Many of you have asked, in various ways, whether this race is over, or whether McCain can mount a comeback. Four days ago I suggested that the almost month-long movement toward Obama in the national tracking polls precipitated by the credit crunch may have finally crested, and in fact there were potential indications that the race might tighten again. No sooner did I write this (on October 8, referring to the previous three days’ polling) than the economic crisis reappeared on the front page, as several central banks sought to intervene to ease the credit crunch and the stock market continued to slide, with the predictable impact on the polling numbers: Obama’s lead in the national tracking polls has crept back up. In tracking polls covering Oct. 7-9, Obama held steady in Rasmussen, and gained 5% in Diageo Hotline, 6% in Battleground, 2% in Reuters/Zogby and held at 11% in Gallup (which continues to rely on registered voters). Most of the change in the polls was due to McCain losing support among women, with whom he already trails Obama by some 9-12% depending on the poll.
This is just another reminder of what McCain is up against, and why political scientists put much less stock than do journalists in the ability of candidates to change a campaign narrative that is working against them. The reason forecast models are frequently so accurate is that they begin by creating measures of “reality” and then project how candidates can best frame that reality to appeal to their potential coalition. Journalists, in contrast, often presume that candidates can create a new reality, or at least distort the existing reality, through debates, campaign advertising and other means, in ways that convince voters to vote against their own interests. Even if this were true, it underplays the counter framing efforts of the opposing candidate which typically negate the marginal impact of the opposition frame.
The latest polls simply reconfirm my ongoing assertion that this race will be decided on the fundamentals – primarily the economy and the desire for change. Given this, can McCain do anything to frame these fundamentals in a way that shifts voters to him?
He has, in my view, three non-mutually exclusive options, none very palatable. The first, and most promising, was to frame the economic crisis in a way that positioned him as the candidate of change. To do so, however, he needed to take my advice and come out against the bailout bill when it was first proposed. By suspending his campaign, coming back to Washington, and labeling the legislation a Democratic-Bush initiative that bailed out Wall St. but did little to ease the credit crunch or the housing meltdown, he might have seized the mantle of economic reform and positioned himself to champion an alternative “rescue” bill. This, of course, was a very high risk strategy. But with the benefit of hindsight, my advice is looking rather good: the legislation has not yet produced the desired effects, the world’s stock markets are in continual turmoil, and the central banks have been forced to coordinate a rate cut to stimulate the global economy. Meanwhile, Republicans are beginning to argue that the bailout bill was a mistake. To his credit, McCain tried again during the second presidential debate by announcing the home mortgage buyback program, but he again failed to do so in a way that would have cut through the media focus on horserace coverage of the debate (who won, rather than what was said). Had he teased this initiative before the debate, the proposal might have gained more traction rather than being derided as not new. With 24 days left in the campaign, McCain simply has very few remaining options to use the economy to his advantage. His best bet is to try once more in the context of the final debate by offering a significant economic reform package centered on directly helping working, middle-income voters. In my view, however, he has missed his best opportunity to turn this issue to his advantage.
The second option is to raise doubts about Obama’s experience by harping on his voting record (or lack thereof) and comparing it to that of other modern presidents. (In a later post I will actually compare the experience levels of all the modern presidents.) The problem with this approach is that it does nothing to convince voters that McCain is better positioned to address the economy, and in some ways it helps Obama. The more McCain says Obama is inexperienced, the easier it is for Obama to say he is not part of the current problem, and that he, more than McCain, is better situated to bring change. The inexperience charge carried more weight when the public focused on national security. However, the great irony of the success of the surge touted by McCain and opposed by Obama is that it reduces the potency of the national security argument by taking this issue off the table in the eyes of most voters. In 2004, the central issues were the war on terror and Iraq. This year it is the economy. That plays to Obama’s strength, not McCain’s.
The final option is to raise the Reverend Wright/Bill Ayers assertion. Republicans are pushing McCain to do so, while Democrats are countering that this is a smear tactic that deserves no place in a presidential campaign. So far McCain has ruled Wright off limits, because it is a question of religion, while giving muted assent to raising the Ayers issue. The problem here is not that viewers will necessarily view this as a smear tactic or a sign of desperation (although many in the media will undoubtedly report it as such.) It is that Obama’s association with Ayers is not relevant to the central issue of this campaign: how to deal with the economy. As such, I think it will have almost no traction and simply takes McCain away from what he needs to do to tighten this race.
My larger point is this: contrary to what many journalists assert, candidates cannot frame issues in ways that voters feel are not relevant to the reality that they are seeing, and expect to shift voters’ support. The Ayers issue is unlikely to be very useful because it is largely irrelevant to the reality facing voters today. At the individual level, it is true that voters are often ill-informed about the details of policy proposals and are susceptible to media effects. But as a collective, our evidence indicates that voters are very rational and they vote in predictable ways that are in accord with their interests.
If McCain wishes to win this election, then, he must do so by convincing voters that he, and not Obama, is best suited to handle the most relevant issue facing them today: the economy. That means spelling out in detail both what McCain will do to solve the economy, and why Obama’s policy proposals – taken in the context of his voting record in the Senate – spell trouble. In particular, he should focus on the total cost of Obama’s budget proposals, including health care, and compare them to his tax promises, suggesting that the end result will be a huge budget deficit or the need to raise taxes. This, in my view, is a far more fruitful avenue of attack than focusing on earmarks, such as a projector purchased for a college using federal funds, that are proportionally only a small part of government expenditures. At the same time he should use the final debate to roll out an economic proposal that targets lower-middle class voters struggling with the credit crunch. This should be teased beforehand, and introduced in the debate. Even if this is done effectively, however, the odds remain against McCain as long as the credit crunch dominates the campaign.
A final point: Ultimately, of course, we select the president based on the Electoral College results, and not on the popular vote. Nonetheless, I spend considerable time looking at national public opinion for several reasons: First, most political science forecast models predict the popular vote, and the popular vote is a pretty reliable predictor of the Electoral College vote. Second, state level polling usually mirrors trends taking place nationally. Third, because of the large sample size included in national polls by Gallup and Rasmussen, we can also look at polling among statistically significant groups of voters such as women, or African-Americans. That helps us tease out the constituent elements in each of the candidate’s voting coalitions and track trends among them. With that in mind, I want to look particularly at how race and gender dynamics are influencing this race. It’s no accident that Obama’s campaign is placing a phalanx of white women as the photo backdrop at all his campaign rallies. And, contrary to what many pundits are suggesting, the survey evidence suggests race may help Obama more than it will hurt him.