Why isn't Obama crushing McCain?

A conversation with two prominent journalists and a Bush-Cheney campaign official about why, in what should be a Democratic year, Obama can't put McCain away.

Published August 11, 2008 11:30AM (EDT)

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The public is unhappy with the Iraq war. The economy is in dire straits. The president, a two-term Republican, is setting records for unpopularity. It's very difficult for one party to win three presidential elections in a row. Circumstances seem to be conspiring to make 2008 a Democratic year. So why is Barack Obama running neck and neck with John McCain two weeks before the Democratic Convention?

Salon asked two respected journalists and a veteran Republican operative to give us their best guesses. Tom Edsall, who was a Washington Post reporter for 25 years, is political editor of the Huffington Post. He has also been a professor of journalism at Columbia University since 2006. Mark Murray is the deputy political director for NBC News and was previously a reporter for the National Journal. He co-writes MSNBC's First Read, a roundup of national political news. Ben Ginsberg, a lawyer in the Washington firm Patton Boggs, served as counsel to the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign in both 2000 and 2004 and played a central role in the 2000 Florida recount.

Tom Schaller: The conventional wisdom from left and right, Republicans and Democrats, is that this is going to be, or should be, a Democratic year. The president is unpopular. People are unhappy about the war. They're nervous about the economy. And yet, at least here in the pre-convention period, we find ourselves with a relatively tight race. Some polls show Obama with a slight, usually single-digit, lead; other polls show him leading within the margin of error or even tied with John McCain. To start the conversation today, do you all agree that in fact, Obama is running behind national party expectations and/or that McCain is running ahead of them?

Tom Edsall: I do agree, and he does have some problems he's going to have to deal with. He's got a problem with white working-class voters, including Democrats. Hillary's campaign still lingers on and the effect that she had on appealing specifically to those voters at his expense. He also has -- I've been in Pennsylvania just talking to voters, and there is not really -- a lot of people just don't know who he is or have a real connection to him. So I think he's got a ways to go.

Ben Ginsberg: I think Republicans are thrilled with how close the race remains. As you pointed out, the atmospherics in the country are not particularly friendly for Republicans this [election] cycle, and in terms of the way the campaign feels on a daily basis, perhaps exacerbated by the Obama tour of foreign ports of call, it doesn't feel particularly good. But the polls show the race really nip-and-tuck, with McCain in a position to win. I think that the Obama problems are ones that were first very evident among the Democratic primary electorate itself -- that the reservations and doubts that the general population and general electorate seems to feel about Obama were really prevalent in the Democratic primaries, because for any number of weeks, the sort of conventional wisdom was that "Obama's about to put Sen. Clinton away," and it never quite happened like that. So yes, I think Obama is running way behind the Democratic Party brand and McCain is certainly running better than Republicans, largely because he is perceived as more of a maverick than a Bush Republican.

Mark Murray: I do agree that Barack Obama has some problems, particularly with white voters. There is an interesting new Democracy Corps Poll, a poll that's put out by Stan Greenberg and James Carville, and it actually showed that Barack Obama versus John Kerry in 2004 is running poorer than Kerry did among many whites, particularly among older whites. So that is a problem for Obama. On the other hand, some of that is offset by Obama doing much better than Kerry did among African-Americans, independents and younger voters, and so some of his weaknesses are offset by some of his strengths. But no doubt, for him to really capitalize in this environment, he's going to need to shore up some of his weaknesses.

However, to be a little counterintuitive, I would actually say that a lot of this also has to do with John McCain. I was looking back at a March NBC-Wall Street Journal poll that had both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton running about 2 or 3 points ahead of John McCain, even though the generic ballot had Democrats winning by 15 points. Against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, John McCain was doing much better than your average Republican, and a lot of that has to do with McCain's appeal with independent voters. And whether or not that holds up from here to November is an interesting question. But certainly, John McCain's maverick brand, his relationship with independents, really has helped him in this type of environment.

So I think it's two things. It's Obama's weaknesses and also some of John McCain's strengths. That said, the latest AP poll had Barack Obama 6 points over McCain, and if Barack Obama wins a 6-point election come November, that would be one of the biggest election margins of victory we've seen in the last few presidential cycles.

Schaller: It's funny, I have heard repeatedly from pundits, and I think that they're right about this, that this election is mostly going to be a referendum on Obama. Mark Shields recently on "The NewsHour" made a comparison to the 1980 race, the argument basically being that the country was unhappy with Jimmy Carter then; the country is unhappy with George Bush now. Even though I think Ben Ginsberg's point that it's not Bush running again and not necessarily an heir apparent in McCain, still the parallel here is people in 1980 were not quite sure about Reagan and it was up to Ronald Reagan to assuage and assure the country. Is that a fair parallel? Does Barack Obama need to pass a minimum threshold, and if so, what is it going to take to do that?

Murray: I completely agree that the 1980 comparison is apt. And a lot of the burden is on Barack Obama to make the sale, just as [it was on] Ronald Reagan in 1980. And as we all saw, Reagan was able to make that sale. It wasn't apparent in poll numbers in the summer, but once you got to the fall, and once you ended up getting to the debates, it was clear that Reagan was going to be the big winner.

It's also interesting that another change election was back in 1992 and obviously, Bill Clinton, the challenger, ended up beating the incumbent, George H.W. Bush. What's very interesting about that is that, even in a very big change environment, with 80 percent of Americans saying the country was on the wrong track, had Ross Perot not been in the race, it would have been a much, much closer election. And so, I think you can go one of two ways. Either Barack Obama makes the sale and he wins convincingly like Reagan did in 1980, or he doesn't and we need to fasten our seatbelts for another very close election.

Ginsberg: I would agree that this election really comes down to a referendum on Barack Obama. McCain is much more of a known quantity in the country, and it is a change year by all objective indications, meaning that Obama does have to meet the test. But while it's a change election, we're also much more aware than in either '92 or '80 of what a dangerous world it is out there. The test that Obama has to meet is a lot larger. And what his real drawback and weakness is, is his lack of experience. I mean the fact that he has only been in the Senate for four years, that he doesn't really have any experience on the world stage except for his recent rock tour, is really going to be what voters focus on. Now, lack of experience combined with a whiff of elitism is really the test that he has to make. For that reason I do think that the debates, particularly, are going to loom very large this year, because that will be the first time that the American people see the two candidates face to face. But Obama is going to have to meet the test that he can handle a dangerous and scary world.

Edsall: I hate to say that Ben may be partially right. I think also in addition, Obama has a problem in that he doesn't put body behind his words. You don't know what really makes him angry, you don't know really what gets his dander up or really drives his interest. In addition to the problem of a lack of substance, often in his rhetoric there's a lack of emotional content. It's all high and charismatic, but it doesn't have the bass tones, and he's got a ways to go on that.

Schaller: Of course, this could change. Mark is right: It could end up being a 6- or 8-point win for Obama in the end as people come around and become familiar with him. But if it is the "candidate effect" that explains how close this race is, is Obama's political style unrealistic -- his call for a change of politics, his call for high-road style of politics? As Tom was suggesting, perhaps Obama needs to get a little rougher?

Edsall: Having raised the question, I'll answer. I think you can be for a different style of politics and you still can get angry and you can still get excited. It doesn't necessarily preclude each other. I thought, for example, Obama's reaction to the Paris Hilton ad was a little thin. He could have, if he had chosen to, taken real offense and gotten angry and said that "if McCain's going to say that type of thing about me, I'm going to punch him in the face," or maybe something more polite. But instead it's, "He's going the low road." He has put himself in this position where going the high road seems to preclude that, but I think it's an incorrect interpretation of politics.

Ginsberg: I'm trying to figure out where this high road is that he's traveling on.

Edsall: He hasn't hired you yet, Ben.

Ginsberg: Yeah, if that's your definition, Edsall, you need a wider focus. The truth is the ad he has out today [Aug. 6] would not be defined as high-road politics, especially not with imposing a heartbeat in the middle of it, one of the greatest subliminal effects in an ad since the "Rats" ad in 2000 that the New York Times made such a big deal about, and I bet there won't be quite such a big deal about this heart ad. But nonetheless, Obama has shown that he's not particularly on the high road. I think that was true in the primaries in the way that he mixed it up and also basically the way he has conducted -- I think, in a sense, he's damaged his own brand and position by the way he and his surrogates have conducted the campaign.

Murray: I'm going to split Tom and Ben's answer here. One of the things that has really propelled Barack Obama, including winning the Democratic primary, is this reputation of someone who's above it all, who is this Mr. Nice Guy. But as we learned in Ryan Lizza's piece in the New Yorker, this is a guy who's practiced Chicago politics as well as anyone else despite living only a short time in Chicago. I think in some respects he has shown an ability to wield some elbows and be tough. One of his strengths is actually being able to convince independents that he's a totally different type of person with a different type of tone and still run a pretty tough campaign.

Now, he's certainly not airing the Britney and Paris ads the way that John McCain is, where it has gotten a little personal, but we did see Barack just yesterday in this whole brouhaha over tire inflation, get really indignant and basically accuse the Republican Party of being nothing more than ignorant on this subject matter. And I agree with Tom, it's not something that we see a lot from Barack Obama, indignation and a lot of fire, but it is there, and if he taps that more, that could actually be a big positive for him over the next three months.

Schaller: If "candidate effects" matter, we so far have only spoken of one candidate, Barack Obama, and Mark raises the specter of the ads that McCain has taken out. So whether the criticism of McCain, that he's taking the low road is fair or not, are the ads working?

Murray: I think it really helped him in the short term. While it is problematic to look at the race every single day through these Gallup tracking polls, it's probably been our best barometer to see whether or not he ended up getting any bounce from his overseas trip. And interestingly enough, pretty much after that trip was over, Obama actually soared to his highest rating in that tracking survey, 9 points. And we had never seen him that high against McCain. And then all of a sudden came those ads, the Britney, Paris ads, the charge that the Obama campaign was playing the race card, and then even the Web video that got a lot of media attention comparing Obama to Moses and Jesus. And we saw Obama's numbers go down. And so I think in the short term, what that strategy ended up doing was really mitigate any type of bounce Obama was going to get from that overseas trip.

I do think that there is a potential danger long term for McCain. As I was mentioning, a lot of McCain's appeal and the fact that he's doing well in this anti-Republican environment, really speaks to his appeal with independents and his maverick status. And if the Obama campaign is able to say that he's running essentially the same campaign that George W. Bush ran in 2004, that could be problematic for him in this environment. So I think it's a short-term gain and a potential long-term danger.

Ginsberg: I agree with Mark about that. There certainly was a short-term gain; there is a long-term danger. I think what's interesting about the daily tracking polls, and I certainly agree that we ought not put all that much faith in them, but nonetheless, the tightening up of the race has been caused by Obama losing numbers as opposed to McCain gaining numbers. So from a Republican perspective, one of the worrisome parts is that Obama has much greater potential for strength. That's sort of emphasized by how they're running their campaign, with this huge organizing operation that seems determined to expand the electorate, which will give them more room to grow when actual votes are counted. And it's true that the McCain campaign realizes they need to get back to his maverick image, so their new ad that's out today, Wednesday, is really designed to reinforce the fact that John McCain is a maverick. Now, being a maverick for 26 years in Washington, he also buys the issue of, Is he responsible for the problems? So there are some tensions within his strategy as well.

Edsall: I think McCain has been wandering around and has not developed an effective persona for himself either. He did have this huge appeal in 2000 to independent voters and a lot of centrist Democrats. As Ben points out, he's stayed exactly where he is, he hasn't moved up. I'm just wondering if he's placed a ceiling on his own campaign, on his own numbers, by conducting a Steve Schmidt kind of campaign as opposed to a Mike Murphy kind of campaign -- to describe the two consultants, the first one in this year and the second one in 2000. And he's also gotten much more uptight with the press, as has Obama. But I'm a little wary of making leaps of judgment at this point.

Schaller: One of you mentioned the Obama world tour, and McCain's ads and McCain's critique sort of blunting the potential benefit Obama may have gotten from that. The media seem to think it was a huge success, but of course, sometimes when the media think something is correct, the voters disagree. So I'm wondering whether that world tour was a success -- did Obama actually get a bump from it, was it something he needed to check off, or was it a net negative in the long run in the eyes of the voters?

Ginsberg: I think it's really hard to generalize about that world tour because what I think it actually did was just confirmed people's perceptions of Obama. If you're a running dog in the media, like my two colleagues today, you sort of saw it as a big show and a success. If you were a Democrat you saw that he could be a presence -- whether it was a substantive presence is a different question -- you saw he could be a presence on the world stage. If you were a Republican, you saw it as a glitzy show without anything behind it. And how independents react to it, I'm not really sure. I think that plays out over time. I give him credit for needing to check that box, to be able to do it, because I think, as in any campaign, what you're really doing is you're building a mosaic and you're filling in pieces, and you hope that mosaic looks rich, full and vibrant in early November when people go to vote. And so I think that what the tour did for Obama was provide some of the mosaic they're going to need to fill in the whole picture.

Edsall: I'm getting really tired of endorsing Ben, but I think he's right. The whole campaign at this stage is a battle -- because Obama is a blank slate -- is a battle to fill out his mosaic. Obama did fill out, to some extent, his credentials on the international front. You don't hear much on that issue, which was being pounded before. But he did create a picture that lent itself to the satire of being a celebrity, which McCain then pounced on. On net, I think it was probably a slight plus.

Murray: I agree with Ben and Tom on this. I will say that not only was it a check mark for him, but I do think what you're seeing from Barack Obama over the last month is obvious attempts to shore up weaknesses. And whether it's trying to bolster his national-security and foreign-policy credentials by going overseas, or over the last two weeks campaigning in rural Missouri, Youngstown, Ohio -- going to areas where he wasn't as successful in the Democratic primaries -- he's really trying to shore up perceived weaknesses. When you compare that to the McCain campaign, it is a little striking. McCain is really pouncing on the issue of energy and trying to shore up his economic credentials. But on other matters, particularly in looking at the economy as a whole or campaigning in urban areas or really going after young voters, McCain doesn't seem, at this stage, to be trying to shore up as many of his weaknesses as Obama is.

Now whether or not Obama is going to be successful in convincing independent swing voters that he does have these national-security, foreign-policy credentials, or winning over these white working-class voters, that remains to be seen. But I do think that one of the big stories over the past month has been Obama really trying to shore up his weaknesses.

Schaller: Speaking of those weaknesses, all campaigns are really about four messages: For each candidate, the message is about yourself and your opponent, two by two. And what liberals and Democrats are complaining about is that McCain is using the politics of the Other, saying that Obama is foreign and has a funny-sounding name and he's black, whereas you'll hear conservatives and Republicans and the McCain campaign say that is not the critique. They say the critique is that he's either too liberal or that he's merely too green: He's just not ready to be president. How much of this attack is really typical or traditional character assassination? How much of it is really ideological? And which parts of it are working?

Murray: I do think that one thing that differentiates McCain's attacks and Obama's attacks right now is how personal it's been on the McCain end. Seizing on Obama as the world's greatest celebrity, when John McCain's a pretty famous guy himself, does seem to end up where it feels like the folks at the campaign headquarters in Crystal City, Va., have really taken it kind of personally. Even looking back at 2004, in the John Kerry vs. George W. Bush race, where Ben and the Republicans did a great job of branding John Kerry as an out-of-touch liberal who's not as strong as you might think, it never appeared that it was as personal. There seems to be some contempt from the McCain side of things. And I do find that interesting vs. past presidential campaigns. As Ben just mentioned, John McCain is out with a new ad, emphasizing his maverick status and the fact that he's been a reformer in Washington for 20-plus years. But everything else over the past couple of weeks has been very personal.

Edsall: I would say that the ads that ran against Kerry with the windsurfing and the ads against Dukakis -- all of those were pretty much as personal or certainly created a persona. And in fact, I thought they were pretty effective in creating personas that were not acceptable to much of the mainstream electorate. McCain has been trying to do that to some extent, but he's only partially succeeded. I wouldn't jump too far on saying that these are really personal-attack ads. They are strange. To use Britney Spears and Paris Hilton is not the same as using real pictures of the candidate windsurfing. They are kind of a leap, but I wouldn't call them personal.

Ginsberg: I kind of have a different perspective on this. First of all, I do think that much of the Obama campaign has been a cult-of-personality campaign. If you can come up with your own presidential-like seal, then that is the definition of a cult-of-personality campaign. And so, when you make certain things about your persona, like whether you're a celebrity who lacks substance when you've only been in the Senate for four years, it's pretty fair game in terms of whether you should be president. In terms of whether Obama has a funny-sounding name and looks like the other [presidents], let's remember that it has been Barack Obama who has been raising that issue and saying it and has mentioned it at least a half dozen times over the past couple of months. So, Obama in effect has been injecting that, and then to say that somehow that shouldn't be a part of the conversation and the back and forth between the two campaigns, I really don't agree with.

Let me also say that what the Obama campaign has been doing is pretty personal also. The notion of trying to say that McCain is like George Bush, which has been a consistent theme in the Obama campaign, is pretty personal about McCain, especially given the dynamics of the McCain-Bush operation. And again the ad that's out today that includes the heartbeat sound in the middle, which I suspect is intended to draw negative inferences about McCain's age, strikes me as pretty personal. I really reject the notion that this is a one-way personal-ad campaign. I think it is, as Tom pointed out, not terribly different than what's happened in past years.

Schaller: The conventional wisdom in the fall and maybe even into the early part of the Democratic primary season was that the Republicans were licking their chops at the prospect of running against Hillary Clinton. With all her baggage and her feminism, she was going to be an easy target for the Rush Limbaughs and for the Republicans running against the sort of liberal, Hollywood, Clinton Democratic tradition. They were fearful of Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton was going to have all these down-ballot drags for the Democrats, and she was the ideal opponent. I am wondering now if maybe the perception within Republican circles is reversed and that they're not necessarily unhappy with having drawn Barack Obama in the final?

Ginsberg: I think they're not unhappy with having drawn Barack Obama in the finals, but I don't really agree with the notion that there was anything approaching a unified Republican view about licking their chops on Hillary Clinton. I think there were some entrepreneurial consultants, a bit out of the mainstream, who thought they would be able to raise a ton of dough for negative ads against Clinton, but I don't think there was at all a consensus amongst the Republican campaigns that Clinton was a better candidate to run against than Obama. I think it was really pretty split. Both had their weaknesses. Republicans really didn't know before last February who their candidate was going to be, so you didn't really know what the matchup was going to look like, so I'm not sure I agree with that.

Schaller: Let me rephrase the question for Tom and Mark. This was a Hillary Clinton critique [of Obama] late in the primary season, which was, "Hey, you're going to need somebody tough enough to beat the Republicans -- and me, and by extension my husband, we know how to beat the Republicans." We can't know for sure what the race would look like if Hillary were the nominee right now, but is there something to that insinuation that the Clintons were making right up until the end of the primary?

Edsall: I would argue there is something to it. As I said earlier on, I think Obama had better show some toughness himself and show he will fight for what he believes in. You can't run a campaign from on high, and I think he better get into the trenches and punch it up some. He has not done that. So far, the Hillary critique has some teeth to it.

Murray: I do think that if Hillary Clinton were the Democratic nominee now, the race would probably be as close if not even a little bit closer vs. John McCain. Hillary Clinton would bring some very good strengths in a general-election matchup against John McCain -- one, as Tom just mentioned, her really big fighting persona and a long history of battling the Republican Party. She'd also probably be doing much better in Ohio and Florida right now. That said, she'd probably also have some problems in other states where Barack Obama is over-performing, like in Colorado and Virginia. Also, one thing that was very interesting is that she's always had a net negative amongst independents. Democrats, as we saw in their 2004 race and also in their 2006 successes, need to do very well amongst independent and swing voters to be able to win nationally. Hillary Clinton might have been able to do it, but I do think that when you look at the poll numbers, Barack Obama has more upside with that group. It'd be fun to look at how Hillary Clinton would be doing in a computer program, but I think that things would probably be as close between Hillary and McCain right now as they are with Obama and McCain.

Schaller: Let's move to an exit question. Put yourself momentarily in the shoes of [McCain campaign manager] Steve Schmidt or [Obama campaign manager] David Axelrod. You've got three months left. You've got VP picks and conventions and debates and ads to create and circulate. Give me one piece of advice you'd give to each candidate for Obama to open up a lead again or for McCain to keep it close as it moves toward November.

Murray: If I were David Axelrod, what I would focus all my energies on is really to shine at the debates. These will be a big moment. I would have as much preparation as possible and really be able to draw contrasts there. One thing that's interesting, as we all saw over 20-plus debates during the Democratic primary season, Barack Obama often wasn't the best debater. At the same time, he did have a lot more practice than John McCain, particularly in one-on-one debates. You saw him have three debates with Hillary Clinton. I think to shine at the debate, I don't know what kind of advice or how, but that'd be the one thing I'd focus on.

And then for the McCain campaign, I just go back and continue -- to use a boxing metaphor -- continue to bearhug Obama. To really make this race all about him, to really focus all the energy they can on him. I do think that in some respects, the Britney/Paris ads, the trying to really set the campaign's agenda, while it might end up backfiring in the long run, is probably as good of a tactic as you can have now, when most Americans are really going to judge this presidential election on whether they want to have Barack Obama as president or not.

Ginsberg: For my old buddy Steve Schmidt, I think he has a genuine American hero for a candidate, and he needs to reinforce every day and every way that that is true and, at the same time, draw the contrast with Barack Obama as not ready to lead. Just too inexperienced. And more than anything else, I think that John McCain as a candidate has shown a weakness for not staying on message consistently. If there's one thing that the McCain campaign has to do to make the overarching strategy work, it's to stay on message consistently -- that's true of the debates, Mark's absolutely right about that, but it's also true with the daily campaign appearances.

For David Axelrod, I think they have to pick a number of issues and events that show that Obama is ready to lead. That includes the debates to be sure, but also substantive issues and personality traits as well. And above all else, what I think they're doing well -- and the story that never gets reported on before the elections but gets talked about a lot in exit polls and the day-after analysis -- is the organization. Make sure that your organization is well-funded and really out there expanding the electorate and bringing in new voters to the process. That's the story that doesn't get seen and reported on as you follow what the candidates do publicly on a daily basis, but boy, can that make a difference in a 3-, 4-, or 5-point national race.

Edsall: I think that McCain has sort of begun a message of Obama as an elitist, but to make it really work, you have to show that the liberal elitist is actually going to cost the average guy money or a job. That the elitist is going to tilt money or benefits away from regular working people -- i.e., whites -- and towards special-interest groups and the well-to-do. That's all the resources of government, not just money. That's the very nasty process Republicans have done well with in the past, and I think McCain is going to have to do that in a more effective way that goes well beyond Britney Spears.

I think the reverse is true for Obama. He's got to put some detail to his rhetoric. You have to be a candidate who is going to make life better at a time the country is having real economic difficulties and may face much worse ones in the future. You can't be highfalutin, in a sense. He's got to come down from the mountain to the people. That's my two cents for today.

Schaller: I'd like to thank all three of our participants, Tom Edsall and Ben Ginsberg and Mark Murray.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Bill Clinton George W. Bush Hillary Rodham Clinton John F. Kerry D-mass.