50 Days to Go and Obama Hits Back (Softly)

09/15/2008 04:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It is noon on Monday, September 15th and things are operating so quickly in the political world that major tactical--and sometimes strategic--campaign changes are happening in minutes (in previous campaigns they used to happen in hours or days). Welcome to politics in 2008. In accordance with the new world order here is our real-time read on what is happening:

  1. Obama is hitting back, and the mere act of doing so says volumes. Voters often view the candidate through the prism of the campaign he or she is running. By this measure, the last two Obama spots--an ad that attacks McCain for being tied to lobbyists and one that says he is running a negative campaign--suggest that Obama is not going to be a Michael Dukakis; it tells voters that he will punch back. It also says that Team Obama is reading the same polling we are and believes that it has to change the dynamic or this thing is lost.

  2. But this Obama punch seems like a fairly weak body blow. While we think that going after McCain's strength is a good idea, we are not sure what kind of traction this lobbyist charge will get. This is, as they say, pretty "inside baseball." Also, the lobbyist attack may have a hard time sticking to McCain because it is not part of the perception package that people have of him. The bottom line is that a lot of things can be said about McCain, but being beholden to lobbyists doesn't seem to be one of them. And if you say you're going to respond to McCain's attacks with "ferocity" and that you're going to "take the gloves off," and then your first few "attack" ads are recycled messages about lobbyists and nonsense about McCain not being able to use a computer...oh boy.

  • We are in a financial meltdown (as of right now the Dow is down 250 points) and Obama is focusing on lobbyists and McCain's inability to email--this is political malpractice. There is a massive financial crisis in this country: Lehman is in bankruptcy, Merrill has been sold and AIG needs a bailout of some sort. And, to this point, we're getting nothing but "statements" from the Obama campaign. The first line of today's WSJ front page article says, "The American financial system was shaken to its core on Sunday..." Team Obama should have torn up its playbook at 5 A.M. and come out swinging with earned and paid media. One look at the results from a recent CNN poll on the most important issue facing the country, coupled with a look at the trend in consumer confidence (as reported by ABC), and an 8-year-old would be able to tell the Obama campaign where it should focus its energies.

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  • Negative political messages must tap into a pre-existing belief. In politics, attacks only work if they ring true. It's why the McCain "Paris Hilton" ads worked so well against Obama; there was (more than) a ring of truth to them. And so they struck a nerve. We have said that the surest path to victory for Obama is to attack on the economy and the failings of the Bush administration. However, tying McCain to Bush is falling flat because it just doesn't feel right. And that's because it isn't right: everybody knows that John McCain and George W. Bush don't much like each other and haven't seen eye-to-eye on much of anything, including the Iraq War. So tying the two together isn't working all that well. The same holds for Obama's attack on McCain as beholden to lobbyists. It just doesn't fit the frame. If you're going to run ads that don't fit the frame, you need to launch them VERY EARLY and keep them up for months and months to try and generate some traction. So just starting with these new "hard-hitting" attacks against McCain won't work with only 50+ days left in the campaign...unless Team Obama can hit him with something that feels true.
  • The Obama campaign has been seriously off-stride. Let us count the ways:
    1. Obama's body language is off. He is on the defensive and it shows.
    2. Lawyerly explanations lose Presidential elections. The more Obama responds to questions the way a law professor would (see the Saddleback Forum and the Forum on Service) the more he will slide.
    3. A headline from a recent Time magazine article is that Obama is banking on the ground game, which is, perhaps, the surest sign of despair.
    4. The McCain camp's relentless, timely and pointed attacks on Obama are having an effect. The movement to McCain is not just the result of a good convention and the Palin pick. The fact is, they have been hammering Obama senseless. Exhibit A: on Tuesday of last week Obama tries to change the course of the debate by making a major speech on education and attacking McCain on his record in that area. That afternoon, the McCain campaign releases a spot hammering Obama on education and saying that his only accomplishment on education was "legislation to teach comprehensive sex education to kindergarten students." While the veracity of the attack was derided, the spot got a lot of play and fit the perception of Obama.
    5. The irony of this campaign is that an Obama team that was so adept at using the Internet to harness the online community for fundraising has been outmaneuvered by the McCain campaign in using viral videos to get its message out and win news cycles.
    6. The early, vitriolic and often personal attacks on Palin may have inoculated her (to some extent) from the recent (and reasonable) examinations of her record. In a sense, the liberal bloggers may have done Obama more harm than good on the Palin front.

  • Obama needs to forget Palin and get back to the economy. Team Obama needs to stop going after Palin (it makes him look small, it makes him look like he's beating up on a woman, and it draws unfavorable comparisons to his own lack of experience), hammer McCain on the economy (and be very clear about what his policies will do for voters), and hammer McCain as someone who can't change a Washington culture that he's been a part of for so long (this way you're attacking McCain on his greatest strength--his "maverick-ness").
  • Current Election Environment This is getting to be a broken record but nearly all election metrics (other than the Presidential head-to-head) continue to point to a Democrat victory this Fall. Currently, approximately 15% of the country (it was 13% in the latest NBC News/WSJ tracking survey) believes things are going in the "right direction." Who they are is anyone's guess but it is truly astounding when you look at this question trended over the last ten years.

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    We have been a "wrong track" country for more than four years. And we have been signficantly "wrong track" (more than 60% of the country) for over two years. Perhaps the body politic has absorbed this sentiment and it has passed from anger to apathy. That is one possible explanation for the lack of impact on the Presidential trial heat. Bush's approval rating is still below 35%.
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    This is, of course, bad news for the GOP. We and everyone else have been saying this for 18 months. However, it may be that--unlike in 2006--the Bush impact may not be as severe because some segments of the electorate have written him out of the equation. In some respects, it feels like Bush is already gone, and that feeling may mitigate his negative impact on Republicans this Fall. It is only a hypothesis, but my sense is that the President may not be as important in this election than he was in 2006. LCG Regression Analysis - Vote Projection As we said last week, each candidate got some bounce out of his convention. However, as our regression model shows, McCain's bounce was greater. There are too few cases in either convention bounce period to compute a line that captures each candidate's convention swing; there just aren't enough polls for a model like that to be significant. What the below line is basically saying is this: Obama had his bounce, McCain has had his bounce, and the two bounces counterbalanced each other but momentum is on McCain's side coming out of the convention period. If this trend continues he wins by +2.3 on Election Day.

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    As of today McCain is -.89. However, he wins by 2.3 points if you project his current momentum out to Election Day. Of course, things will change and so will the projection.