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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Why No Traction for McCain?

One week ago, the House of Representatives passed the financial bailout bill. At the end of that day, the RCP average stood at: Obama 49.2%, to McCain 43.4%. As of this writing today, the RCP average is essentially unchanged: Obama 49.2%, to McCain 42.9%.

Why has the Republican gotten no traction in the last week? After all, the congressional spectacle was supposed to be damaging his prospects because (as the story went) Obama looked so cool and McCain too hot. Now that it's over, shouldn't his numbers be on the rise?

No. That was never McCain's problem. McCain's problem a week ago is the same as his problem today, enhanced anxiety about the economy. The deal failed to sooth any nerves, so McCain is still in a weakened position.

We can see this with crystal clarity by looking at what average voters are looking at. Here are the above-the-fold portions of my hometown newspaper for the last five days.

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Jennifer Rubin had a very thoughtful take on what McCain should do to get himself out of his current polling slump. I'd suggest, however, that so long as headlines like these persist, there is nothing he can do. This race will become close again only if these headlines disappear.

For such a big and diverse country, the essence of America can be summarized fairly simply: it's all about development. Bigger and better, that might as well be our motto. Most of us are probably not just worried about the economy, we're also a little pissed off about it. This contraction seems vaguely un-American, doesn't it? We don't contract, we grow!

That is what is harming McCain right now.

So long as the newspapers and the televisions are full of stories about contraction, which as you can see dominated every day this week here in Pittsburgh, John McCain's poll position will be weak. That's all there is to it. Conservatives can criticize McCain for not doing this, that or the other; liberals can praise Obama for doing this, that, or the other. But the fact remains that, as of today, the state of the race is pretty simple: this was an even-steven contest until the markets started to sputter and people started really worrying about the economy. Now Obama's up 6 points.

This is infuriating conservatives. If you peruse the conservative blogs or listen to talk radio - you can almost feel their anger. There's plenty of blame to go around, they argue. And of course they're right - both parties are to blame - but it doesn't matter.

The average voter doesn't understand the intricacies of economic policy. Heck, when you think about it, nobody really understands the economy. So, voters often rely on simple yet sensible metrics to make political decisions about the economy. One of them has been more or less operative since the election of 1840: if the economy tanks during a Republican administration, vote Democrat. If it tanks during a Democratic administration, vote Republican. Applying this rule to 2008, we get the following. McCain, because he is of the incumbent party, gets the political harm. Obama, because he is of the out party, gets the political benefit. That's all there is to it.

This rule might not be just, but remember justice is a matter of law. This is a matter of politics, a space where the law does not exist. This rule might not make for the best choice every time, but in the long run it does have some beneficial effects. Above all, it makes the party in charge work hard for growth, which is what the country really wants.

Does that mean this race is over? No. If the bad news dissipates and some good news manages to creep back into the papers and onto the television, McCain's position should improve at least a bit. But that means that his fortunes are out of his control (the same goes for Obama). A retooled message might help him at the margin, but to change things he's first going to need some better headlines.

-Jay Cost