This is may be October--but it's not much of a surprise. In the midst of a financial crisis that's boosted Barack Obama in nearly every key battleground state and cost McCain--according to his own advisers--about "five points" in the national polls, the Republican nominee over the weekend launched an "aggressive assault on... Obama's character" in an attempt to close the polling gap by "shift[ing] the conversation back to questions about the Democrat's judgment, honesty and personal associations."
The onslaught began Saturday, when Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told three separate crowds that Obama is "not a man who sees America like you and I see America"--mainly, she said, because he "is palling around with terrorists who would target their own country." (She was referencing Weather Underground founder William Ayers--a man with whom Obama does not "appear to have been close," according to the New York Times, and whose "radical views and actions" Obama has never "expressed sympathy for.") It continued Sunday with GOP strategists affiliated with the McCain campaign telling the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder that "they plan to highlight Obama's alleged contacts with individuals who they say have been linked to terrorist organizations, including controversial Columbia Prof. Rashid Khalidi, accused without real evidence of being a former PLO spokesperson." This morning, Palin resurfaced, calling on her running mate--surely not without his campaign's knowledge--to bring up the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. "I don't know why that association isn't discussed more," she said in an interview with the New York Times' Bill Kristol. "Those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country, and to have sat in the pews for 20 years and listened to that - with, I don't know, a sense of condoning it, I guess, because he didn't get up and leave--to me, that does say something about character." And in today New Mexico McCain called his opponent--in the words of one observer--a "mystery, a liar, complicit in the economic crisis and an unaccomplished naïf, at all the same time."
To paraphrase the Bangles: it's just another Muddy Monday.
With less than 30 days to go until Nov. 4, it's no wonder Team McCain is going on the attack. In fact, his own operatives have made their motivations perfectly clear. "We've got to question this guy's associations," a senior Republican strategist told the Washington Post on Saturday. "Very soon. There's no question that we have to change the subject here." This morning, a "top McCain strategist" was even more explicit in an interview with the New York Daily News. "It's a dangerous road, but we have no choice," he said. "If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we're going to lose." In other words, McCain believes that the only way he can win the White House is by painting Obama as a chancy, radical choice who will endanger all that America holds dear--and hoping that the electorate votes for the Republican ticket (the "safer," more familiar option) by default. As the Arizonan's new attack ad puts it, "Obama [is] too risky for America."
There's no doubt, then, how McCain and Co. will spend the final month of the 2008 campaign. The question is: Will it work?
My hunch is no. Here are five reasons why:
1. The Economy Isn't Going Anywhere: This morning, the Dow fell nearly 800 points, dipping below 10,000 for the first time since 2004. The U.S. economy dumped 159,000 jobs in September. Unemployment hit a five-year high. Americans have lost a combined $1 trillion in net worth over the last month alone. Whatever concerns voters might have about Obama's former minister or a guy the senator once sat on a board with pale in comparison at this point to concerns about their own economic security; the economy, simply put, is bigger than Bill Ayers. Every time Team McCain mentions Ayers, Obama will simply argue that his rival is ignoring the economic elephant in the room. "Senator McCain and his operatives are gambling that he can distract you with smears rather than talk to you about substance," he said yesterday in Asheville, N.C. "I want you to know that I'm going to keep on talking about the issues that matter--about the economy and health care and education and energy." Obama looks like change; McCain looks like he's changing the subject. As a matter of mechanics, it's going to be very difficult for McCain to transform an election occurring in the midst of the gravest economic crisis since the Great Depression into a referendum on his opponent's Rolodex, especially given that...
2. Ayers and Wright Aren't Exactly "Breaking News": The Politico's Ben Smith first reported on Ayers last February; the country spent all of April talking about Wright. In other words, every "association" that Palin and McCain are intending to highlight before Nov. 4 has already been highlighted. Reporters are treating this as a story about McCain's newly negative tactics--not as an opportunity to reheat material they first served up last spring. That's bad news for McCain. Sure, some voters are unsettled by the fact that Obama once worked on an education project with a unrepentant (if rehabilitated) '60s radical and spent decades listening to sermons by a man who adheres to Black Liberation Theology--and they're not voting for Obama, at least in part, because of it. But given that the Illinois senator went on to win the Democratic nomination and build a sizable lead in state and national surveys after the Ayers and Wright stories first broke, it appears as if many swing voters--not conservatives, but swing voters--have largely decided that they're comfortable with Obama's past. Absent any new revelations, it's hard to imagine that rehashed information will change their views--except, perhaps, on the sort of campaign McCain is running. The fact is, Ayers and Wright are probably priced--at least in part--into the current polling, which means...
3. There Aren't a Whole Lot of Swingers to Be Swung: If the election were held today, Obama would beat McCain 52 percent to 44 percent, with four percent of the vote going to third-party candidates (at least according to the latest Rasmussen tracking poll). Of course, the election is still a month away--which means, in theory, that McCain can still catch up. The problem for the Arizona senator is that he doesn't have much room for error. Right now (again, according to Rasmussen), 44 percent of voters say they're certain they'll vote for Obama, while a mere 38 percent say the same thing about McCain. That leaves only 14 percent of the electorate up for grabs--an eight-percent bloc that's currently leaning toward Obama plus a six-percent bloc that's currently leaning toward McCain. Imagine a room with 100 people in it. Forty-four of them are already on the left side; they're voting for Obama, no matter what. Thirty-eight are on the right side; they're sold on McCain. In the middle, eight voters are leaning to the left; six are leaning to the right. To win, Obama must simply make sure that six of his eight leaners vote Democratic; he can afford to lose two of his leaners to McCain (perhaps over Wright/Ayers/etc.) McCain, on the other hand, must retain all six of leaners AND steal six of the eight voters who currently prefer Obama. In other words, he has to double his share of the persuadable electorate between now and Nov. 4. Could it happen? It could. But it's unlikely, mainly because...
4. Last-Minute Attacks May Damage McCain As Much--if Not More--Than Obama: FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver makes an important point:
If the McCain campaign brings up William Ayers -- or Jeremiah Wright -- it will almost certainly be seen as attack politics. This might seem to be stating the obvious. But remember that this wasn't the case during the primaries. The Wright and Ayers stories were instead driven by actual news -- ABC's reporting of Wright's inflammatory sermons, for instance -- and were largely not pushed by the Clinton campaign. So unless McCain's oppo research team is sitting on some fresh news about Obama's ties to Ayers or Wright, the stories are liable to be reported as a typical partisan attack, which will impeach their credibility in the public's eyes and reduce their staying power.
The only news here is McCain's negative strategy; we've already litigated Wright and Ayers. As a result, Silver adds, "it may be quite difficult for McCain to attack Obama in this fashion without significantly damaging his own brand." For much of the cycle, McCain's net favorability rating--the gap between the percentage of voters who feel positively about him and the percentage who feel negatively--tended to rise and fall with Obama's. But while Obama's net favorables have surged to about 22 percent over the past few weeks, McCain's have plummeted to six or so. By recycling old attacks on Obama, McCain may narrow the gap between Illinois senator's positive and negative numbers. But the strategy is liable to have the same effect on McCain himself. Sure, partisans may cheer McCain's efforts. But at the end of the day, it's unlikely that McCain would emerge from a slash-and-burn campaign having increased his net favorability rating. Obama's, meanwhile, would probably still hover in the double digits--even if it takes a few hits. That disparity--the simple fact that voters now see Obama in a more favorable light than McCain--would make it extremely difficult for the Arizonan to pry three-quarters of Obama's leaners away from him (which, again, is the only way he'll reach 50 percent in the polls). GOP strategist Lee Atwater famously proclaimed that any candidate with unfavorables over 40 was dead. McCain's currently average 39.6 percent. Making matters worse is the fact that...
5. The Obama Campaign Has Muddied the Waters on Riskiness and Associations: It's the least remarked-upon aspect of the current financial crisis--but perhaps the most important from a political perspective. Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers late last month, Obama has used the meltdown as an opportunity to portray himself as a safe and steady leader. At the same time, he has framed McCain's every move as needlessly reckless--or, to use Team Obama's lingo, "erratic." The point? To reverse the conventional wisdom and portray McCain as the riskier choice. Obama has succeeded, at least in part: according to the latest CBS News poll, 61 percent of voters say they're very or somewhat confident in Obama's ability to handle the economy. McCain's score? A mere 49 percent. Meanwhile, 44 percent approve of Obama's handling of the financial crisis versus only 35 percent for McCain. As a result, 52 percent of voters now say that Obama is prepared to be president, up six points since late September. Earlier this cycle, McCain would have had an easier time defining Obama as dangerous radical. But now that the electorate has witnessed Obama "in action"--and seems to have decided that it prefers his economic leadership to McCain's--the burden of proof is much higher. Swing voters now have a choice: do they believe what McCain says about Obama--i.e., "Who is Barack Obama?"--or what they themselves have seen him say and do? I suspect they're inclined to trust their own eyes and ears over innuendo, for better or for worse. This wasn't always the case.
Also complicating McCain's new message: the fact that Chicago has authorized its surrogates to mention McCain's and Palin's questionable associations whenever they're asked about Wright or Ayers. That's why on Meet the Press yesterday Paul Begala "noted that McCain once 'sat on the board of a very right wing organization,' the U.S. Council for World Freedom"--a group whose "parent organization" was once called "a gathering place for racists and anti-Semites" by the Anti-Defamation League. It's also why liberal journalists are complaining that Todd Palin belonged to a political party that wanted Alaska to secede from the union--and that his wife once attended "a sermon by the founder of Jews for Jesus, who argued that the Palestinian terrorist acts against Israel were God's 'judgment' on the Jews because they hadn't accepted Jesus." Finally, it's why the Obama campaign released a 13-minute documentary about McCain's involvement in the "Keating Five" scandal earlier this afternoon.Does today's tit-for-tat represent "a new kind of politics"? Hardly. I tend to think--like most swing voters I've met--that these "guilt by association" attacks are idiotic. And Obama's Keating onslaught is particularly iffy, given that the scandal happened 17 years ago and McCain acknowledged misjudgment. That said, Chicago's aggressive posture ensures that every voter who hears about Ayers will also hear about the Alaska Independence Party. Same goes for Wright and Keating. Ultimately, if McCain can't convince swing voters that Obama is substantially riskier and more "tainted" than he is--if his attacks elicit equally irrelevant (but equally unflattering) attacks from the Dems--it's hard to see how he'll benefit from baring his teeth.