Starting Gate

August 19, 2008 5:45 p.m.

There’s been a lot of chatter about the state of the race over the last week or two. Some fretting on the part of some Obama supporters; some McCain supporters thinking for the first time that he might have a shot at winning this thing. There’s been some movement in the polls in McCain’s favor in various key swing states and nationwide. But it’s mainly a matter of cutting into Obama’s lead.

Small shifts in polling numbers are very difficult to make sense of in August.

So I want to set that all aside and take stock of where the campaign seems to be in terms of each campaign’s message. On this front, McCain’s message is pretty clear and essentially twofold: 1) Obama is, in so many words, a frivolous phony, someone who really doesn’t have any business running for president. 2) McCain is a strong leader who can defend the country. There are all sorts of sub- and secondary themes — Obama’s an outsider, questionably American, etc. But all the nitty gritty points are subservient to those two interlocking messages.

From Obama, honestly, I don’t sense a really clear message. There are attacks on McCain, some of which are quite good. There are positive uplifting commercials. And there are ads/messages targeted to particular states — like Yucca Mountain in Nevada and the DHL layoffs in Ohio. But it’s hard for me to come up with a clear cut Obama message in way that it’s pretty simple for me to do with McCain. Even the ‘change’ message, which is the basis of Obama’s campaign, seems much more diffuse to me than it was during the primaries.

It’s true that I’m not living in one of the key states — so there’s a lot of atmospherics that I’m not seeing that voters would see in Ohio or Michigan, for instance. But I do run this site, that follows politics pretty closely. So I feel like I shouldn’t need to be following things more closely than I already am.

Now, this is a key time to take stock because it’s really only with the conventions that the battle is joined. Obama’s been on vacation for a week. So when we’ll really get a sense of message is the show that each candidate puts on in his party convention and then the campaign they run through September and October.

Beating up on McCain is critical. But it’s not a message in itself. And the Obama campaign needs to deepen people’s trust in Obama. Not because of all the smears because an outsider running to overturn the status quo always faces trust issues. But, again, not a message. For my money, the essence of this campaign is — Are you happy with the way the country’s been run for the last 7.5 years. Has our foreign policy left us better off? Republican economic policy? You can go through all the different facets. But it’s clear that the public overwhelmingly thinks the Bush presidency has been little short of a disaster. And do you want four more years of that? If that’s the frame of the election, McCain will be crushed. People know they don’t want four more years of Bush. McCain will be another four years of Bush. It’s time for change, etc. That’s the essence of the campaign. But the message, right now, seems very muddled.

I’ve misjudged and underestimated Obama at several points in this cycle. And sometimes the public mood leans so overwhelmingly in one direction — that the electorate gets the message themselves without any help. (This is clearly at least very close to the situation in the public mood at the moment.) But at the moment this is how it looks to me.

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