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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

(Political story-telling)

New Quinnipiac polls put Obama ahead 8, 8 and 15 points in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Generally, you need to win two out of three of those to become President. However, Obama is also looking good in Virginia and Colorado, either of which would give him the election if he holds Pennsylvania. If I weren't superstitious about wasting my luck, I'd be putting serious money down on Obama at Intrade, where he's getting only 60-40 odds; FiveThirtyEight.Com gives him 6-1 odds.

Why is McCain tanking so spectacularly? (Aside from, you know, Americans actually disagreeing with what he stands for.)

One thing I feel has been missing in the McCain campaign is what in a script we'd call a "through line." What is the point of the story?

Obama has a compelling narrative that fits together. He's young, he's Black, he's anti-war, he's for change. It's a commonplace that this is a "change election," but that is partly the result of the Obama campaign's successful framing. When Hillary hit her stride in March, her frame was "I will fight for you"; and I think if she'd been pushing that paradigm in December (when it was "It's My Turn") or January ("Experience") or February ("I'm for change, too!"), she'd have won.

The McCain people have never really nailed down what his story is. Partly I think they've been distracted by his personal story of being a prisoner for 5 years. It's a compelling personal story but they've never tied it convincingly to what McCain would actually do. Obama would change things. Hillary would fight for you. McCain... what? Would be honorable? Would be brave? Do voters even want a brave President? I'm not sure they do. Presidents tend to be brave with your kids.

Moreover, it's hard to run a campaign on how honorable your candidate is when your campaign manager is a Karl Rove protege and your staff are lobbyists. McCain could have run an all-out insurgent campaign, rejecting the lobbyists and the Rovians, to make the "honorable" story the through line of his campaign. But he didn't.

So the McCain campaign has been flailing. At the convention they tried to make the case that McCain was also a change candidate. But that's a tough sell coming from a Republican candidate who isn't willing to actually run against the President. And who is going to believe that the 72 year old white guy is the change candidate? Even if he does call himself a "maverick," and pick the "hottest governor from the coldest state." You are simply never going to beat the black guy for who's going to change things more.

(That was Hillary's mistake running on "experience." She was never actually the most experienced candidate, and everyone knew it. How was she going to beat McCain if the election was about "experience"?)

The McCain campaign has also been flailing in how it frames Obama. Is he an angry black man? Is he a freaky weirdo? A corrupt pol? A bleeding-heart liberal? A radical? Wishy-washy? The McCain people have tried each of these, but they keep changing the attack, and so their attacks tend to contradict. If he's wishy-washy he's not an angry man. If he's a weirdo then he's not a bleeding-heart liberal.

Meanwhile the Obama campaign has been pounding away at McCain relentlessly on message. McCain = Bush. That's been their message from Day 1. They have never bothered with attacks that don't fortify that message. Various bloggers have attacked McCain for being angry, senile, reckless, corrupt and a liar. The Obama campaign has gone with the "liar" meme, but that fits with the Bush association. They haven't, that I've noticed, made much of McCain's anger issues. Not relevant.

It's all about picking one story and telling it. The McCain people have told many stories about their candidate and their opponent; the Obama campaign has told one story about their candidate and one about their opponent.

Human beings are hardwired to absorb facts better when they fit into a single story than when they are just a grab bag.

As the proverb goes, "The fox knows many things. The hedgehog knows one Big Thing." And that's why foxes rarely get to eat hedgehogs.

To be fair, this election has always been structurally difficult for the Republicans. Party registrations are down. They're carrying an incumbent who's duking it out with Nixon for lowest approval / highest disapproval ratings in history. And McCain's timing is bad. People acknowledge him as a hero, but (I forget who noted this) the country is probably looking for a steward.

Still, would it have made more sense to frame the McCain story as Experience? When you have 26 years in the Senate, shouldn't you embrace that? The best argument against Obama is probably his lack of experience, coupled with his habit of voting "Present." Would it have made more sense to pound away at Experience vs. Inexperience? Frame it that way?

Because you could certainly distinguish yourself from Bush that way. Bush was inexperienced when he came into office. He has continued to behave like an inexperienced guy, rarely seeking out conflicting opinions and knowledge. Compared to McCain, Bush is still a callow youth. You would make the case that the country needs a leader with experience in prior crises, not a junior senator with most of his experience in local politics.

And if you can convince people that you're Mr. Experience, then you get to shuck off some of the other attacks. Experienced people have a right to be angry. He's not senile; he's just weighing his responses. Sure he's been involved in some shady deals, but hey, he's been around a long time. You can't expect a guy to spend 26 years in a Senate without ever having shaken the hand of someone who's a bit dirty.

Of course it's easy to carp at this point. Anyone can see that McCain is facing long odds now, so whatever McCain did must have been a mistake, just as whatever Obama did must have been wise. Right after the convention, Obama looked passive for all the things that now make him look steadfast.

But I can't help thinking that McCain would be doing better now if he had picked one compelling story and stuck to it all along.

Labels:

6 Comments:

That's a very good analysis. And it doesn't help that every time Sarah Palin talks she says something that contributes to the chaotic message. For instance, she made fun of Biden for being old and entrenched in Washington, then when Katie Couric pointed out the irony she hemmed and hawed and tried to fix it.

You're right, it's like nobody in the campaign is really in charge of the message.

By Blogger Emily Blake, at 2:45 PM  

I think both campaigns have had pretty strong, consistent messages... though in my ad-watching experience, McCain's have been negative (here's what I'm not going to do, here's where I disagree with democrats) and Obama's have been positive (here's what I'm going to do, here's where I agree with republicans). So Obama's story is more compelling; his "change" story entails climbing a mountain and reaching the top, whereas McCain's "change" story means walking a long straight road. Both get you somewhere new, but only Obama is taking you someplace you couldn't already see from where you started. He wins points for being the better character, too... young, spirited, and even a bit idealistic. But it's the kind of idealistic that wins hearts without deterring minds.

By Blogger Andy M., at 3:52 PM  

From the UK: Your perspective is very interesting. Obama has maintained his position in the story as the protagonist who will give the incumbents the post-Enron-and-everything-else whupping the people feel they deserve - more now than ever. That feeling seemed to falter when Palin was first selected, but it's becoming pretty obvious that she can't cut it, and isn't the face of change she was puffed up to be. 'John and Sarah' have no chemistry as a couple either, especially compared to the charisma of Barack and Mrs. O. (Echoes of Jackie O, anyone?). I hope you have better luck with Barack than we did with Bliar.

By Blogger blogward, at 6:15 PM  

"(Aside from, you know, Americans actually disagreeing with what he stands for.)"

This is a bit of a biased statement. But, hey, it's your blog so you have a right to be biased.

If Americans disagreed so intently with the things he stands for, I don't think the race would be so close, and it is close. Look at polls over the last several weeks and you'll see that it is one candidate up one week, one candidate up the next.

I do think you are closer to being right about the Palin situation - but I wouldn't put the nail in coffin just yet. Should she flop at the debate, the coffin might be ready to be sealed. But, she could do a good job, or conversely Biden could bite it big time. Not to mention the other 10,000 other variables out there waiting to influence this race.

By Blogger The Expat, at 2:32 AM  

Republicans have a nasty habit of picking people who've been around a long time and have name recognition for their presidential nominees rather than picking a person who's dynamic and inspiring.

John McCain, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush (even though George W. Bush hadn't been around long, he did have a well-known name), Richard Nixon.

Reagan was rare as a Republican candidate in that he could be inspiring and dynamic.

Sometimes the Democrats go that way, too (Mr. Gore, Mr. Kerry, I'm looking in your direction, at least in terms of how they came across during their campaigns).

It just makes me wonder why we so rarely see such chances taken in the Republican Party (or when a dynamic, inspiring guy gets put on the ticket, like Jack Kemp in 1996, he gets neutered and becomes as boring as everybody else).

By Blogger ryanpaige, at 4:49 PM  

*


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Who fault?


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By Blogger Remind Myself, at 2:20 PM  

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