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By Jay Cost

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Obama On His Heels

This campaign has taken a surprising turn since the Democratic convention. Everybody is still talking about the Republican vice-presidential nominee.

Who would have predicted this just two weeks ago?

When I say everybody is talking about Governor Palin, I mean everybody. It's not just that Palin has excited the Republican base and intrigued the press corps. She's also gotten the notice of Barack Obama. The Democratic nominee has singled Palin out for criticism on earmarks in general and the "Bridge To Nowhere" in particular.

This is peculiar. Typically, a presidential nominee does not criticize his opponent's veep. This becomes doubly peculiar when we consider that just a week ago the Obama campaign indicated plans to ignore Palin altogether:

The Obama campaign has no silver bullet to use against the Palin (sic). Instead, Obama has decided to largely avoid directly engaging her and will instead keep his focus largely on John McCain and on linking the Republican ticket to President George W. Bush. The Obama campaign will leave Palin to navigate the same cycle of celebrity that Obama has weathered, and the same peril that her nascent image will be defined by questions and contradictions from her Alaska past.

The reason for the change must be what the ABC News/Washington Post poll found - a huge swing toward McCain-Palin among white women. This is a very important voting bloc, as the following chart makes clear:

1996 to 2004 Demographics.gif

The GOP improved it's showing among white men by 17 points between 1996 and 2004. Among white women it improved by 16 points. This is how an 8.5-point Republican defeat transformed into a 2.4-point Republican victory.

The ABC News poll that set tongues wagging has McCain up 12 among white women - about the same margin as the final result in 2004. I had been inclined to write those results off, as I figured a post-convention poll like that is not indicative of where the race is heading. However, the course correction of the Obama campaign inclines me to believe that there might be something going on here. On September 4th, his campaign said that it was not planning to directly criticize Palin. On September 8th, it released an ad directly criticizing her. You don't do that kind of 180 unless something is up.

The Obama campaign's decision to attack is a risky one. Negative campaigns are always tricky, but this one is especially so. To some degree, Palin has been treated unfairly since her debut as McCain's vice-president. What the McCain campaign wants to do is tie all criticisms of Palin to the unfair ones, and ultimately remind people of how Hillary Clinton was treated. Team McCain is especially eager to do this for anything that comes out of Obama's mouth - hence the "lipstick on a pig" spot, which in turn induced a response from Obama.

We can assign winners and losers in this little skirmish; we can decide who has truth on his side and who does not. But that misses the point. Here we have yet another day when the focus is on the GOP's youthful, smiling, attractive, witty, female vice-presidential nominee. And for yet another day our ears are filled with the sounds of the Democratic nominee decrying how unfair the Republicans are - as if only one side hits below the belt.

Ultimately, I'm not a huge believer in the importance of "winning" news cycles. I do think, however, that the battle for the news cycle is an exhibition of a campaign's ability to move its message. And it has become clear that the McCain campaign is better at this. This "lipstick on a pig" incident will probably not affect a single vote - but it shows that the McCain campaign is ready and able to defend any real gains it might have made among white women. Once again, it's doing a better job getting its message across.

Nobody would have predicted this on June 3rd. That was the day Obama boldly stood in the Xcel Energy Center and proclaimed an exciting new moment in American politics. Meanwhile McCain, sweating profusely, stood in front of a green screen and gave a rambling, disjointed speech. The contrast in messages was stark. Three months later, it's just as stark - but now it's Obama that's sweating and McCain that's exciting. What a turnaround.

-Jay Cost