With less than two weeks remaining before the presidential election, Senator Obama has proven a degree of unflappability. From the Reverend Jeremiah Wright crisis to McCain's ten-point, postconvention bounce in the polls, Obama has maintained composure and an even tenor to his campaign. In the face of those difficulties Obama did not blatantly pander in order to recover or otherwise overcompensate for the setbacks, even though some of his party brethren were agitating for him to become more aggressive. Following the Wright uproar, Obama emerged, after some seclusion, with a thoughtful and well-received discussion of race relations in America. And as yet, Obama does not appear to have made statements or taken positions that now appear deeply regrettable. Senator Obama therefore has projected (whether it be authentic or not) a willingness to lose, or a reluctance to win by any means.
Senator John McCain can perhaps be forgiven by his Republican compatriots for not realizing how profoundly the mood of the country has shifted. The Bush administration, after all, seemed to benefit politically after communicating with the American public in patriotic and righteous terms. The McCain campaign has done so to some degree, but does not appear to be garnering equal political dividends.
And after tapping Palin as his running mate, McCain appeared to lose sight of some enduring political realities. The Republican base is, after all, both an asset and a liability for a GOP candidate. The McCain campaign, post-Palin, has engaged the base excessively-losing sight of the potential risk of alienating other voters in the process.
For McCain, the seeming advantage of selecting Palin was that McCain could secure and energize the base without having to rhetorically play to that constituency. With Palin on the ticket, McCain could have appealed to social conservatives and then directed his own, and Palin's, energies toward winning over independents. McCain could have also maintained his image as a maverick, since Palin could have helped to reinforce it. And while Palin certainly has raised the energy level at political rallies, the supporters who attend those events can only vote once. The McCain-Palin ticket would have been better served with a less enthusiastic base and broader appeal.
Still, McCain may have limited control over Palin, since she commands her own constituency. And for Palin, the former mayor of a very small town and governor of a sparsely populated state, the crowd's energy and adoration must be quixotic and validating. She may not, therefore, fully appreciate how limited her own appeal has become, given the high-wattage reception she receives. Palin also seems to maintain a genuine mistrust of the media and may therefore be skeptical of poll data.
The data appear to indicate a central problem in the McCain campaign, especially since Palin has become a major electoral issue. A MSNBC/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,159 registered voters from October 17-20 found that 47 percent viewed Palin negatively, while 38 percent saw her in a positive light. Further, 55 percent felt she wasn't qualified to be president. In September, shortly after McCain asked her to join the GOP ticket, Palin enjoyed anywhere from a 47 to 27 percent positive rating.
In her public comments, Palin appears to convey a sense that winning a presidential election is a matter of connecting with the voter on a personal level and aggressively detracting the opponent. After McCain decided to withdraw from Michigan in early October, Palin said, "I want to get back to Michigan and I want to try," adding, "Todd and I, we'd be happy to get to Michigan and walk through those plants of the car manufacturers. We'd be so happy to get to speak to the people in Michigan who are hurting because the economy is hurting." And when Bill Kristol asked Palin whether the campaign should focus on Obama's connection to the Reverend Wright, Palin said,
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 twenty 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.
Again, Palin has been successful in relating to sizable swaths of the population and in conjuring antipathy for Obama, but in doing so, she has also undermined the ticket's prospects with other constituencies. And McCain and Palin appear to be buoyed by a wave of anger and frustration, rather than voters' conviction that they can better implement policy. The hyperbolic charges against Obama that have been voiced at GOP rallies have been widely reported and may be hurting the candidates.
Compounding the problem is the fact that McCain has done worse than tolerate his running mate's lexicon. While he has not obliquely charged Obama of "palling around with terrorists," he has voiced patriotic indignation when legitimately questioned about issues. During the last presidential debate, when McCain responded to a question about the nastiness of the campaigns, he said:
But to somehow say that group of young women who said "Military wives for McCain" are somehow saying anything derogatory about you, but anything-and those veterans that wear those hats that say "World War II, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq," I'm not going to stand for people saying that the people that come to my rallies are anything but the most dedicated, patriotic men and women that are in this nation and they're great citizens.
McCain's statement seemed evasive and gratuitous, since neither Obama nor the moderator had impugned upon the overall caliber of the people attending GOP rallies.
The Obama campaign has not descended to that same level of political expedience. Obama made the much-discussed reversal on public financing, demonstrating a lack of consistency on an important issue. He has also put a flourish on some of his positions that can be fairly challenged and questioned. Obama has promoted what in effect will be a tax hike as a tax reduction for most Americans. But by and large he has advanced his candidacy in terms of policy. And Obama's calm, even demeanor appears to be comforting to voters during perilous economic times.
While Obama's primary challenger, Senator Hillary Clinton, made statements that could echo throughout her political career-such as her pyrotechnic account of her visit to Bosnia-Obama has not made similar mistakes. And when Clinton pressed Obama on some of Reverend Wright's comments during a debate, Obama maintained a level of levity: ". . . if the word ‘reject' Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word ‘denounce,' then I'm happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce."
Despite Obama's lead in the polls, the margin remains too thin to call the election for the Democratic candidate. All the same, if McCain is defeated on November 4, it might be due, at least in part, to errors that could have been avoided. And given Palin's performance in this campaign, the GOP might position itself for another defeat if it upholds the governor as its hope for 2012-unless Palin evolves substantially in the next four years.
Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.