McCain’s Challenge: It Can Be Done

by on October 16th, 2008

If you’re somewhat despondent about Senator McCain’s performance in last evening’s debate, count yourself among millions of Republicans who sat in stunned silence as the presidential hopeful peppered his opponent with jabs but was unable to fell him. There were so many missed opportunities and unclosed loops that it became frustrating to watch. But before we become too immersed in self-pity, let’s look to the mastermind of political strategy, Karl Rove, for some encouragement.

Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, Mr. Rove provides the context necessary to calm our jittery nerves, noting that the most reliable poll, from Investor’s Business Daily, says this is a three-point race. And, although Obama is outspending McCain nearly two-to-one, Rove reminds us that Senator Kerry outspent President Bush in 2004 by $121 million and still lost. Moreover, the Washington Post/ABC poll found that a remarkable 45 percent of voters still don’t feel Obama is qualified to be president.

You can absorb Rove’s arguments and his electoral math seems sound, but this will ultimately come down to trust and confidence. Last night probably reassured Democratic voters that Obama has a presidential persona, one that’s credible if short on the depth of experience that brings a bona fide gravitas to his aura. But, the question is where the undecided voters are, and there are millions of them. They tend to fall into the Independent category and they traditionally lean rightward, in particular in times when the economy is weak or issues of national security are paramount. In this election, of course, both weigh heavily on voters’ minds.

In presidential battles, voters are drawn towards candidates with a coherent narrative, one that exudes confidence and predictability. They’re looking for reassurance and strong leadership, someone who will not only reflect their views but who will stand up for American values. Comparing McCain and Obama, it’s difficult to argue that the latter would satisfies that criteria, and when we superimpose our challenges, from the economy to a belligerent Iran and wavering Russia, one can argue that McCain’s experience and judgment is superior.

But, underlying the electorate’s preferences are powerful emotions concerning the more intuitive and image-based notions of the candidates. These variables are arguably more potent in the calculus of decision-making, because they’re the ones that personalize our decision, which bring our deepest values to the forefront. Those are under constant bombardment from a multitude of sources, from television ads to editorials, to the debates. For undecided voters, it’s a matter of which variables and values are most prominent in the architecture of their political thinking.

McCain’s challenge is to reconfigure that hardwiring in the undecideds, to convince them that not only is Obama unprepared for the presidency, that he’ll raise taxes and chat up our enemies, but that the risks of an Obama in the White House far outweigh the benefits.

Although it’s certainly possible, his task is both monumental and daunting–but it can be done.

Philip Mella