The economy and Bush's unpopularity would have made it tough for McCain to win the election no matter what, but as I predicted last February in one of my first political blogposts, Overestimating McCain, John McCain has played a weak hand poorly. I base my argument on the radical assumption that content matters. Whether delivered in rousing speeches, angry debates, or snide ads, if a candidate's message fails to resonate with voters, he or she is unlikely to prevail. I propose two measures for evaluating the effectiveness of a message: truthiness and importance. In an homage to Stephen Colbert, I use "truthiness" rather than "truth" because with regard to electability, the accuracy of a message doesn't ultimately matter as long as the voters believe it. The swiftboaters' message about Kerry's service was a lie, but unfortunately, enough voters found it persuasive to make a difference in the race.
During the primary, Hillary Clinton had trouble communicating consistent messages that were both truthy and important. Her most convincing message concerned experience: She would be ready on "Day 1", whereas Obama had not crossed the "commander in chief threshold." Her 3am ad was the most effective of her campaign for that reason. But Clinton undercut the plausibility of the message by overstating her experience, most memorably with regard to her "military experience" in Bosnia. More significantly, the voters did not deem experience to be as important as change credentials in this election. Clinton's campaign realized that and tried to adopt a change message, "Change you believe in," but it lacked truthiness. The Clintons have been fixtures of American politics for too long for this message to be convincing. Clinton's second most effective message concerned Obama's perceived elitism. Despite his modest upbringing, Obama's sophistication and education, along with his famous "bitter" gaffe, made the charge persuasive to voters. While working class identification was not important enough to voters to turn the election around for Clinton, the effectiveness of the message kept her campaign afloat, particularly in Appalachia, until the end of the primary.
McCain has also had difficulty communicating consistent messages that are both persuasive and important to voters. His most prominent and consistent message has been his service to the country, and his campaign website leads with the argument that McCain has always put his country first. This message is truthy enough, and it's certainly important in the sense that voters would not likely vote for someone who they did not believe would put the country first, but it's what called in corporate branding a "parity point." Anyone running for President must put the country first, but it's not a point of differentiation. There are millions of Americans who put their country first but are not in the least qualified to be President. The only way that McCain could have made this message significant would have been to convince voters that Obama did not put his country first. He had some success in charging Obama with a lack of patriotism, but absurdity of the "flag pin" charge undercut this message to the point that it has largely been forgotten.
Like Clinton, McCain has also effectively abandoned a plausible case for experience in exchange for a message of "change" by appealing to his maverick reputation and reform credentials and by selecting a young, aggressive running mate. But McCain's age, his many years in the Senate, and his Bush-friendly voting record significantly undercut the truthiness of this message, especially relative to a young Democrat who has successfully marketed himself as an agent of the change since the beginning of the primary. Even at the height of McCain's polling popularity, when he broke even with Obama in the national polls, Obama was still seen as the candidate most likely to change Washington. Moreover, McCain's selection of Sarah Palin effectively neutered any case that he might still have made for the importance of experience. His campaign's argument that Palin has more experience than Obama was so low on the truthiness scale that it became comedy fodder.
McCain and Palin have tried to revive Clinton's charges of elitism, but this message has only moderate importance to voters this year, and at least in McCain's case, his own real estate holdings and support for upper class tax cuts undermine the truthiness of the message that he can speak for working class voters better than Obama. It's worth noting, however, that despite great wealth, a more aristocratic pedigree than McCain, and support for upper class tax cuts, G.W. Bush was able to make this message work. But the Bush team was a master at massaging truthiness, and Bush's folksy manner and unassuming air was sufficiently plausible to voters, especially relative to Gore and Kerry, who were both very susceptible to charges of elitism. The related celebrity charge that McCain raised last August with the memorable Spears-Hilton ad, while attention grabbing, was not truthy enough to stick, as I argued at the time.
McCain's other messages have completely failed the truthiness standard, the importance standard, or both. On the most important issue of the election, the economy, McCain has not convinced anyone except diehard supporters that he's the right person to manage an economy in crisis. Even prominent conservatives have turned against him. McCain's "straight talk" message, which was not sufficiently important to primary voters to get him the nomination in 2000, has now been so undercut by egregiously misleading advertisements that Obama is now perceived the "good guy" in this campaign. The "palling around with terrorists" charge lacks both truthiness and, as the economy roils, importance.
By contrast, Obama's messages that he will change Washington and that McCain is out of touch on the economy have been consistent, important, and persuasive. Obama has consistently led the polls on both change and the economy, and these two issues have been seen as the most important of the election. There is much more to be said about what Obama has done right, but that's a subject for another post.
That leaves McCain down in the polls and short on time with no clear persuasive and significant reason for voters to elect him. He is now turning to more desperate accusations, such as calling Obama's tax cut a form of welfare. But this charge is almost as ludicrous as the claims that Palin has foreign policy experience. It reeks of desperation and utterly fails the truthiness standard. We live in a divided country with many citizens who believe in the Republican party's ideology, many who attach significance to McCain's experience, many who doubt Obama's patriotism, and many others who are simply racist. Obama may not simply coast to victory. But the reason that Obama is now expected to the win the Presidency has as much to do with the flaws of McCain's campaign as it does the strengths of Obama's campaign and the favorable political environment.
The Obama campaign is justifiably concerned about voter complacency and discourages messages about electoral inevitability. While I am an avid supporter and fundraiser for Obama, I do not work for the campaign and don't consider it be my role to stay "on message." I also doubt that anyone making the effort to read my post is not planning to vote. If you have read have been lulled into complacency by my post and decided not to vote, be assured that I will personally track you down and demand that you that you vote.