The presidential contest is a high-stakes branding game identical to selling soap or cornflakes or SUVs or Brad Pitt, only it's a lot more important to humanity.
Team McCain has begun to seriously play up, not play down, the enormous age gap between the two candidates. The calculation is that the only major "product" differentiation between the two sides this time is the huge age gap between its leaders. So McCain is making this election about demographics, not gender or race or region or religion. Or issues.
The latest salvo in this offensive is a TV spot which scurriously compares spoiled brats Britney Spears and Paris Hilton to Obama.
This is a bulls-eye for Republicans.
The stupidity and dishonesty of the commercial is its secret sauce. Within the five-minute news cycle, McCain's messaging dominated the airwaves, the blogosphere, the websites and will spill over onto the talk shows and late-night standup routines. And water cooler. The subtext to voters? young, cocky people are unlikeable and spoiled brats who are not fit to govern or parent.
Ageism to advantage
McCain's strategy is obvious. He has taken his biggest impediment, age and health problems, and is trying to turn that to advantage. Put another way, it's the political version of the best defense is offense.
And McCain has much to be defensive about: the guy is one serious lesion away from fatal cancer and can't shoot hoops like Obama. But his messaging is anti-youth and show-offs. This is how most older people feel and is why he is happily and openly cranky over Obamamania. Who-does-this-whippersnapper-think-he-is? This resonates with millions who are fed up with Hollywood brats, spoiled athletes, dysfunctional rap stars, their own pushy kids or grandchildren or with their own bosses who are often younger than they are.
Cranky old man
McCain also disdains technology, as do many over-50 Americans who are late, or non-existent, adopters.
So he openly admits to being ignorant about e-mail. He tells an audience of geeks at a townhall at Microsoft that his missus has to turn on the computer for him and that he cannot find, through search engines, articles even if written about him.
While drawing gasps from those on the sunny side of 40 years of age, this is all about branding in order to appeal to the demographic with the most votes. The underlying Republican message here is that old-fashioned experience, not upstarts and new-fangled gadgets, are what the world needs.
Who does the media think it is?
Last week marked another new McCain branding exercise. Upset with the media circus around Obama's foreign tour, he attacked the media for bias. This, quite frankly, may prove his most successful branding trait.
As a Midwestern populist myself, I know that voters hate big elites from big government to big business, big labor unions and big media. So McCain is attacking the big media for supporting and fawning over Obama. McCain is reinforcing his image as the underdog maverick just trying to fight the good fight against big media and their "boy" Obama.
It's a stretch but this messaging resonates with many voters who, until the debates, are just forming a vague sense of the brand of these two people.
So what can the Democrats and Obama do?
Obama must counter-punch constantly by repeating his Horatio Alger story. He must dumb down the vocabulary a tad. He must appear to be a little more human - like lighting up a cigarette or letting his beard grow during some time off or wearing glasses.
His Kansas grandmother must be brought out into the open, if she's physically capable, to emphasize his humble background. He must continue trot out the family in interviews.
Michelle should wear powder-blue pantsuits.
Pick a fight with a high-profile media type or publication in order to underscore his "independence" from the media elite.
Right now, Obama is a little too Granola and too Silicon Valley for many voters. McCain is portraying himself as oatmeal, not tasty but nutritious, and rustbelt. He will also continue to emphasize his generation's dislike for technology and for big media and emphasize his bad grades at Annapolis.
In any other contest for the biggest, toughest job on the planet, McCain's branding would be a disaster. But it won't be if he appeals to all those who voted for the trigger-happy slacker from the same political party currently in the White House.