It’s not that often that I agree with Frank Rich, the popular New York Times op-ed columnist whose blur of pop culture and politics usually leaves me dizzy with disdain, but the opening to his Aug. 17 essay neatly encapsulated the media’s current zig-zag on Barack Obama’s campaign. I didn’t mind that the bulk of Rich’s column was a predictable attack on John McCain—the “Manchurian Candidate”—since his bewilderment at the hundreds of articles claiming that Obama is in danger of blowing the election was so sensible. Rich says that when he left for vacation at the end of July, the Illinois senator was leading McCain by several points in the polls, “and when I returned he still was. But lo and behold, a whole new plot twist had rolled off the bloviation line in those intervening two weeks: Obama had lost the election!”
Granted, the spate of polls published daily this summer is merely a snapshot of what the mood of a not-fully-engaged electorate is right now, but there’s no reason to believe that Obama has suddenly forfeited his formidable frontrunner status, no evidence that his extraordinary campaign team will repeat the disorganized, sullen and fractious effort of John Kerry’s four years ago. The only thing that’s changed in the presidential race since Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in early June is that the enormous political media machine has become bored, and when boredom sets in there’s bound to be a lot of rash speculation. Will the Clintons create dissension next week at the Obama coronation in Denver? Might the left-wing “netroots” sit out the election because Obama has modified his policy proposals a touch to reach centrist voters? Can his campaign withstand the negative advertisements of the Rove-inspired Republican strategists? Does Obama have a glass jaw?
Frankly, given the economic peril that most newspapers face today—with no signs of abatement—it would be fiscally prudent for management to trim the fat of their political reporting squads. As Jack Shafer noted in Slate last week, over 15,000 journalists will attend the Democratic and Republican conventions, all for what will amount to choreographed campaign rallies for each party. Shafer gets in this zinger: “Slate, I’m embarrassed to admit, is sending a team of eight to Denver and six to St. Paul. Attention! Donald Graham! We’re spending your cash like it’s Zimbabwean bank notes!” [Graham’s Washington Post Co. owns Slate.]
In reality, there are only three factors that could lead to an Obama defeat in November. First is what New York magazine’s John Heilemann wrote about at length on Aug. 10: racial prejudice. You can natter all day about the “post-racial” America of today, but that isn’t true: just ask Tennessee’s impressive Harold Ford Jr., who lost a close Senate election to Republican Bob Corker two years ago despite an overwhelmingly Democratic congressional landside, for his opinion on the implications of race. It’s a simple fact that millions of voters will tell a pollster one thing and then do the opposite in the privacy of the ballot booth. However, it’s almost inconceivable that Obama’s massive appeal to the youth, minorities and women won’t more than compensate for the number of white Americans who can’t abide the idea of a black president. Heilemann, quoted a “prominent Republican operative” who said, “[Race] is the thing nobody wants to talk about, but obviously it’s a huge factor.” Of course it is (and Republicans are cynically banking on it), but the groundswell for Obama that snowballed during the spring wasn’t an accident; a candidate doesn’t attract record numbers of people—in almost every state in the country—out of mere curiosity.
What should worry the Obama campaign more than race or negative attacks by McCain’s crew is campaign fatigue. It’d be swell to snap your fingers and have American presidential marathons morph into a modified version of the British six-week campaigns for prime minister, but that won’t happen any time soon, despite the probability that the electorate would welcome such a change. There’s too much money to be made, whether it’s television stations fattening their revenues with political advertising, the vast number of paid consultants for both parties, or the hunger of primary and battleground states for an influx of cash from the rash of reporters who stay at hotels, fill restaurants and pick up odds and ends at retail outlets.
This hurts Obama more than McCain simply because the former has attracted by far the most attention of the media, and thus runs the risk of overexposure and complacency from his supporters. Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell led her Aug. 17 column with this observation: “[Obama] has had about a 3 to 1 advantage over [McCain] in Post Page 1 stories since Obama became the party’s presumptive nominee June 4… [T]he disparity is so wide that it doesn’t look good.” Obviously, this isn’t confined to the Post, and, to some extent one can excuse the mainstream media: Obama’s candidacy is historic and he’s a lot more interesting than McCain, who’s already had his romance with the press in 2000 and has a run a dull, gaffe-ridden campaign. Like Bob Dole in ’96, McCain seems happy enough that he simply got the nomination; if by some chance he wins, well, that’s gravy. Still, there exists the possibility (slim but not out of the question) that come November voters who aren’t diehard Obamacans—Obamaphiles, Obamaites, whatever variation you choose—will be sick of seeing his mug on the tube and on the covers of magazines (Newsweek has been particularly shameless) and stay home.
The third way that McCain could win by default—and this is the least likely—is if some game-changing event occurs that raises the profile of the GOP. Who knows, maybe bin Laden has been captured and is currently residing in one of Dick Cheney’s bunker waiting to be sprung on Oct. 20. A terrorist attack on U.S. soil, maybe at a football stadium or huge mall would scramble the electoral equation, and probably not to Obama’s benefit. George Bush’s father could keel over, attacked by his heart, near the election and a wave of sympathy would temporarily wash over the nation.
It’s counterintuitive for a campaign to consciously turn off the media spigot, but that wouldn’t be the worst thing for Obama chief strategist David Axelrod to cleverly engineer. He should turn down more interviews from glossy magazines (which trivialize Obama’s seriousness about issues), limit access to the obscene number of reporters and columnists attempting to get exclusive interviews—and material for forthcoming books—and reduce the number of hokey photo-ops of the candidate at state fairs and chomping on wurst in Wisconsin.
It’s Obama’s race to lose, and if the Senator is as politically savvy as he’s demonstrated so far, once the convention’s over he’ll let his huge salaried staff and untold number of volunteers register more voters and prepare for the debates with McCain, which, given the GOP nominee’s penchant for petulance and botched facts, ought to pave the way for an eight-point victory and Electoral College wipeout.
I hope you're right, Russ, and this article's parsing the political reality from the self-interested corporate media labyrinth is very valuable.
I can't wait for november. people say the campaigns go on for too long, but honestly I love election years more than any others. so much excitement and history, especially this year. I don't really have an opinion either way, but an obama win would certainly be something exciting to live through...mccain, not so much. but still, either way I don't really have a preference, at least not politically. I hope the press over obama recedes, because as you said, it is reaching a bit of an overkill/saturation point.
Another way Obama could lose is that people get a grasp of his hype and socialist Carter ideology. Ethanol is the greatest energy scam out there according to experts- Obama doesn't promise to lower gasoline prices, because it costs $9 to make one gallon of ethanol that's sold for four dollars in IL. (soon to be five or more)
Then there's the possibility that the people will decide that they want change, but not *that* much change, and not from the academic far left. Unlike Bush, McCain offends almost no one, and he is already picking up independent and undecided votes by the boatload. I expect a close election and a 60-40 chance of a McCain victory.
I wouldn't give him that much credit, Larry. McCain has been stumbling since March, and he's waiting for Obama to do the same, something that looks less and less likely every day. We'll see how the political landscape looks after Denver and St. Paul, but I'm gonna have to agree with Russ and bet on a comfortable Obama victory in November.
I'm for McCain, not because I like him that much, but because I'm afraid Obama's gonna bleed me dry with tax increases. My salary has already dropped because of the economy, and I don't want it to plummet to the bottom of the earth because of silly taxes.
I am pretty sick of the guy already. When I first heard him, I said to myself, this is the next president. But now I do not see much. I also thought , no way the old guy McCain can beat him. I have changed my mind the more I see of him. He has no back ground that leads me to believe he is presidential material. A community organizer? I bet that will scare the willys out of Putnin! I now think McCain is going to beat him and the Dems. lose again. Middle America is not going to vote for this empty suit and it won't be because of race, but because the guy is shallow. You can tell he thinks he is better annd smarter than most people, but when they get in the polls, the Community Orgainizer gets beat just like the loser Kerry did.
Obama has lost the poll lead in Ohio and Virginia, and Colorado is now a dead-heat. The election is determined by EV votes, not national totals. If Colorado tips, Obama loses based on current polls. Obama is probably still slight favourite, but this is currently looking like a neck-and-neck race.
Spartan must be pretty rich! Obama's tax plan will lower taxes for pretty much everyone who makes under $2 million. If you're afraid Obama will raise your taxes this year, then I don't feel sorry for you.
I am annoyed by the comment of the loss that Harold Ford Jr. suffered was due to racism. The fact was that Ford attended a party at the Playboy mansion. This just will not fly in a conservative state like Tennessee. Also Ford's family (which is heavily involved in Tenn. politics) is crazy. His uncle has 3 wives (not legally but he has 3 houses with three different women living in them). Ford's father has been in some shady deals and this hurt ford for the Senate seat. Racism was not really a factor.
i totally agree that the votes Obama might lose from rural areas where racism is a major factor (because I doubt that cities have a significantly higher population of white people) will be made up for with youth and minorities who wouldn't otherwise vote. plus, i believe in the gut reaction people tend to vote by. our guts don't trust faces that old to be major power figures.
It may indeed be Obama's to lose, but ... every time the guy opens his mouth without a pre-written speech he just sounds so ordinary and even dim. Abortion above his pay grade? High school cleverness at best. Independents are there for the taking, but his reflexes are always hard left. What happened to capturing disaffected Republicans?
Obama's "above my pay grade" remark on abortion wasn't his best moment, but it doesn't compare to the slip-ups that McCain has made. He's going to do well in the debates, when more people are paying attention, especially if McCain looks like an old status quo grump. Sure, Obama has made gaffes, and will make more, but the two candidates aren't on an even playing field when it comes to exciting more half the voters. And that's what it takes to win: both in the Electoral College and popular vote.
@Atomculture: No, I am not rich, but I'd like to be. I work hard, and am trying to make my business a success. Isn't that the American Dream?
Obama has indeed made a series of mistakes -- particularly in the last few weeks. (All of the VP buzz his campaign unleashed yesterday was almost certainly designed to change the subject from the drubbing he took at Saddleback -- a forum that exposed many of his weaknesses, particularly when taken away from his beloved Teleprompter). Russ, you are 100% right in terms of your advice to Axelrod -- advice that roughly parallels that of Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen the other day, who was quoted as saying as eloquent as Obama is, "instead of giving speeches at big stadiums, he needs to give straight-up 10-word answers to people at Wal-Mart about how he would improve their lives". A similar sentiment was loudly echoed by a headline in Sunday's New York Times (essentially the official publication of the DNC and the Obama Campaign) that read: "Seeing Tougher Race, Allies Ask Obama to Make ‘Hope’ Specific". People have some degree of Obama-fatigue, I think, and are tired of the bloviation. But as you also rightly point out, Russ, his campaign and advisers are too smart not to see this for themselves, and so it's almost inconceivable that the ship won't be righted soon.
All too true Russ. I just want this campaign BS to be over and done with. We need to get down to the urgent work of repair-and-rebuild.
this is very true. and i like the point about the youth, minority, etc., vote compensating for the racialist people and pissed-off hillary clintonites. BTW, i had a dream a week ago or so that IN THE MIDDLE OF OBAMA'S CURRENT ELECTION CAMPAIGN, Hillary Clinton held her own special press conference where she announced that she was running for president in 2012.
I would put it another way:all of the media attention has created huge expectations; thus people are now demanding that "hope" be given a name...and a budget line. I say Obama by 2 points.
Mr. Smith, well done.
"It’s Obama’s race to lose, and if the Senator is as politically savvy as he’s demonstrated so far, once the convention’s over he’ll let his huge salaried staff and untold number of volunteers register more voters and prepare for the debates with McCain, which, given the GOP nominee’s penchant for petulance and botched facts, ought to pave the way for an eight-point victory and Electoral College wipeout." Want to take another pass at that Russ? Good call on the gamechanger.
Yeah, vanderleun, I'll take another pass at that. In an election that's exceedingly stranger, and getting stranger every day, Obama is again leading the polls. So I'll stick with that 8-point prediction, thanks very much.