At first glance it seems absolutely incredible that Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama can't shake Republican rival John McCain. Yet an AP poll calls the race a statistical dead heat. That's only one poll, of course, and the mish mash of other polls show Obama with either a respectable lead or a near rout of McCain. But that nagging AP poll hints at something that has bedeviled the Obama campaign from day one, and that's the inability to put McCain away.
How could that happen? Obama has smashed every record in netting campaign contributions, gotten nearly every major newspaper endorsement, is fawned over by millions in other countries, was generally regarded as the clear winner in his three debates with McCain, and draws record crowds to his campaign rallies. He is running against an aged, at times physically challenged opponent with a vice presidential mate with a phone book length of negatives that have made her a laughing stock in many circles. Both belong to a party which most voters blame for wrecking the economy and waging a costly, failed, and flawed war.
The last Democratic presidential candidate to have so many pluses stacked up in his election bank against a GOP opponent was Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. His opponent was the hapless, Depression blamed Herbert Hoover. But Hoover at least was a sitting president. McCain isn't.
The formula answer for McCain's staying power is that it's because Obama's black. From the moment he announced his candidacy in February 2007, race has been biggest X factor endlessly talked about and agonized over as the thing that could torpedo his chances. In countless surveys, African-Americans have virtually made it a mantra that that if he loses it's because he's black. Certainly, there are enough closet and open bigots who won't vote for him purely on race. But that's not enough to explain why McCain still hangs around.
Republican influence, party loyalty, voter tradition, conservative values, personal and individual preferences are powerful and compelling factors that determine why people make candidate choices, and they obviously work for McCain among a wide swatch of Americans voters.
For many voters McCain plainly fits the tradition bound stereotype of what a president should look and sound like; namely older, mature, and more experienced (a big GOP hit point against Obama). Psychologists have found that what people think about themselves and what they believe others think about them can influence how they perform and how they expect others to perform.
There's another explanation for McCain's fingernail grip on the race. That's the power of negatives. McCain has been roundly hammered for going dirty, and at times he has. Obama has been smeared with the Ayers guilt by terrorist association, the Rezko crooked deal tie, the charge of socialist wealth redistribution, the ACORN vote fraud connect, the knock that he will abandon the troops in Iraq to their fate, and that he's soft on Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela and the slew of other supposed rogue's list enemies.
The question is: Does smearing a candidate really work? The two best known examples are the Willie Horton hit against Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis in 1988 and the Swift Boat blindside of Democratic presidential contender John Kerry in 2004. One stoked the fears of crime (Dukakis). The other planted doubts about character (Kerry). In both instances, they worked.
Even without these extreme cases, there's evidence that going negative can work. Though surveys show that the overwhelming majority of voters abhor personal smears against candidates and are turned off by them, far too many voters also can be influenced by the negative stuff they hear about a candidate. The trick is that the smear must be directly linked to the candidate's political position on the issues, or style, or personality. The smear must be based on a twisted fact or a wildly exaggerated tinge of truth to make it work. In each of the smears against Obama -- Ayers, Iran, Rezko -- there is just enough of a hook to hinge the smear on and hope that it sticks. The internet bristles with loads of anonymous racist and derogatory comments, cracks, and slanders about Obama based on this stuff and more.
The Snopes website has color coded the rumors, myths, and outright lies about Obama as true, untrue or partially true. Nearly all are coded as false or as a stretched half truth. Yet, fact and truth is one thing, but when they clash with an individual's doubts, suspicions, fears, and prejudices then an implanted negative slur against a candidate often will be taken as gospel.
A lot of voters plainly back McCain for the right reasons. They like his positions on health care, taxes, the war, think he's more experienced, and are Republican loyalists. Unfortunately, a lot more will back him because of the slander hits on Obama. Either way, it's a vote for McCain, and it's a big reason why Obama can't shake McCain.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).