long bus-ride between campaign appearances in Florida, without McCain speaking a single word to Palin or even acknowledging her physical reality there. "It was embarrassing for those sitting nearby," remarked one staffer who was present aboard the bus, in words that amount to an early candidate for understatement of the century.

Meanwhile, of course, the polls continue to recede from McCain with the very swiftness with which they would have needed to close, for him to have a chance. In the most recent batch of battleground polling, McCain trails by seven in Ohio and Virginia, nine in Colorado, and an eye-bulging twelve points, not just in Pennsylvania, but also in Nevada, which Battleground had been rating as a toss-up as recently as two weeks ago. Governor Palin still hasn't released her medical records, despite having promised to do so this past Monday, and Mr. Obama's thirty-minute program to seal the deal has not yet aired (it's scheduled for Wednesday). And so as we pause to savor the seven death rattles of the McCain/Palin candidacy, it's worth remembering that best death rattle of all, the eighth one, is the one we get to watch together on the evening of November 4th: The McCain/Palin concession speeches.

The only question now is, will they deliver them together?

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

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