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John McCain: A Case Study in Political Miscommunication

In the lull between the early primaries and Super Tuesday in late January, I wrote about the presidential semifinals pitting Hillary Clinton against Barack Obama and Mitt Romney against John McCain. I was not bullish on the probability of an Obama-McCain general election matchup, but offered this warning in the event that this happened:

"In the event that the general election comes down to McCain vs. Obama or Romney vs. Clinton, there is a much greater risk of a landslide because if experience is what matters to most voters, then the party who nominates the candidate lacking it would be out of touch with most voters. Similarly, if the nation is hungry for change, the party who chooses an establishment politician as its nominee will be setting themselves up for a huge disappointment. 'Change' is not just a Democratic desire, nor is 'experience' simply a Republican one. Some concepts transcend party lines and are important to everyone."
Given the national and state polls, it looks like Obama has a very good chance of winning this election, and winning it big. As of this writing, according to Five Thirty-Eight, McCain has a 3.3% chance of winning this election with a bare majority of electoral votes while Obama has a 48% chance of winning in a landslide (375+ electoral votes).

This race has clearly gotten away from McCain and there is no shortage of pundits who are pointing fingers and placing blame. It's Palin's fault. His surrogates weren't disciplined enough. His staff didn't develop a serious campaign apparatus in critical states. The list of usual suspects goes on and on. In the end, however, John McCain is the one who is running for president and he is the one who calls the shots in his campaign, so the primary responsibility for his political fortunes rests solely with him.

Poor political communication is at the root of McCain's woes. This is not merely talking about his campaign's poor message discipline because tactics alone are not what's destroying McCain. McCain's communication problems at the strategic level are far more debilitating than his problems at the tactical level.

First of all, McCain went wrong by running on a losing message. At the conclusion of the primary season, I noted that this is a change election and that experience did not matter. McCain should have heeded the lessons of Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden. Continuing the policies of the last eight years is seen as a greater risk by voters than having a thin resume. This is why Obama's characterization of McCain as "Bush's third term" is so powerful.

Of course, "experience" is legitimate political argument. It might not be a winning argument in this particular election, but at least it is an argument. This leads to McCain's second mistake in terms of political communication. He surrendered his core message with his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. While there will probably never be a consensus on who is more inexperienced (Obama or Palin), the fact remains that McCain can no longer cleanly make the experience argument. Anytime he touts his experience, someone can always say "yeah, but" and point to Palin, thus causing the message of "experience" to become "experience with caveats," a far weaker message.

In light of the diminished potency of the "experience" argument, McCain tried to run on Obama's message of "change" by describing himself as a reformer or a maverick. This is fine, but the fact remains that he never completely abandoned the "experience" argument. Even now, McCain is running ads warning about Obama's inexperience on the international stage, courtesy of Joe Biden's latest gaffe. So he is running on experience and change at the same time while not being credible on either issue. As a 25-year veteran of Congress and a member of the same political party as the unpopular President Bush, Obama could easily make the argument that McCain is not the true "change" candidate. So now McCain can't be the candidate of "change," and his "experience" argument has caveats. This leaves McCain with no issue to himself that he can run on without contradicting himself, thus revealing McCain's third mistake regarding political communication. If it's not experience (because of Palin) and it's not change (because of his time in Washington), what does he represent?

Critics may bring up veteran senator Joe Biden and how he contradicts Obama's message of change. The problem is, like Republicans commonly said shortly after Sarah Palin came onto the national stage, the race is about the top of the ticket. Since this is a change election and change is at the top of the Democratic ticket, Joe Biden's three decades in Washington are secondary. Secondly, Biden is a reassurance pick that shores up Obama's weaknesses on foreign policy. Sarah Palin does not shore up any of McCain's weaknesses; all she does is energize the base. And more importantly, it is easier for Obama to defend Biden in terms of being able to bring about change because he's a Democrat and in touch with middle class voters than it is for McCain to defend Palin as experienced enough to ascend to the presidency in the event that McCain is no longer able to serve. For McCain to have been able to credibly make this argument, he would have had to choose a more experienced outsider (read governor) as his running mate. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Charlie Crist of Florida, or Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey likely would have left McCain in a far better position a week before Election Day than Sarah Palin.

The final mistake regarding political communication concerns the latest entry to our nation's political lexicon: Joe the Plumber. The person himself is not the problem, but rather the argument that accompanies him on the campaign trail. Both McCain and Palin commonly invoke "Joe" at their campaign rallies and use that as a segue into a discussion about entrepreneurship and "keeping taxes low." It's a traditional Republican argument in a year in which Republican ideas are not popular. So while McCain and Palin are able to connect with voters on a personal level because they may identify with "Joe," they are then turned off because they've heard the same Republican arguments about not raising taxes year after year. In light of the current struggling economy and growing federal deficit, both of which were preceded by President Bush's tax cuts, talking about more tax cuts distributed in the same way that Bush's were undercuts the "change" argument. McCain and Palin are essentially reinforcing their own Republicanism when talking about taxes. But again, this is a "change" election. How can McCain hope to win a "change" election by reminding voters that he's a Republican?

Another point to remember is that the economy entails more than just taxes, so all this talk about not raising taxes on small businesses only makes McCain appear even more out of touch with voters who are worried about health care, their pensions, and their investment portfolios. And McCain's promises not to raise taxes while continuing to prosecute the war in Iraq make his pledge to balance the budget in four years seem unrealistic, thus further undercutting his "experience" argument.

Barack Obama had nothing to do with any of these strategic blunders. While it is not prudent to say this race is over, McCain is now at the mercy of an Obama meltdown or an international calamity. There is not much time left for either of those to happen. Changing his message yet again will likely be of little use because it may lead to more media stories about message inconsistency. McCain needs the media to focus on his strengths in the waning days of this campaign, not his inconsistencies.

Should Obama win this election, he would be wise to govern from the center-left in the first few months of his administration, rather than the far left because a significant portion of his support comes not from pro-Obama voters, but rather anti-McCain and anti-Palin voters. Given the misdirection and strategic misfires that have come to characterize McCain's campaign in terms of basic political communication, it is easy to understand why so many Republicans may be more inclined to punish their own party.

4 comment(s):

Anonymous said...

Great piece. This is real insight that I enjoyed reading. Keep up the good work.


Brett said...

This is a very solid piece, Anthony. I look forward to your commentary up to and once the election ends.

In the meantime, you make an excellent point about how McCain can't seem to keep the message straight, and as have mentioned in earlier comments, I think that has to do fundamentally with McCain the politician. He's kind of erratic by nature, flitting from one fight to another without a real solid partisan, ideological, or philosophical "backbone" that serves as an umbrella both for his policies and his supporters. A foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution, but not a general.

As for Obama, he probably will have little choice but to govern from a center-left position; even with a Democratic congress, the economy will be front and center for the Obama administration, and whatever he has to do to solve that will have the top priority.

Of course, if he plays his cards right (and doesn't get unlucky), he could use the first two years to build credibility and popularity in Congress and the public - build political capital, so to speak. Capital which he then could spend on getting some of his priorities passed, like universal health care.

S.W. Anderson said...

McCain's vision from the beginning has been to win the presidency. He's never had a higher, better purpose motivating his quest and energizing his supporters.

Thus, the McCain who disparaged evangelical preachers as "agents of intolerance" was soon embracing Catholic-bashing Pastor John Hagee and others. Thus, the same McCain who rightly said Bush's tax cuts were too big and irresponsible now calls for making them permanent.

As you noted, AP, McCain also doesn't have a coherent, appropriate or notably different (change), and therefore sellable, set of plans to deal with the incredible problems facing the country. It's Bush neoconservative crapola warmed over — the same toxic recipe that got us to where we are today.

But the capper is that McCain himself has been a whirling dervish of rapidly reversed positions, sometimes making idiotic statements — with cameras running — only to deny a day or two later he said any such thing.

I maintain that even without his lovely, wildly unqualified Alaskan millstone, McCain would've been sunk by now.

People, especially in troubled times, expect vision and a high level of consistency or steadiness. Obama has known what he was about and where he wanted to take the country from Day 1 of his campaign. McCain just wanted to get to the White House.

Their minds focused by anger and fear, the people, if only intuitively, noticed that profound difference and appear ready to vote accordingly.

DB said...

Great thoughts. Lucky for McCain this "case study" will focus on Obama in the future rather than anything McCain did or did not do. Assuming he loses, no one 20+ years from now will remember McCains name, except us who lived it. McCain simply tried to deliver his message by means of a 20th century campaign while Obama was able to get beyond that. Obama was able to get us looking to the future while McCain constantly looked to the past. What inspires people more? What could be? Or what was?

Copyright 2007-2010 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.