Can it really be true that the person who taped the latest smear robocall against Barack Obama is named Orson Swindle? Was Johnny Deceptive booked?
Can it really be true that the person who taped the latest smear robocall against Barack Obama is named Orson Swindle? Was Johnny Deceptive booked?
John McCain, who previously joked that he defined being rich as making over $5 million, said yesterday that his running mate Governor Sarah Palin and her family "are not wealthy." Really? Americans' median household net worth in 2002 was approximately $59,000 (PDF). The Palin family's net worth exceeds $1 million according to financial disclosure forms. I think most people would define someone with a million dollar net worth as wealthy.
One thing that didn't get much attention last week -- President Bush's approval rating in the New York Times poll was 22 percent! He's helped set the stage for a top-to-bottom repudiation of Republicans in the House, Senate, and presidential races a week from Tuesday. Perceptions of a Democratic mandate are sure to follow.
What's striking about this is that so many people thought that President Bush would be a transformational president who would reshape American politics. Instead, he's on the verge of becoming the Jimmy Carter to Obama's Reagan. For instance, here's what I wrote in early 2002 before it became clear that Bush would squander his political capital so profoundly:
Bush now has a realistic opportunity to become a president who defines the terms of American politics long after leaving office. In his book The Politics Presidents Make, the Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek argues that transformational presidents engage in "the politics of reconstruction," in which they build a new political regime in opposition to the crumbling and de-legitimized order they have replaced. Examples include Franklin Delano Roosevelt after Herbert Hoover and Ronald Reagan after Jimmy Carter.
Seen in this light, the State of the Union address can be read as a conscious attempt to define an entirely new order. In it, Bush elaborated a vision of a moral America defending freedom with an extensive domestic anti-terror apparatus at home and an interventionist and open-ended war on terrorism and rogue states abroad. "[T]his will be a decisive decade in the history of liberty," he said. "We've been called to a unique role in human events."
In addition, Bush's entire domestic agenda has now been re-conceptualized in terms of security, from "security in retirement" (pension reform, Social Security privatization) to "economic security" (education reform, energy production, free trade, tax cuts). Finally, Bush endorsed national service as a component of homeland defense and to promote an ethic of personal responsibility and civic virtue...
Bush has left the box of 1990s American politics altogether, defining a secure and moral future against an insecure and self-indulgent past. Skowronek says transformational presidents "retrieve from a far distant, even mythic, past fundamental values that they claimed have been lost." Reagan, for example, described his "Revolution" as "a rediscovery of our values and our common sense." Here's Bush: "After America was attacked, it was as if our entire country looked into a mirror and saw our better selves."
On its own, this may seem obvious -- America was self-indulgent in the 1990s, we did fail to take the threats against us seriously, and the war on terrorism is incredibly important. But just as Reagan broke from and stigmatized old-style liberalism, Bush can now frame Democratic opposition as representative of a discredited, Clintonian past. Call it "changing the tone" squared. Concerns about missile defense, civil liberties or the wisdom of overthrowing rogue regimes like Iraq can be portrayed as dangerous and self-indulgent, the echoes of a dying era.
This framing is especially hard for Democrats to counter because most will not stand in stark opposition to the Clinton legacy as Bush is. And as it becomes common wisdom, fair or not, that Clinton failed to do all he could to prevent 9/11, Bush's politics will increasingly come to seem a much-needed corrective. Like Al Gore, Democrats may find themselves unable to offer a compelling vision that breaks as clearly from the past.
You can almost do a find and replace on this passage to bring it up to date. Bush is now serving the role that Clinton did after 9/11 (the representative of the repudiated past), while Obama is the one claiming that a previous ideology has been discredited and promising a new beginning.
Drudge and other outlets are selectively hyping the handful of polls showing a relatively close race. That's not surprising given their incentives. The problem is that if you draw enough random samples and you throw in house effects and questionable likely voter screens, a poll somewhere every day or two will show McCain within a few points. But the overall picture of the election is quite clear, as UNC's Jim Stimson notes, and you should therefore disregard the outliers (key sentence in bold):
This is a race of considerable variability in various organization's estimates of what should be the same quantity. And at the same time I have never seen such stability in my estimates of the daily lead. A typical day sees about ten organizations report an Obama lead varying between 1 and 14 points. Thirteen points difference is a lot, more than double what would be expected from sampling fluctuation alone. This arises chiefly, it appears, from two sources, (1) initial assumptions about the partisan makeup of the electorate, and (2) varying likely voter assumptions. Both are probably more ambiguous than usual this year. Democratic party identification is trending upward this year. In that context it is harder than in a more stable environment to know what the right numbers are. Any old assumptions will very likely be wrong, as would the practice of just forcing the sample to have equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, which used to be employed, and maybe still is, by the Battleground poll. Turnout projection is especially difficult this year because the Obama campaign intends to turn out huge numbers of young and African-American voters who are traditional nonvoters. A model that assumes traditional patterns will be wrong if the campaign succeeds and right if it fails. Figuring out the quality of the two sides' ground games is beyond the normal expertise of pollsters.
Stability: When all the polls are combined to form daily estimates, it is the opposite fact that is most striking. Despite all that daily variation, Barak Obama has held a lead over John McCain of about 7 points over more than a month with virtually no daily variation. In my metric of the two-party vote division, the Obama lead of about 53.5 is just locked between 53 and 54 day after day after day. The organizations that do really large samples are reporting the same fact, remarkable continuity of day to day estimates, as if the race has been frozen since late September. Tracking polls with smaller samples are reporting trends, back and forth, which, while entertaining, appear to be quite false.
Stimson's estimate, which is currently at 54% of the two-party vote, mirrors Charles Franklin's estimate of 54% at Pollster.com. Both are quite close to the median prediction of 52% from leading political science models.
Some unconvincing spin from Steve Schmidt:
“The McCain campaign is roughly in the position where Vice President Gore was running against President Bush one week before the election of 2000,” said Steve Schmidt, Mr. McCain’s chief strategist. “We have ground to make up, but we believe we can make it up.”
Actually, with a week to go in 2000, Gore was only down 2-3 points in national polls:
By contrast, Pollster.com estimates Obama is up by eight points right now:
Update 10/24 10:27 AM: The 2000 graph above, which is from Charles Franklin of the University of Wisconsin and Pollster.com, has a mislabeled y-axis -- it should be "Gore minus Bush" not "Kerry minus Bush".
These are the precursors to the high-stakes debate that will follow Obama's likely victory on November 4. Here's a handy clip 'n' save guide to what you should expect:
(1) Many people will proclaim falsely that the election represents a "realignment." However, the idea that some elections represent discontinuous breaks from the past that permanently shift political alignments has been discredited in political science.
(2) There will be a strenous battle over whether Obama and/or Congressional Democrats have a "mandate." As I argued back in 2004, there will be no correct answer to this debate -- mandates, like realignments, are essentially a social construction:
The best work I've seen on this is a recent American Journal of Political Science article by Jim Stimson, David Peterson, and two other political scientists (236K PDF). They define a mandate as essentially a social construction - a collective interpretation of election results that carries an informational signal to nervous incumbents worried about re-election. In response, members of Congress deviate from their normal voting patterns in the direction of the mandate for some period of time, particularly those whose winning margins decreased in the previous election (they give this period a half-life of approximately 150 days). The authors provide some useful empirical tests of this hypothesis, examining the 1964, 1980 and 1994 elections as the three most recent "mandate" elections (based on coding of media content). 1980 appears to have had by far the biggest impact on individual Congressional voting behavior.
(3) Media Matters and I documented numerous commentators asserting that Bush had a "mandate" even though his victory was one of the narrowest by an incumbent president in American history. Will those same commentators declare that Obama has a mandate after what is likely to be a more convincing victory?
(4) The most important question, however, is whether a "mandate" response is even possible in 2009. The last perceived Democratic mandate was after the 1964 election. Since then, the GOP has become a vastly different party. In the current political context, it's hard to imagine too many Republican incumbents voting for, say, Obama's initial tax and budget proposals the way many Democrats did with Reagan in 1981. Won't the Grover Norquists of the world threaten to back primary challengers against anyone who helps Obama pass his agenda?
Update 10/22 1:26 PM: Let the realignment claims begin! Beneath a loaded picture of Obama praying with a group of African Americans Drudge is touting a Zogby poll that John Zogby is suggesting could reveal a "realignment":
Anything can happen, but time is running short for McCain. These numbers, if they hold, are blowout numbers. They fit the 1980 model with Reagan's victory over Carter -- but they are happening 12 days before Reagan blasted ahead. If Obama wins like this we can be talking not only victory but realignment...
For the record, Reagan received 55% of the two-party vote and 489 electoral votes. Obama may come close to Reagan's popular vote numbers (Pollster.com has him at 53.7% of the two-party vote) but there's no way Obama will equal that electoral vote total -- Sam Wang's meta-analysis currently predicts approximately 360 electoral votes with a 95% confidence interval of approximately 330 to 370.
Update 10/22 4:30 PM: After talking with my colleagues here at Duke, let me amend what I said about realignment. Obama's election may be seen in retrospect as part of a realigning trend away from the Republicans. There's no question that the 2006 and 2008 elections will represent a historic swing toward Democratic control of government. If you don't believe me, look at the Pollster.com House and Senate maps. The question is whether the trend will continue in 2010 and whether Democratic dominance will persist long-term. We won't know the answers to those questions with any certainty for a while.
Over the last few months, Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo blog has frequently been captured by a pernicious form of psychobabble about John McCain's inner thoughts. But even by his standards, the post below -- which consists entirely of a reader's speculations about John McCain's mental state -- might represent a new low of McCain swami-dom:
TPM Reader HR puts McCain on the couch ...
I've never really cared whether McCain was an honorable man who lost his way, or was never all that honorable in the first place. It's seemed to me a distinction without a difference-- I'm reminded of the debate in Pogo about whether The Odyssey was written by Homer, or another blind Greek poet of the same name.
That having been said, McCain's defense of robocalling to Chris [Wallace's] is fascinating. It's so evident that McCain is lying through his teeth--and knows it. But instead of feeling guilty, contrite (like a man of honor), or oblivious (like a sociopath), McCain just gets angrier.
I get the sense that the further he drifts from his (perhaps former) ideals, the angrier he gets at those who (in his mind) forced him to stray.
"My fellow prisoners" indeed.
Back in May of last year, I noted an aide to John McCain attacking Barack Obama's past drug use ("Obama wouldn't know the difference between an RPG and a bong") and suggested that we might see a similar tactic this fall:
Given Obama's racial background, the danger is that these attacks will be used to trigger ugly racial stereotypes about him, particularly once Republicans shift from bong jokes to talking about cocaine, which Obama admitted to trying in his first book.
So far, there's been surprisingly little evidence of this, but trial balloons are being floated.
First, John McCain's lawyer raised questions about why the New York Times had not tried to find Obama's dealer in a response to an investigative article about CIndy McCain's addiction to painkillers:
You have not tried to find Barack Obama's drug dealer that he wrote about in his book, 'Dreams of My Father.'
Then Rudy Giuliani returned to the issue on Fox News:
You can’t even — you can’t even raise these issues. And, you know, God forbid somebody would do some reporting on Barack Obama’s use of drugs. I guess that was the point that Mrs. McCain’s lawyer made.
Giuliani later backtracked, saying, "Now, I don’t think the Time should do that. I think, you know, the presidential campaigns have gotten bad enough. They shouldn’t do that." But he had already put the line out on TV at that point.
In a historical context, it's surprising how little racial imagery and rhetoric has been used against Obama. The efforts to portray him as a Muslim and associate him with terrorists have completely superseded his identity as an African American. But with John McCain calling Obama's tax policies "welfare," it's not hard to see how Obama's history with drugs could be used to appeal to similar stereotypes.
As noted earlier, I was a panelist in a forum at Duke on Muslim Americans and the 2008 election. Here are excerpts from some coverage in the local press:
Another hot topic of discussion was the persistent rumor circling that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is a Muslim, and the effects of the adamant denial of the rumors.
Although Obama is a Christian, there is still a significant portion of people who either believe the opposite or are unsure of his religious affiliation, the panelists said.
The denouncements produce a negative affect on Muslims and Obama alike, as they feed the perception that something is wrong with being Muslim, Read said. Nyhan noted that when Obama brings up the subject, it reminds people of the controversy surrounding his identity.
Princeton's Sam Wang has a nice summary of the perverse incentives that distort media coverage of the horse race:
It is not in the interest of individual pollsters or media organizations for you to have the most accurate possible picture of the horserace. Here is why.
Uncertainties such as the margin of error can be reduced by taking more samples.... The same is true for combining polls, with the added advantage of reducing the effects of methodological variation...
So why don’t more pollsters or media organizations aggregate polls?... Two forces encourage bad horserace reporting:
Competition among pollsters. It’s not in the interest of individual pollsters to say “average my results with the others.” It’s also not advantageous to collect a larger sample once the margin of error meets industry standards.
The hungry media beast. With news budgets on the decline, it’s costly to report real news. Why pay for investigative reporting when you can buy a poll and report the horserace? Within the area of poll reporting, market forces discourage high accuracy. For example, commissioning a survey of 4 times as many people would reduce uncertainty by a factor of two. But why pay 4 times as much for data that generate a lower likelihood of an apparent - and reportable - swing?
Matthew Yglesias suggests that "It's a signal to every right-of-center person who maybe thinks the GOP has gotten too right-of-center that Obama’s okay." That may be true, but I'm skeptical that endorsements matter very much.
I suspect that the practical effect will be to put the spotlight on the sleazy attacks on Obama's race, religion, patriotism, etc. that Powell denounced. To date, reporting on those smears has been limited because Obama has frequently decided not to engage (for good strategic reasons). Powell's statements create the conflict needed to sustain press coverage.
The Post asked John Podesta, Newt Gingrich, Mary Beth Cahill, Peter J. Wallison and Stuart E. Eizenstat what could make tonight a game-changer.
PS Along the lines, check out the way the New York Times describes Reagan's debate performance in 1980:
Mr. Reagan struggled until he met President Jimmy Carter in their only debate at the end of the campaign and voters decided they were comfortable enough with Mr. Reagan to take a chance on a relative newcomer to politics.
Compare that with Jim Stimson's smoothed trajectory of the polls in that race (and two other competitive races):
As Stimson concludes, Reagan's performance might have helped to nudge him over the top at the end of the race, but there's little evidence that "voters decided" en masse to support him as a result of the debate.
It's amusing to me that people think Sarah Palin is going to run for president in 2012 if McCain loses. Her favorable/unfavorable numbers in the new CBS/NYT poll are 32 percent favorable/41 percent unfavorable. That's where Hillary Clinton and Al Gore were in early 2007 after 15+ years of negative press. By contrast, Palin has been in the public eye for less than two months. I find it hard to believe that GOP primary voters would see her as the person they think can defeat Barack Obama.
Update 10/15 2:28 PM: Matthew Yglesias comments:
Maybe so. It’s striking to me, though, that explicit “electability” arguments don’t seem to feature heavily in GOP presidential primaries. This is a huge contrast from the Democratic side, where both the 2004 and 2008 primaries ended up showing a heavy focus on those questions. All signs are that a lot of conservatives like Palin just fine. If she can connect with a donor base, it seems to me that she’d be a reasonably strong primary contender. She’d have the leg up, meanwhile, of being better-known nationwide at this point than just about any other eligible Republican.
The problem with this logic, however, is that the Democrats haven't had an incumbent president since 1996. Isaac Chotiner at TNR makes the point I was planning to make:
Democrats chose an "electable" Democrat in 1992 after having lost three straight presidential elections. In 2000, the Republicans had been out of the White House for eight years and chose someone who sure looked electable (Bush may not have been as popular as McCain, but he was way ahead of Gore in the spring of 2000). Then, in 2004, Democrats were desperate to win back the presidency and nominated someone that was perceived as being more electable than Howard Dean. This year, Republicans may not have talked much about electability during the primary season, but it seems probable that after four years of an Obama administration, that will change.
I'm debuting a new use of the swami for people who blame market outcomes on their political opponents -- check out this monologue in which noted economist Glenn Beck (PhD, Headline News) blames part of the market decline on Obama:
Trillions of dollars in wealth, evaporation; it`s all going away. And it`s natural that most experts are conveniently pointing the fingers at the usual suspects.
Oh, it`s the home foreclosures. It`s the greedy CEOs on Wall Street.
Well, while all of those things are absolutely playing a huge role, there`s something else playing a role that everybody, except the market, seems to have forgotten about -- the presidential election.
The "REAL STORY" is that while investors hate recessions, they hate uncertainty even more and right now we`ve got nothing but uncertainty. There`s uncertainty about corporate earnings, there`s interest rates, but now with Barack Obama`s now seeming inevitable coronation right around the corner, there`s also massive uncertainty about how much worse the policies of a filibuster-proof Obama administration will make things.
The market is always looking ahead, and right now they`re only seeing high unemployment and massive inflation coming next year. They`re also seeing a president whose answer to our problems will be to raise taxes and move money from the rich directly to the poor.
...[I]f words matter to Obama so much, then someone should ask, why he insists on using the phrase "tax cut" when talking about his plan for the Treasury to write checks directly to the people who don`t pay any income tax...
[S]tock markets don`t like it either. Investors who are now looking into 2009 and beyond are beginning to figure out that Obama`s pledge to cut taxes for 95 percent of the "working families" is a joke. The truth, which you will find in the fine print, is that he`ll simply change the meanings of the terms...
Instead of calling a check from the federal government welfare, as we do now, he just calls it a tax credit. According to the tax foundation, these tax credits a.k.a. welfare checks will rise from $407 billion a year to over $1 trillion a year in the next decade. If anyone is still unsure whether or not what kind of economic policies does he have and will they help America recover quickly, take a look at your most recent 401(k) statement because the markets have already decided.
An e-mail: "OK, I'll say it...I believe today's massive decline was, in part (and maybe a big "in part"), in fear that the debate tonight won't go well for McCain and the implications that will have for an Obama victory. The likelihood of a recession has been talked about and, probably, factored in to a lot of folks' thinking already... ...if tonight's debate tracks well for McCain, you'll see a positive response tomorrow; if it doesn't, hold on; it won't be pretty. Call it: 'Flight to Safety (from Socialism).'"
Today's dog-bites-man headline of the day from a Gerald Seib story in the Wall Street Journal:
Hopes Quickly Fade For a Postpartisan Era
On a more serious note, it's worth noting the underlying flaw with Seib's call for bipartisanship:
None of this bodes particularly well for bipartisanship after the election. In fact, it's starting to appear that the only way for Washington to overcome partisan divides may be if one party -- the Democrats, in this case -- wins by such commanding margins that it can overpower the other party.
This passage implicitly contrasts the contemporary period unfavorably with the mid-20th century, the supposed golden age of bipartisanship in Washington. But as I've written before, we paid a very high price for the bipartisanship of that period, which was made possible by by the ugly history of race in the South. Once the parties realigned on the issue of race and conservative southerners left the Democratic Party, the political system returned to the historical norm of sharp partisan conflict. In those circumstances, as Seib notes, big changes will tend to happen when one party has unified control of the federal government. There's no reason to think that will change no matter who wins the presidency.
What makes McClatchy's Washington reporting so remarkable is their willingness to fact-check misleading claims without any false balance or punch-pulling. It's completely different than the Times and the Post.
Private sector loans, not Fannie or Freddie, triggered crisis
David Goldstein and Kevin G. Hall | McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON — As the economy worsens and Election Day approaches, a conservative campaign that blames the global financial crisis on a government push to make housing more affordable to lower-class Americans has taken off on talk radio and e-mail.
Commentators say that's what triggered the stock market meltdown and the freeze on credit. They've specifically targeted the mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which the federal government seized on Sept. 6, contending that lending to poor and minority Americans caused Fannie's and Freddie's financial problems.
Federal housing data reveal that the charges aren't true, and that the private sector, not the government or government-backed companies, was behind the soaring subprime lending at the core of the crisis.
Note how there's no hedging whatsoever in the headline or the lede -- it's just not true. Full stop.
FYI I'll be speaking at a panel on Muslim Americans and the 2008 election at Duke on Friday:
Three Duke University scholars will discuss the 2008 presidential elections and the potential impact of the Muslim American vote during a panel discussion Friday, Oct. 17, at Duke.
The event, “The 2008 Election and the Muslim Vote,” is free and open to the public. The discussion begins at 2 p.m. in the Breedlove Room in Perkins Library, on Duke’s West Campus.
Panelists include Jen’nan Ghazal Read, associate professor of sociology and global health and Carnegie scholar studying Muslim American politics; Kerry L. Haynie, associate professor of political science; and political science doctoral candidate Brendan Nyhan, who recently studied the impact of journalists’ attempts to correct misinformation on voter perceptions.
Following opening remarks about the 2008 election, the panelists will take questions and engage in an interactive audience discussion.
Seating for the event is limited and RSVPs are requested; contact Kelly Jarrett at (919) 668-2143 or firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a space.
Parking is available for a fee in the visitor lot on Science Lot or the Bryan Center Parking Garage. For additional information, visit www.jhfc.duke.edu/disc/.
ABC News' George Stephanopoulos Reports: Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and former President Bill Clinton are making very direct arguments to Democratic superdelegates, starkly insisting Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., cannot win a general election against presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Sources with direct knowledge of the conversation between Sen. Clinton and Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., prior to the Governor's endorsement of Obama say she told him flatly, "He cannot win, Bill. He cannot win."
The lesson here is that even very smart politicians like Bill and Hillary Clinton have a hard time extrapolating beyond their own circumstances. The Clintons' formative political experiences took place in contexts (Arkansas and the 1992 election) where a liberal black candidate was not likely to win. So it probably seemed obvious to the Clintons that Obama could not win a general election against a white war hero and supposed "maverick." But America has changed and the public mood seems more hostile to conservatism than at any point since the aftermath of Watergate. In addition, politicians frequently don't recognize how little candidates seem to matter. People tend to attribute Clintons' victories to political skill, but the main reason he won is that the political fundamentals favored him in 1992 and 1996. Similarly, while Obama is a skilled politician, I tend to believe that almost any Democrat would be winning in this context.
It's worth putting the political problems raised by Barack Obama's (relatively modest) associations with William Ayers in a larger perspective.
What few people have recognized is that the political problem he faces is driven by the same underlying problem as the Jeremiah Wright controversy -- namely, the profound mismatch between the electoral context of his Illinois state senate district and the country as a whole.
Here's what I wrote back in March about Wright:
Obama's membership in Wright's church helped demonstrate his cultural authenticity to skeptical constituents in Chicago's black community. But it's created a major problem for him now.
The fundamental problem is that the issue positions and cultural affiliations that won elections in Obama's state legislative district are a relatively poor fit to the presidential election landscape. (They're arguably a poor fit to the Illinois electoral landscape as well, but the collapse of Obama's primary and general election rivals in 2004 let him skate into the Senate without coming under serious criticism.) The fact that he has done so well in the presidential race despite the mismatch is a testament to what a remarkably gifted politician he is.
The Ayers problem in similar. In Chicago, Ayers is something of an establishment figure in liberal circles. Obama therefore had no reason to criticize the former Weatherman when he was trying to build his biracial coalition of white progressive reformers and black supporters. (Of course, that doesn't mean that Obama is somehow associated with or responsible for Ayers's loathsome past, as McCain/Palin and their conservative supporters have charged.)
You can also put Obama's associations with Tony Rezko in a similar framework. It was apparently crucial for Obama's career to have support from wealthy developers like Rezko, but that association now hurts his reputation as a reformer with a clean ethical record.
For more on the idea of district congruity, see the research (PDF) of my friend and co-author Michael Tofias, who finds that "members of the House are more likely to run for the Senate when their districts have high congruity to their prospective statewide constituency."
This is my favorite Michael Dukakis quote in a long time -- here's Ezra Klein apparently joking about the Willie Horton ad making Michael Dukakis "seem too black":
Similarly, attacks that should have shuttered Obama's campaign did not. In 1988, the Willie Horton ads managed to make Michael Dukakis seem too black.
Uh, Michael Dukakis had a lot of image problems, but I'm pretty sure "seem[ing] too black" was not one of them:
He's about the whitest man alive. As I'm sure Klein knows, the problem with the loathsome Willie Horton ad was that it primed racially motivated fears about crime and suggested Dukakis would be too lenient on the issue.
Update 10/9 9:54 AM: Commenters object that Klein is joking; updated the post above to try to be more fair.
Via a friend, a Wordle.net word cloud for this blog:
John McCain's efforts to blame his campaign tactics on Obama are becoming increasingly laughable.
First, he suggested back in August that Obama forced him to go negative by refusing his offer of a series of townhall debates:
Both men pronounced themselves thoroughly frustrated by the personal bitterness and negativism they have seen in the two months since they learned they would be running against each other.
"I'm very sorry about it," McCain said in a Saturday interview at his Arlington headquarters. "I think we could have avoided at least some of this if we had agreed to do the town hall meetings" together, as he had suggested, during the summer months.
McCain advisers said the new approach is in part a reaction to Obama, whose rhetoric on the stump and in commercials has also become far harsher and more aggressive.
They noted that Obama has run television commercials for months linking McCain to lobbyists and hinting at a lack of personal ethics -- an allegation that particularly rankles McCain, aides said.
Does anyone believe this?
On Friday, I noted John McCain's rather dire situation in the polls and suggested that we would soon be hearing a lot more about Tony Rezko, Jeremiah Wright, and William Ayres as the GOP becomes increasingly desperate.
As if on cue, the McCain campaign leaked word of a character-based assault on Obama focusing on Ayres and Rezko:
Sen. John McCain and his Republican allies are readying a newly aggressive assault on Sen. Barack Obama's character, believing that to win in November they must shift the conversation back to questions about the Democrat's judgment, honesty and personal associations, several top Republicans said.
..."We're going to get a little tougher," a senior Republican operative said, indicating that a fresh batch of television ads is coming. "We've got to question this guy's associations. Very soon. There's no question that we have to change the subject here," said the operative, who was not authorized to discuss strategy and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
...Two other top Republicans said the new ads are likely to hammer the senator from Illinois on his connections to convicted Chicago developer Antoin "Tony" Rezko and former radical William Ayres, whom the McCain campaign regularly calls a domestic terrorist because of his acts of violence against the U.S. government in the 1960s.
Along those lines, Sarah Palin accused Obama Saturday of "palling around with terrorists who would target their own country" (Ayres) despite the lack of evidence connecting Obama and Ayres in any significant way.
What's especially striking about the know-nothing nature of these attacks is the fact that both Palin and a GOP flack cited a New York Times article debunking the Obama-Ayres hype as if it proved their case. Here's Palin:
There is a lot of interest, I guess, in what I read and what I’ve read lately. Well, I was reading my copy of today’s New York Times and I was interested to read about Barack’s friends from Chicago.
I get to bring this up not to pick a fight, but it was there in the New York Times, so we are gonna talk about it. Turns out one of Barack’s earliest supporters is a man who, according to the New York Times, and they are hardly ever wrong, was a domestic terrorist and part of a group that quote launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and US Capitol.
And here's how CNN described this bizarre tactic in its story on Palin's attack:
Palin cited an article in Saturday's New York Times about Obama's relationship with Ayers, now 63. But that article concluded that "the two men do not appear to have been close. Nor has Mr. Obama ever expressed sympathy for the radical views and actions of Mr. Ayers, whom he has called 'somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8.'"
Up is down! Seriously, the chutzpah of this is unbelievable -- she was being mocked just a few days ago for her bizarre answer to a question about what publications she reads.
On a more fundamental level, McCain's tactic will probably fail to revive his campaign. But we can't write his obituary yet -- we simply don't know how voters will react to a vicious campaign claiming that a black presidential candidate is "not a man who sees America as you see America and as I see America."
Update 10/6 9:09 AM: According to the Post article, McCain doesn't want to raise the Jeremiah Wright issue, but Sarah Palin did so in an interview with William Kristol published today:
Palin also made clear that she was eager for the McCain-Palin campaign to be more aggressive in helping the American people understand “who the real Barack Obama is.” Part of who Obama is, she said, has to do with his past associations, such as with the former bomber Bill Ayers. Palin had raised the topic of Ayers Saturday on the campaign trail, and she maintained to me that Obama, who’s minimized his relationship with Ayers, “hasn’t been wholly truthful” about this.
I pointed out that Obama surely had a closer connection to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright than to Ayers — and so, I asked, if Ayers is a legitimate issue, what about Reverend Wright?
She didn’t hesitate: “To tell you the truth, Bill, I don’t know why that association isn’t discussed more, because 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. But, you know, I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring that up.”
Last week, I wrote about how Josh Marshall and other liberal bloggers had revised their early interpretations of the first presidential debate to conform to the meme about John McCain being "small and angry." As I argued, it was the sort of pathological character-driven narrative that Republicans used so effectively against Al Gore, but no one seemed to recognize the parallel.
Since then, Marshall has repeatedly pushed the same talking points, using as evidence a contentious exchange between McCain and the editorial board of the Des Moines Register. First, he suggested McCain was mentally ill by making a joking reference to the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:
We though McCain was steamed when he wouldn't make eye contact with Barack Obama. But he almost blew a fuse when he got some real questions from the editorial board of the Des Moines Register. In today's episode of TPMtv, we analyze the tapes (with a little help from the DSM-IV):
Marshall then accused McCain of "a troubling lack of emotional control":
Campaigns are filled with hyperbole. But this, the no-eye-contact business at the debate and even the over-the-top affect at the Des Moines Register editorial meeting together suggest that McCain feels a sense of palpable disgust with Obama or visceral antipathy for him that is so great he's incapable of overcoming it in public settings.
That's a troubling lack of emotional control. But it seems in line with the character trait many mention about McCain -- that he is unable to engage in any contest without demonizing his opponent in his own head. There are a lot of other possibilities this seems to point to -- none of them pretty.
And he later invited readers to speculate further on McCain's mindset:
Not just a rhetorical question. What do you think has John McCain so angry? It's like anything could send him over the edge. Look at the video (the McCain vids start about 30 seconds in). Send me your thoughts ...
The debate and the editorial board meeting are pretty weak evidence for the sweeping claims that Marshall is making. McCain may loathe Obama and all he stands for (we'll never know for sure), but an alien who read all this hype about McCain's anger would be shocked at how restrained he was during the debate.
We're at a historic moment -- Barack Obama's estimated lead in the national polls is over seven percentage points:
There are two ways to interpret what's happened. Most journalists will soon converge on some narrative where John McCain has lost ground due to some combination of the financial crisis, the incoherence of Sarah Palin's TV interviews, and McCain's allegedly "small and angry" debate performance.
For instance, The Atlantic's James Fallows, who previously made the unsupported claim that "moments" from televised general-election debates have "figured in the ultimate outcome" in the presidential elections of 1960, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, and 2004, now refers to John McCain's "sourness and anger" during the first debate as a "moment" that '"mattered'":
"Everyone knows," based on a long string of past episodes, that some unintentional flash of character revelation usually turns out to be the memorable aspect of a presidential debate. Eg: Nixon looking furtive and sweaty in 1960, Ford momentarily seemed befuddled in 1976, Dukakis seeming bloodless in 1988, etc. All these moments "mattered" because they crystallized a feeling that, in retrospect, people knew they'd "always had" about the candidate.
In the days since the first Obama-McCain debate, it's become ever clearer that John McCain's sourness and anger are the traits unintentionally revealed in the debate and now working against him... Thanks to McCain's hostile refusal to engage Obama as a human equal face-to-face at the debate, the image he is cementing is that of a seething older man. Like Bob Dole in 1996, with less of a gift for one-liners.
It all fits into a pattern in retrospect -- but I don't know a single "expert" who predicted that avoiding eye contact would be the enduring image of the first debate.
The key phrase is "It all fits into a pattern of retrospect," which is precisely the point -- humans are quite good at constructing post hoc narratives to explain observed events. Princeton's Larry Bartels recently recounted an amusing anecdote along these lines:
I was very struck when I learned -- many of you probably have seen, after each recent election, immediately after the election, Newsweek comes out with a big cover package on why, fill in the blank, won the election. And in 2004, they actually came out with a book that included a lot of analysis of why it was that Bush won the election. But before the election, they actually sent out an advertisement that had two books side by side; one was why Bush won the election and the other was why Kerry won the election. And given the times of producing these things, they actually had to produce most of the package, explaining to the readers of Newsweek the following week why it was that Kerry won the election.
Now, I didn’t read that issue, but I’m pretty sure that if I had read that issue, the narrative of how it was that Kerry had won the election would have been about as convincing as the narrative of how it was that Bush won the election.
So after the fact, it’s really easy to come up with explanations based on particular events, but to know whether those were the events that actually drove the usually pretty small deviations from the underlying fundamentals that we observe in a particular campaign is quite difficult.
As Bartels's answer suggests, I think a better explanation is that the underlying political fundamentals are reasserting themselves -- the dynamics of this year are simply remarkably unfavorable to Republicans. This account is consistent with Andrew Gelman and Gary King's research showing how voters tend to converge to predicted levels of support for the presidential candidates over the course of the campaign.
Looking back, there's a similar divide over 2004, which is frequently framed as a story in which Karl Rove's tactical mastery and the Swift Boat ads triumph over John Kerry and his ineffective campaign tactics. The problem for Kerry, however, was that he was always fighting uphill. Political science models of the election published in the journal PS before the election had a median forecast of 53.8% for President Bush's two-party vote:
Now, it is true that Bush's numbers bounced around over the course of the campaign as various events occurred, as Charles Franklin's plot below illustrates:
We can certainly tell stories about those events (such as the Swift Boat ads). However, the ultimate outcome was relatively close to the projection -- Bush ended up winning as all the models projected (except for one projected statistical tie of 49.9%) and received 51.2% of the two-party vote.
This year, the comparable set of forecasts in PS, which was just published, shows a median two-party vote forecast for John McCain of 48%, which corresponds to 52% for Obama. Only one model projects that McCain will win:
If you include the projections from Ray Fair and Douglas Hibbs of Obama receiving 51.5% and 52% of the two-party vote, respectively, that I've previously highlighted, the median forecast remains Obama 52%, McCain 48%.
Obama's lead now is consistent with those projections (he's currently at 53.9% of the two-party vote in the Pollster.com estimate above). In fact, despite my previous warnings that Obama may underperform due to the influence of race, he is currently in a very strong position -- the fundamentals favor him and he has a lead with approximately one month to go. Despite media hype about "October surprises," these these plots of recent competitive presidential campaigns from James Stimson's Tides of Consent illustrate that there are rarely dramatic shifts in the polls this late in the game:
That's why I expect John McCain to start taking more risks in the next couple of weeks, particularly at the next debate. Expect to start hearing a lot about Tony Rezko, Jeremiah Wright, and William Ayres. They're the three cards that McCain has yet to play.
Update 10/5 10:40 PM: Matthew Yglesias relates an anecdote that mirrors the one from Bartels above:
My mother worked in the pre-Photoshop version of Newsweek’s art department so I saw as a kid their “Dukakis Wins!” complete with a banner teasing their account of how he did it and why the prognosticators were all wrong. As Bartels says, most of that account would have to have been written in advance.
Update 10/13 10:37 PM: Kevin Drum makes a similar point.
One of the most frustrating aspect of politics circa 2006-2008 is the way liberal pundits have picked up the bad habits they once criticized in conservatives -- from content-free accusations of media bias to slipshod factual standards.
Bob Somerby points out the most recent example: liberal bloggers revising their interpretations of the first presidential debate to conform to an exaggerated character-driven narrative (McCain was "small and angry", acted like Obama was "on par with dog shit", etc.). Sound familiar? It's exactly what happened in 2000 when (as Somerby has documented) pundits who originally declared Al Gore the winner of the first debate got caught up in the "sighing" meme and ended up deciding he was the loser.
Things went from tragedy to farce, however, when liberal pundits started quoting biologists about dominance behaviors in primates. This is exactly the sort of manufactured psychodrama that killed Al Gore. But now that the situation has flipped liberals don't seem concerned any more.
Mr. McCain’s choice of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate and the resulting jolt of energy among Republican voters appear to have caught Mr. Obama and his advisers by surprise and added to concern among some Democrats that the Obama campaign was not pushing back hard enough against Republican attacks in a critical phase of the race.
Some Democrats said Mr. Obama needed to move to seize control of the campaign and to block Mr. McCain from snatching away from him the message that he was the best hope to bring change to Washington.
In particular, the failure (thus far) of McCain's vicious negative campaigning should underscore the weakness of the Rovian political approach that has received so much hype over the last decade. Any Republican strategist would have looked like a genius in the post-9/11 period -- the president had sky-high approval ratings. But now that the political environment is unfavorable to Republicans, the Rove playbook (which is being ably executed by Steve Schmidt) has lost much of its potency.
I am an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. I received my Ph.D. from the Department of Political Science at Duke University in 2009 and served as a RWJ Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan from 2009-2011. I also tweet at @BrendanNyhan and serve as a media critic for Columbia Journalism Review. Previously, I co-edited Spinsanity, a non-partisan watchdog of political spin, and co-authored All the President's Spin. For more, see my bio or academic website.