It's important to step back from the hourly yip-yap of the campaign to understand what's really happening. Especially with more than a few Dems coming down with "a case of the drizzles," to borrow a phrase from Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. After all, notwithstanding the hype and hysteria, Barack Obama is edging John McCain in the Republican Rasmussen poll, 48-47, which is about where things were before the conventions, and running better among white women than John Kerry did in his near-miss campaign four years ago.
That said, John McCain, with the unlikely Sarah Palin, is running a far closer race with Barack Obama than he has much business doing in a year like this. Here's what Team McCain is doing, with its advertising and overall messaging, to give the veteran senator a pretty good chance of winning the White House.
** McCain was headed for an honorable defeat before Steve Schmidt, one of his top advisors, essentially took over the campaign in early July. I came to know him well, after breaking the story on New West Notes that he would run Arnold Schwarzenegger's re-election in 2006, and did one of the first profiles of him, here on Huffington Post.
** Make it bigger by making it simpler. My read is that the approach of Schmidt and Company can be summed up by an old saying of Neil Young's: "We have to make it bigger by making it simpler." (That's an old saying I like; it's not from Schmidt.) For low-information voters, who make up much of the swing vote in this election, a presidential campaign is like a pop song. You don't have much time to make an impression, so hit the emotion and avoid complication.
** The Meta-Message. Barack Obama is a vapid, arrogant "celebrity" who is not like you and is too exotic and inexperienced and simply untrustworthy to be president of this country. That underlies everything you see and hear from the McCain campaign.
** Brush back the media. A neutralized news media is key to the effectiveness of the advertising and messaging strategy. Steve Schmidt is my friend. For all his fearsomeness, he's actually a pretty nice guy. But he's in it to win it, and reporters can be pushed back. And in this kind of unfriendly environment for the Republicans, they will do things until they can't do them. If you don't hold on to your lunch money, you'll lose it.
** Control the candidate. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, John McCain is a famously chatty type. After the sharply divided Democratic primary in 2006, Schwarzenegger launched his general election campaign early the next morning with a statewide bus tour in which he was in many less controlled situations. He said some things that were distracting, such as that he might endorse a Democrat or two for other statewide offices. Nothing that couldn't be fixed, but after that, Schmidt made sure that Schwarzenegger stayed tightly on message.
McCain, similarly, has ended his famed Straight Talk Express which, ironically, is what made him popular in the first place. Seemingly more than in 2000, he was getting off-message with verbal miscues. No more.
** Illustrate every attack with a TV commercial. Even if it's not really a commercial. For example, this morning the McCain campaign put out a TV ad called "Lipstick" to try to further the idea that his use of one of John McCain's favorite phrases -- "putting lipstick on a pig" -- is really a sexist attack against Sarah Palin. The Drudge Report and other media outlets trumpeted it as an important new TV ad. But as I pointed out right away on New West Notes, at 37 seconds in length the ad is actually too long to run in a commercial slot. But not too long to be played by credulous news producers. It's been pulled from McCain's video channel.
** Drive a big negative narrative on Obama. The Obama campaign runs many negative ads against McCain. But they tend to be state-specific, and hence issue-specific, and as a result don't drive an overall narrative about McCain. Obama has a scattershot approach. Team Obama wants to avoid being seen as negative, in order to protect its brand, so the harder negative stuff plays out of the spotlight. It's a nice conceit, but it cedes the negative frame in the national media -- and thus what passes for what we laughingly call the national debate -- to Team McCain.
** Drive a consistent hard negative. Team McCain presents a unified field theory about Barack Obama, generally using the same themes and even words over and over again. In TV advertising, in web videos, in press statements, in press reactions, in speeches, and in interviews. Obama's negative messaging and advertising is usually reacting to a McCain attack or to some discrete situation. It comes and goes, and as result doesn't sink in.John McCain and Sarah Palin are "The Original Mavericks."
** In marketing terms, it's all about branding rather than positioning. What does this mean? That the McCain/Palin campaign is about identity more than issues. In a year which should be about positioning. Who is furthest away, in a credible fashion, from the Bush/Cheney agenda on the issues that people are worried about. If this is an election about branding, McCain can win. If it's an election about positioning, McCain can't win.
McCain had been using climate change as the key differentiator with Bush, a way to bolster the notion of his maverick brand and, more importantly, to position him more in the center for independents and moderates. But he doesn't talk about it much now. Perhaps because Palin is a greenhouse effect denier. And because the Republican money -- much of it raised for the Republican National Committee by President Bush and Vice President Cheney -- doesn't like it.
Instead of using positive issues to position himself, McCain is relentlessly calling himself the "Original Maverick" to revive his old brand, using the Palin Pick to make it au courant.
** It's about relentless repetition. Team McCain has pounded home the notion that Obama is a vapid "celebrity" who will do a few nefarious things. Always that he will surrender to Islamic jihadism and raise everyone's taxes, along with whatever else is topical.Sarah Palin is "The Alaska Maverick," while "most liberal senator" Obama is the candidate of "empty words."
** It's about audaciousness. When you keep repeating something that has been disproved, and you get away with it, that's audacious. I give you Sarah Palin, who "stopped the Bridge To Nowhere."
** It's about personalities, not about issues. Schwarzenegger has an even bigger personality than McCain's, which is saying a lot, and Schmidt made sure that, in a restrained sort of way, that "Arnoldness" was constantly transmitted to California's voters. But when Schwarzenegger was re-elected governor in 2006, he had a big issues agenda to back up the notion that he was the centrist Californians had thought they elected before he moved to the right in 2005, including a massive infrastructure program, an increase in the minimum wage, and a landmark climate change program.
In this campaign, it's argument not by demonstration, but by assertion. On the issues, McCain is closely tied to the Bush/Cheney agenda. Rather than risk offending the Republican conservative base with independence on big issues, Team McCain is emphasizing the personalities of McCain and the flashy newcomer Palin.
Rather than provide any demonstration of how they would represent change, the McCain/Palin campaign simply asserts it. And plays up their personalities. All of it over and over.
Like that song you can't get out of your head. It will fade over time, of course. But it only has to be a hit for just under eight more weeks.