11/23/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain Finds Americans No Longer Buying Into the Spec Market on Dread

As expected, John McCain is trying to turn the stretch run of the campaign away from the economy and back to national security. He knows Americans are afraid of losing their jobs, their homes, their 401Ks, and their life's savings -- but he wants them to put all of that on the backburner and focus on the fear of losing their lives.

Accordingly, his latest Hail Mary bomb comes equipped with a nuclear warhead.

McCain barreled through the door Joe Biden opened with his ill-advised comments about Obama being tested within the first six months of his presidency, flashing back to the Cuban Missile crisis and painting Obama as "untried, untested" and a national security liability.

In contrast, McCain insisted, "I've been tested." Of course, the kind of test given a 26 year-old Navy pilot assigned to Cuban targets, as McCain was during October 1962, is very different from the test a president would face in that kind of crisis. But who needs to worry about details like that when you are playing the mushroom cloud card?

With time running short, Team McCain wants to cover as many fear bases as possible. So along with the Missiles of October, the McCain campaign also rolled out a new round of robocalls designed to convince voters that Obama has "a disturbing history of coddling criminals" and would be soft on "sex offenders, drug dealers, and murderers."

Beware, America: if the nukes don't get you, the sociopaths, the junkies, and the perverts will.

Unfortunately for McCain, playing the Be Afraid game has gotten a lot more complicated than it was back in the good old days when all you had to say was "Cipro" and "duct tape" and the electorate would reach for its GOP security blanket. Between 2001 and 2004, every time the government issued a terror alert, Bush's approval rating would go up. It was positively Pavlovian.

A new study pdf conducted by UC Berkeley sociologists Robb Willer and Nick Adams, and published this month in the journal Current Research in Social Psychology, suggests voter reactions to those kinds of threats may be changing -- and that terror warnings or the evocation of looming attacks may, in fact, have the opposite impact on McCain than they had on Bush (you see, McCain's right: they aren't the same!). Especially when it comes to swing voters. We may have finally reached the point when voters are thinking: "Fool us with the fear card once, shame on you. Fool us with the fear card 279 times, shame on us... We won't be fooled again."

John Kerry still believes Halloween 2004's bin Laden video was one of the main reasons he lost. But the confused -- and panicked -- reaction of the McCain camp to yesterday's pro-McCain posting on an al-Qaeda affiliated website, shows how the rules of the terror game have changed.

McCain's surrogates went to great lengths to pooh-pooh the notion that al-Qaeda would prefer McCain's hawkishness to Obama's more reasoned approach to foreign policy. Yet, in the same breath, senior McCain foreign-policy advisor Randy Scheunemann announced, "John McCain will spend what it takes to win" in Iraq. An approach that fits perfectly with bin Laden's "bleed to bankruptcy" strategy.

For his part, Obama is refusing to buy into McCain's divide-the-economy-from-national security-and-conquer strategy. "We often hear about two debates, one on national security and one on the economy," he said yesterday after meeting with his national security team, including Gary Hart, Madeleine Albright, and Richard Holbrooke. "But that's a false distinction. We can't afford another president who ignores the fundamentals of our economy while running up record deficits to fight a war without end in Iraq. We must be strong at home to be strong abroad. That's one of the lessons of our history."

Throughout his speech, he repeatedly hammered home the "foreign security implications of our economic crisis" and the impact of the Iraq war on our military readiness, our ability to deal with the "grave" situation in Afghanistan, and America's bottom line, saying: "For the sake of our economy, our military, and the long-term stability of Iraq," we need to bring "a responsible end to the war."

And he even challenged McCain's over-inflated national security credentials, pointing out the very different approach he would bring to taking on bin Laden, the growing threat from al-Qaeda along the Pakistan border, and making Afghanistan, not Iraq, the central front in the war on terror. "As president, [McCain] would continue the policies that have put our economy into crisis and, I believe, [are a] danger to our national security."

Obama's steady hand during the economic meltdown and his unflappable bearing during all three debates has clearly had an impact. Coming out of the conventions, McCain had a 14-point lead on who would be better able to handle international affairs; that has shrunk to a within-the-margin-of-error 3-point gap.

Given the wide lead Obama holds on dealing with the economy, "helping the middle class," and health care, and his advantage on handling taxes (sorry, Joe the Plumber), it's to be expected that McCain will keep trotting out the mushroom clouds, the murderers, and the sex offenders. Fear is all he has left to sell. It would be the best news to come out of the campaign so far if the American voter is no longer willing to buy into the spec market on dread.

For those of you in Minnesota, I will be speaking at St. Olaf College Monday, October 27th. The speech will begin at 7:00 PM in Boe Memorial Chapel.