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50 Days to Go and Obama Hits Back (Softly)


It is noon on Monday, September 15th and things are operating so quickly in the political world that major tactical--and sometimes strategic--campaign changes are happening in minutes (in previous campaigns they used to happen in hours or days). Welcome to politics in 2008. In accordance with the new world order here is our real-time read on what is happening:

  1. Obama is hitting back, and the mere act of doing so says volumes. Voters often view the candidate through the prism of the campaign he or she is running. By this measure, the last two Obama spots--an ad that attacks McCain for being tied to lobbyists and one that says he is running a negative campaign--suggest that Obama is not going to be a Michael Dukakis; it tells voters that he will punch back. It also says that Team Obama is reading the same polling we are and believes that it has to change the dynamic or this thing is lost.


  2. But this Obama punch seems like a fairly weak body blow. While we think that going after McCain's strength is a good idea, we are not sure what kind of traction this lobbyist charge will get. This is, as they say, pretty "inside baseball." Also, the lobbyist attack may have a hard time sticking to McCain because it is not part of the perception package that people have of him. The bottom line is that a lot of things can be said about McCain, but being beholden to lobbyists doesn't seem to be one of them. And if you say you're going to respond to McCain's attacks with "ferocity" and that you're going to "take the gloves off," and then your first few "attack" ads are recycled messages about lobbyists and nonsense about McCain not being able to use a computer...oh boy.


  3. We are in a financial meltdown (as of right now the Dow is down 250 points) and Obama is focusing on lobbyists and McCain's inability to email--this is political malpractice. There is a massive financial crisis in this country: Lehman is in bankruptcy, Merrill has been sold and AIG needs a bailout of some sort. And, to this point, we're getting nothing but "statements" from the Obama campaign. The first line of today's WSJ front page article says, "The American financial system was shaken to its core on Sunday..." Team Obama should have torn up its playbook at 5 A.M. and come out swinging with earned and paid media. One look at the results from a recent CNN poll on the most important issue facing the country, coupled with a look at the trend in consumer confidence (as reported by ABC), and an 8-year-old would be able to tell the Obama campaign where it should focus its energies.

    priorities 9 15.png

    confidence 9 15.png


  4. Negative political messages must tap into a pre-existing belief. In politics, attacks only work if they ring true. It's why the McCain "Paris Hilton" ads worked so well against Obama; there was (more than) a ring of truth to them. And so they struck a nerve. We have said that the surest path to victory for Obama is to attack on the economy and the failings of the Bush administration. However, tying McCain to Bush is falling flat because it just doesn't feel right. And that's because it isn't right: everybody knows that John McCain and George W. Bush don't much like each other and haven't seen eye-to-eye on much of anything, including the Iraq War. So tying the two together isn't working all that well. The same holds for Obama's attack on McCain as beholden to lobbyists. It just doesn't fit the frame. If you're going to run ads that don't fit the frame, you need to launch them VERY EARLY and keep them up for months and months to try and generate some traction. So just starting with these new "hard-hitting" attacks against McCain won't work with only 50+ days left in the campaign...unless Team Obama can hit him with something that feels true.

  5. The Obama campaign has been seriously off-stride. Let us count the ways:

    1. Obama's body language is off. He is on the defensive and it shows.

    2. Lawyerly explanations lose Presidential elections. The more Obama responds to questions the way a law professor would (see the Saddleback Forum and the Forum on Service) the more he will slide.

    3. A headline from a recent Time magazine article is that Obama is banking on the ground game, which is, perhaps, the surest sign of despair.

    4. The McCain camp's relentless, timely and pointed attacks on Obama are having an effect. The movement to McCain is not just the result of a good convention and the Palin pick. The fact is, they have been hammering Obama senseless. Exhibit A: on Tuesday of last week Obama tries to change the course of the debate by making a major speech on education and attacking McCain on his record in that area. That afternoon, the McCain campaign releases a spot hammering Obama on education and saying that his only accomplishment on education was "legislation to teach comprehensive sex education to kindergarten students." While the veracity of the attack was derided, the spot got a lot of play and fit the perception of Obama.

    5. The irony of this campaign is that an Obama team that was so adept at using the Internet to harness the online community for fundraising has been outmaneuvered by the McCain campaign in using viral videos to get its message out and win news cycles.

    6. The early, vitriolic and often personal attacks on Palin may have inoculated her (to some extent) from the recent (and reasonable) examinations of her record. In a sense, the liberal bloggers may have done Obama more harm than good on the Palin front.


  6. Obama needs to forget Palin and get back to the economy. Team Obama needs to stop going after Palin (it makes him look small, it makes him look like he's beating up on a woman, and it draws unfavorable comparisons to his own lack of experience), hammer McCain on the economy (and be very clear about what his policies will do for voters), and hammer McCain as someone who can't change a Washington culture that he's been a part of for so long (this way you're attacking McCain on his greatest strength--his "maverick-ness").

Current Election Environment

This is getting to be a broken record but nearly all election metrics (other than the Presidential head-to-head) continue to point to a Democrat victory this Fall. Currently, approximately 15% of the country (it was 13% in the latest NBC News/WSJ tracking survey) believes things are going in the "right direction." Who they are is anyone's guess but it is truly astounding when you look at this question trended over the last ten years.

direction 9 15.png

We have been a "wrong track" country for more than four years. And we have been signficantly "wrong track" (more than 60% of the country) for over two years. Perhaps the body politic has absorbed this sentiment and it has passed from anger to apathy. That is one possible explanation for the lack of impact on the Presidential trial heat.

Bush's approval rating is still below 35%.

bush approval 9 15.png

This is, of course, bad news for the GOP. We and everyone else have been saying this for 18 months. However, it may be that--unlike in 2006--the Bush impact may not be as severe because some segments of the electorate have written him out of the equation. In some respects, it feels like Bush is already gone, and that feeling may mitigate his negative impact on Republicans this Fall. It is only a hypothesis, but my sense is that the President may not be as important in this election than he was in 2006.

LCG Regression Analysis - Vote Projection

As we said last week, each candidate got some bounce out of his convention. However, as our regression model shows, McCain's bounce was greater.
There are too few cases in either convention bounce period to compute a line that captures each candidate's convention swing; there just aren't enough polls for a model like that to be significant. What the below line is basically saying is this: Obama had his bounce, McCain has had his bounce, and the two bounces counterbalanced each other but momentum is on McCain's side coming out of the convention period. If this trend continues he wins by +2.3 on Election Day.

trend 9 15.png

As of today McCain is -.89. However, he wins by 2.3 points if you project his current momentum out to Election Day. Of course, things will change and so will the projection.

 

Comments
Ciccina:

That was really interesting, Steve.

I had to laugh when I read your comment about liberal bloggers perhaps not being so helpful. Ya think? ;-)

I wonder who they are going to blame if/when Obama loses. Certainly won't be themselves.

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Grummy1971:

This is my first comment on here (and so I must start by admitting to being on the other side of the Atlantic, with no voting rights in the US) but to me, this is far too negative appraisal from an Obama perspective. The trend of the polls towards McCain is gradually being squeezed out, and there is some evidence that one aspect of the 'News Cycle' (this is a very American concept) that is beginning to hurt McCain is the perception that his campaign is too dirty - this clashes with his claim to be a different sort of Reublican.

Whether you believe that it is a strong enough attack or not, I think it is fundamentally a wrong belief that politicians should necessarily turn immediately to the 'strong suit'. Obama's campaign is right to target McCain as the same as Bush - because it tees up the campaign for the real frame - and that is that 'the way McCain will deal with the economy is the with the same tired policies as Bush would have done'. McCain has already fallen into it - he has said that the economy is 'fundamentally in good shape' - which may or may not be the case - which in an election where both parties are trying to paint themselves as the outsiders and agents of change, seems to be the wrong message to be giving - and allows Obama to pin the charges on him i.e. out of touch, stooge for the corporations, champion of the same old, same old.

From where I am sitting, I don't think that Obama has made a bad play overall. They reacted, but actually, despite provocation from the McCain camp, and agitation from the more rabid on his own side, have not over reacted.

Anyhow, sorry for going on on my debut...just thought I would offer an alternative perspective.

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george:

This is indeed all very interesting, Steve. However, I would appreciate it--particularly since this is supposed to be a site with something of a focus on polling specialists--that you admit your bias as a longtime Republican activist and most recently a campaign official for Mitt Romney (now that was a campaign that demonstrated technical brilliance and strategic expertise; what a credential!) One shouldn't have to backtrack to links to find out that what is masquerading as analysis is just partisan blather. You can put lipstick on a pig, but....oh, I'm sorry.

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RS:

@george: How DARE you? You sexist pig! ;-)

More to the point - perhaps Lombardo didn't see the speeches Obama gave today? "What economy, Senator McCain?" Etc. Though I think advance excerpts were out earlier, before noon (ET?)

PUMAs and their GOP friends can feel happy now; but I'll just wait for Nov 4. After all, it *was* Obama's ground game that won him the primaries... It's all about the electoral college, stupid!

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Ciccina:

RS: That's right.... its the all-powerful PUMAs!

Couldn't have anything to do with idiot Democrats insulting working mothers, people who pray, people who didn't go to Harvard, people who hunt, people who ride motorcycles, people who live in rural areas, people who have more than 2 kids, people born to unwed mothers, and men who are good dads.... often all in the same message.

In answer to your question, NO ONE saw Obama's speech on the economy, and as for the coverage - there wasn't a hair's breadth of difference between McCain's statement and Obama's (except for the blaming).

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RS:

@Ciccina:
Actually, if you read my comment carefully (it's not hard!), I don't think PUMAs are as powerful as they'd like to think...
Both Senators Clinton and Obama faced lots of obstacles, some inherent in people and some self-made, but Senator Obama's efforts in *every* state made the difference - he even went to Boise; the Clintons just didn't care.

Anyway, not sure what your second paragraph is referring to...

Obama's speech was being played today on Wolf Blitzer/CNN, on MSNBC... If you didn't watch it, doesn't mean "NO ONE" saw it. Sorry, girl.

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RS:

On Obama's speech - Ciccina, you are forgetting the people out here in Colorado - you know, real voters in a key swing state - who listened to him, and more who will tomorrow/the rest of this week.
Nobody cares what people in the DC echo chamber hear or think. Really.

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Gary Kilbride:

I've enjoyed this column the past few weeks but this version is definitely too slanted against Obama. It's still a 50/50 race with recoil opportunity for Obama. The second convention always provides the greater bounce. I have no idea why anyone pays attention to polls taken between conventions.

Some of the highlighted items are very legit, like the lame lobbyist commercials. Obama may as well have donated that cash to me. I've hosted debate watching parties since '96 and there's no greater snoozer than topics like lobbyists or campaign funding. The women literally use the bathroom when questions focus on those areas. They dismiss it with, "Who cares? Everyone does it."

I've continually stunned at Obama's pathetic commercials. I expected he was building to the best stuff but now I'm not convinced they aren't inept. You've got to stick one or two brief memorable themes into the public vocabulary. Obama is relying on a scholarly approach, a law professor, as this column prefers, and it's bombing.

Bill Clinton would be blasting the absurdity of this race countless times every day, defining D vs. R philosophy and results in devastating easy-to-understand terms. There was no post-convention period in '92 or '96 when Clinton got sidetracked like this. Carville made sure he stayed on message. Today I saw Pat Buchanon emphasize that the GOP tried to shift to social issues in '92 but Carville wouldn't have any of it.

My main hope is Obama is talented enough to overcome Axelrod and Plouffe and the ad team, along with the generic edge in our favor. But this is the risk when primary voters basically don't know what they are doing and prioritize the wrong thing, in this case an anti-war stance attached to a candidate with a flimsy resume.

It's still inconceivable to me we're content to ignore that white women are the decisive voting block in every cycle. In this case Democrats rejected the white woman in the primaries, ignored her for the VP choice, then relentlessly ridiculed a white female identified by the other side for VP. And we wonder what happened to our lead.

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Ciccina:

RS:

My second paragraph refers to the Democrats' appalling message strategy, which is most of the reason why Obama is not doing better.

Your comment about "real voters" where you live as opposed to the D.C. echo chamber is a bit of an example of the problem. "Real voters" live everywhere, and their eyes aren't glued to Wolf Blitzer. Real voters absorb broad message points, plus specific information about issues of their particular interest. Yesterday, a lot of people had a special interest in what could be done about the current economic crisis. But the message I got was "McCain, Obama speak out on economy." I got zero sense of how McCain and Obama differed in approach. Just that they were both speaking on the same topic and were presumably saying the same thing. Well, I did pick up one distinction - Obama blamed the GOP.

If you look back to 2000, one of the problems that plagued Gore was the media's, and low-information voters', attitude that there wasn't much difference between Bush and Gore. But this is what happens when both candidates are running to the center and are putting out similar messages. Bush was- I paraphrase- for "improving education by helping kids" and Gore was for "helping kids by improving education" (so to speak). Many voters concluded that this meant both candidates had basically the same position on education - despite the fact that it wasn't true.

Yesterday, McCain said, basically, that we need to clean up Wall Street, and so did Obama.

Prove me wrong. You watched the coverage; can you articulate in one or two sentences Obama's position on the current economic crisis in a way that distinguishes him from McCain?

I'll start you off: "Senator Obama wants to.....

Tip: "McCain = Bush, and Obama > McCain" doesn't count.

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Scott in PacNW:

@george

Good point about Lombardo being a GOP guy. Thanks for pointing it out. I didn't bother looking to see either way.

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Tim O:

Steve is right about one thing. The speed the political landscape moves and shifts happens at lightening speed these days. I just read this post today (Thursday, Sept. 18) and it seems unbelievably out dated.

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