Can Ayers Save McCain? Pollsters Say Probably Not

11/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John McCain's campaign has already recycled several of Sen. Hillary Clinton's primary-season attacks against Barack Obama -- from the famous "3 a.m." ad, to Afghanistan talking points, and several other rhetorical flourishes.

Now, late in the game, it is unleashing the Ayers gambit, just as the Clinton campaign did toward the end of its primary run. But did the strategy actually work for Clinton? And if so, can it turn the game around for McCain now?

Even pollsters who disagree over the extent to which Ayers aided Clinton expressed doubts to the Huffington Post that it could work now.

Democratic strategist Celinda Lake notes that Ayers "didn't really sink in" with voters earlier this year, but says it could hold more sway with a general election pool of voters. Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz says he doesn't believe the attacks worked in the primaries, either. A look at Gallup's polling over May and June shows a relatively stable Obama lead in the period directly after Clinton's invocation of Ayers at an April 16 debate.

But unlike Lake, Abramowitz is confident in predicting that the Ayers gambit won't work in October, either. On the one hand, he cites his own week-by-week modeling of the Gallup tracking poll over the last four and half months in order to show that "the electorate has actually been very stable in its preferences this year and there is no reason to expect any major change in the next four weeks."


"[This] figure, showing the results of the Gallup tracking poll on a weekly basis since the end of the Democratic primaries, demonstrates that once the random day to day movement is removed, Obama has had a clear advantage all along although the size of his lead has increased slightly in the past two weeks," Abramowitz said. "Obama has led for 15 of the past 17 weeks, with one week tied. McCain has led for exactly one week, by 2 points, immediately after the Republican convention. Neither the two remaining presidential debates nor any other events between now and Election Day are likely to change the trajectory that this election has been on for many months."

Moreover, in this year's environment, "partisan attacks aren't credible with opposing partisans or even independents," he said. In addition, Abramowitz argued that negative messages are going to have "a lot of trouble getting through the overwhelming media focus on the economic crisis."

Pollster John Zogby agreed. "This is the one year that it looks like negative campaigning in general is not working. It's not giving a boost to the candidate who uses it, and voters clearly have other things on their mind," he said, echoing Abramowitz. "That sort of thing [negative ads] works well for voter suppression. But in this instance, voters tell us that they want a problem-solver. They want non-partisan, non-ideological solutions and characteristics."

There is also the issue of any negative attack's "shelf life," pollster Frank Luntz told the Huffington Post. "It's the problem that you have with any issue. It has no impact initially, until people start to see it and believe. Then its impact grows, until you saturate, until you get as much mileage out of it as you possibly can." Preventing that saturation right now is the economic crisis, he said. "If you didn't have an economic meltdown, then friends and supporters of the candidate would matter."

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