Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Obama/McCain Show, Part 2

Well, the second contest between Sen. Obama and McCain closed out without much fanfare, but pretty distinct differences. As a matter of winning and losing, this debate went decisively to the Obama campaign. Flash polls from CNN to CBS are giving the debate to Obama by margins from roughly 15-25 points, certainly far from a tie. Naturally, this hurts McCain immensely as he is already 5-8 points down in national polling, and we're likely to see a 2 point drift to Obama in post-debate polling given the Obama momentum being unchanged.

In terms of substance, I think both candidates were able to push their message, and Obama ultimately probably won in this field because he was better able to articulate his positions and empathize with the audience. Obama clearly shined when the issue came to the health care system, he felt well versed and in control. The same remark can be made about McCain and the approach towards Russia. These results are generally what we anticipate though, and in a domestic policy election, Obama is running the field in domestic policy. As a matter of style and presentation, Obama simply outshined McCain throughout the debate. The problem with McCain's performance was partially due to factors out of his control though. Short of a completely groundbreaking economic proposal, it has been accepted at this point that he has to go negative on Obama to try and close the poll numbers. In fact, McCain did go negative throughout the debate, although so did Obama in response. I suspect McCain took a far larger hit on negativity due to his presentation. The negativity felt petty and awkward, and the visual presentation was similar in comparison to Clinton/Dole or Kennedy/Nixon. It is just not possible for McCain to compete against Obama on appearance simply due to the age and vitality difference.

Where do things go from here? Well, like I said above, I fully anticipate this debate to cause a 2 point drift or so in the Obama direction, nationally. This kind of development the McCain campaign simply cant afford. Obama has already sealed 264 electoral votes outside the margin of error according to conservative NBC estimates, and he has 5-7 current toss-up states polling slightly his way. It seems likely at this point that the new poll numbers coming from those states are going to begin to move far enough his way that they move outside of the margin of error and safely into his column. So, this leaves McCain with two options that 'may' halt or reverse the poll numbers. One of those options is that he develops a significant new economic plan, and delivers it in a major policy speech. With 60% of voters deeming the economy the post important issue they care about, appearing out of touch on the economy will cause him to lose in a big way. The second option, is the scorched earth character attack strategy they have already suggested. While this option may prevent Obama's poll numbers from moving any higher, I seriously doubt this would prove to be a net benefit to McCain as much as it would either backfire tremendously against him or tear both candidates down proportionally. If the McCain campaign is unwilling to make a bold new economic proposal though, it is my conclusion that they WILL embark on this strategy as it is the final strategy left to them at this point.

My verdict? I think the McCain campaign has reached the the "Hooked-Lined-Sinker" point due to circumstances within and outside their control. They certainly didn't want the economic crisis; however, they didn't aid the situation by boxing themselves in by using their credibility capital too early and executing a botched response to the crisis. I do not foresee them implementing a new economic strategy, which ultimately leaves a very muddy path to November 4th.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Keating Attack

In a move widely expected by Democratic operatives, on Monday afternoon, the Obama campaign will begin to address via an internet campaign, the Charles Keating "Keating 5" savings-and-loan scandal of 1989-1991. This scandal was especially damaging to Sen. McCain as he was criticized among four other senators by the U.S. Senate for providing political leverage for Mr. Keating while his banking firm cheated many out of their life savings. The move comes shortly after VP candidate Sarah Palin accused Sen. Obama of "palling around with terrorists," referencing his alleged relationship with former 60's radical William Ayres, and citing a NY Times article that actually proved to debunk the relationship.

Behind the headlines, I am in agreement that this strategy is an effective one. It was generally acknowledged by multiple circles that the Keating 5 scandal would eventually rear its head in this campaign, with a special irony given the current economic crisis. I would expect that the Keating card was one that the Obama people were holding in their deck as a last resort maneuver. Honestly, what better time to use this card than when the McCain campaign has to rely on media exposure to "take off the gloves" on Obama. The Obama move will serve to muddle their original message and instead promote the idea of a campaign smear fight through the news outlets, a fight Mr.Obama will likely win given the ammunition and the atmosphere. Had the GOP not begun their guilt-by-association character attacks, I doubt that Mr. Keating would have had any mention until the final week of October. However, with the economy becoming Mr. Obamas winning issue, it seems that the McCain campaign is on a "4th and long" situation, and Obama's past associations have become in many ways, the final line of attack to reverse his poll numbers. The objective would seem to be to create as many news articles as possible with the words "Obama" "terrorist" and "radical" in them. This development is of no suprise to anyone, especially the Obama campaign. They have dealt with this issue in the primaries and always knew that eventually the GOP would bring guns to bear on it. In my perspective, it would seem like both campaigns are bringing their final guns to bear this week.

So, the overall question is, who is going to win this character battle? This is a situation where McCain really hurt himself by overplaying his hand in September. Had McCain fought on the high ground in the last month and led a more streamlined campaign, I suspect this attack would carry far more traction among independents. The stern rebuke from the media for his ad campaign against Obama over the last month, however, has severely damaged his credibility when he really needs to bring it to bear. With the economy dominating the headlines and everyones attention, it would seem this line of attack, already debunked by the media, could even potentially backfire against McCain. Obama does not share this problem, as the Keating 5 scandal is well documented across the media spectrum and holds a special relevance to the crisis today. As a result, in a man vs. man character debate alone, I would expect Obama to gain the upper ground this week. The town hall debate on Tuesday and the Alaska ethics probe report on Friday only intensify the stakes this week, and it is probably no coincidence that both campaigns have brought full guns to bear for this likely turbulent week.

My verdict? The race could potentially break for Obama this week, but in this campaign, anything is possible. This move is likely McCains final gambit, Ayres is the only meaningful angle left that the Republicans haven't exploited, aside of Rezko and Wright. One thing is for certain though, the Obama campaign is a far cry from the Kerry campaign of 2004 when it comes to responses.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Palin/Biden Debate

With the Vice Presidential debate now over, both campaigns are spinning their victories faster than the wheels on my Ford. As for who infact won, it honestly depends on what you were looking for in the debate. If you were grading purely on substance, it would be hard to say Sen. Biden didn't win. If you were grading on whether Gov. Palin was able to present herself to the public in a coherent manner, then you could certainly say that Palin won. By a 76 to 3 margin for Republicans and an 85-5 margin for Democrats, each party felt their prospective candidate won.

Ultimately, this line of thought brings us to an even bigger question. What do we define as an acceptable performance? Many in the media gave Palin high marks for the fact that she didnt stumble in the debate. However, this debate was essentially a free-rein debate. The moderator, Gwen Ifill, was either unwilling or unable to force an answer on the questions she originally asked. In fact, Gov. Palin was so bold to state that she would NOT answer questions the way the moderator desired because she was speaking to the American people. I think it sets a dangerous precedent if candidates are allowed to skirt inspection by the public, in the name of populism. This is a precedent that the American people alone will ultimately set or reject though, starting on November 4th. This argument certainly does not apply only to one party, or only to this election, but never has a candidate been so bold to state that he or she would not answer the questions the way required.

That being said, this debate ended much as I expected it would, without a splash and a decent performance by both sides. Sen. Biden took great lengths to avoid criticizing Gov. Palin directly, likely due to electroshocktherapy from the Obama campaign. I felt he generally gave direct answers and spared no expense to tie McCain to every issue brought up. Gov. Palin proved quite adept at reframing the conversation to issues more comfortable to her, though it was extremely transparent. With regards to the transparency, I anticipate many Americans outside of the Republican base noticed it, which does not serve her interests with Independents. Under the circumstances though, I do feel the Governor gave the best performance she was able to give. The question left to voters is whether it was good enough.

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