In seeking to explain elections, pundits present endless analysis of the policy positions of candidates and the "gotcha" moments of political back and forth. Often they analyze debates based on who won the most debating points or got off the best line. But voters have one - often unconscious - screen for evaluating candidates in an election like this one: who do I want as a leader? Often that has little to do with sharp debating skills, or lists of policies and programs.
Swing voters make decisions based on which person they feel comfortable following. They size up which one they think is most likely to be on their side; has strongly held values they can count on; is effective at delivering the goods. They decide which one is self confident; treats them with respect; has integrity; whether he or she has vision - knows where he wants to take us. They ask themselves if they feel an emotional connection with the candidate; which one inspires them and makes them feel a sense of empowerment and possibility.
At different times and different contests the answers to these questions may be different. But at this time, in this historic context, the more swing voters know about John McCain and Barack Obama, the more they decide that Obama has the qualities they are looking for in leader. There are three major reasons why:
1). Swing voters want a leader who will bring change. More Americans are dissatisfied with the status quo than at any time in half a century - 90% according to the latest Washington Post/ABC poll. Obama and his team framed his candidacy as the "change" campaign from the first day. Hillary Clinton failed to frame the debate around "experience" in the primaries and John McCain abandoned a similar attempt a month and a half ago in the general election. McCain chose Palin largely to recast himself as the "change candidate."
But, let's face it, John McCain - with or without Sarah Palin - is no "change" candidate - at least not compared with Barack Obama. When they stood together on the stage at the debates, swing voters saw one candidate who was the grumpy old man who shoos kids off their lawn. Next to him they saw a fresh, smart, energetic, young leader. They saw the past versus the future.
That contrast would have been powerful enough regardless of their party affiliation. But the voter's sense of who is the change candidate was sharpened by the fact that McCain comes from the party of unpopular George Bush and supported his policies 90% of the time.
On the other hand - and this is the key thing - being the candidate of change is not enough in a period of turmoil and uncertainty.
2). Even though they want change, swing voters do not want a leader who is risky. If America were just stuck in a period of gradual decline or stagnation, voters might want to bet on a more edgy, risky leader - maybe someone who presents himself mainly as a fighter, a firebrand - or a maverick. The same might be said of a situation where an electorate feels it has nothing to loose, where people are willing to take a chance on anything but the status quo.
Neither of those situations pertains in today's America. Swing voters do feel a sense of gradual stagnation and loss of hope. But they feel that they have a lot to lose. And they feel an acute sense of chaos and uncertainty. Jobs are being lost; the stock market is swinging wildly. They feel that they are loosing control of their lives. People want desperately to feel they are in control. They need a sense of structure and predictability.
The McCain campaign correctly understood that their only way to overcome Barack Obama's innate advantage as a leader who could bring change, was to convince swing voters that he was simply too risky. They set out to exploit the fear of many voters that a black candidate was "not like them" - "who is the real Barack Obama," they asked. They ran into two problems.
First Barack Obama is a very centered person. People can see his innate sense of calm self confidence, clarity of vision, competency. He is the definition of cool under fire. He is comfortable in his own skin.
Second, McCain has been anything but cool under fire. He moves restlessly across a stage. He and his campaign have lurched from one policy proposal to another - one "hail Mary" political gamble to another. Swing voters saw his choice of Palin as a roll of the dice. They saw him "suspend" his campaign to "lead" the bail out effort, and then reverse himself -- and play very little role in efforts to stabilize the economy. They watched him abandon his principled positions against negative campaigning and trade them in for hate filled diatribes that question Obama's patriotism.
His campaign, his personal style, and his running mate all appear erratic. And of course there is the fact that he would place someone one heart beat from the Presidency who most Americans could not image leading America. Talk about risky.
By appearing himself to be an erratic, lurching, gambler, McCain has done an enormous amount to undercut his own major argument - that electing Obama would be risky.
In fact, this is not at time when people want a "maverick" at all. Even if McCain convinced people he were in fact a "maverick" that's not altogether a good thing. The word "maverick" generally has a positive connotation. But it also conveys unpredictability. Right not people don't want unpredictability - they want dependability. They want leadership that will bring change, but they also want leadership they can count on, not leadership that is full of surprises - that lurches from one thing to another.
As a result, the Washington Post/ABC poll found that more voters think of McCain - not Obama -- as the riskier choice.
3) At times of crisis and uncertainty, voters want leaders who combine a sense a vision with the ability to inspire them. Yogi Bera used to say that if you don't know where you're going any road will take you there. In periods like this swing voters want a leader has a very clear sense of where he will take them. Just as importantly they want a leader who can inspire them to hope. They want to be told that the best days of America are still ahead of us - that we can once again believe that our children will have better lives than we do today. And they want to be personally inspired that they themselves can be part of something meaningful and important.
Obama wins that contest hands down. His ability to inspire has helped him build an army of activists for his campaign - young and old - rich and poor. It has led to a continuing "enthusiasm gap" that Sarah Palin's choice was intended to reduce, but has persisted nonetheless.
That "enthusiasm gap" will translate into a massive Obama organizational and turnout advantage Election Day - especially among young people and African Americans. But it will also translate into votes from swing voters who are looking for inspiration and optimism that we can escape and economic situation that has become frightening and uncertain.
Of course with 21 days to go until Election Day, nothing can be taken for granted or left to chance. Americans who want to pass over the Jordan River of Election Day into the promised land of a new progressive era have to saddle up and help get us there - not just watch and hope. That river might be in sight, but there could be any number of hidden land mines in the miles that remain.
In so many ways Barack Obama is the right leader for this moment. Now it's up to us to make him President.
Robert Creamer is a long time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight. How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.