The Plank

Will The Kitchen Sink Work?

By

With Sarah Palin's attack yesterday
on Barack Obama's patriotism and his ties to former Weather Underground
ringleader William Ayers, the McCain campaign has left little doubt
about in which direction it intends to head over the final month of the
campaign. Namely, they're going to drive their campaign into a ditch --
and hope they can find a way to take Obama along for the ride.It
is a sad denouement for what was one to be a high-minded campaign
focused around themes of honor and reform, themes that were
resuscitated briefly during the Republican Convention, possibly
accompanied by McCain's taking a one-term pledge. It is also, however, Mr. McCain's strategists would seem to have concluded, their only remaining hope.I
am not here to dispute that this is McCain's best strategy -- in the
same way that an onside kick is a team's best strategy when it trails
late in the game with no timeouts left. But like the onside kick, it is
fairly unlikely to work.For
one thing, increasing numbers of middle class Americans may already
have decided that Barack Obama is their home team. One of the more
powerful dynamics during the first Presidential debate is that Obama,
in the first 15 minutes of the proceedings, pointed to himself and
said, "Hey! Middle Class! I'm your guy!". McCain did not mention the
middle class, instead reverting to traditional Republican talking
points about supply-side economics. From there forward in that debate,
dial testers reacted poorly when McCain attacked Obama, or appeared to
be contemptuous of him.If this is the case, however -- and it
very well could be -- then this election is over. If the middle class
had decided that Barack Obama is their guy, then he's going to win. So
assume for a moment that there remain a sufficient number of
persuadable voters to provide McCain with a prospective path toward
victory.Even so, I think most observers have tended to
overstate the extent to which this election is in fact about Barack
Obama. It is also very much about John McCain. As I argued in the Los Angeles Times
in August, the principal reason why McCain has been able to remain in a
relatively tight race with Obama, even as the Republican brand is in
shambles, is because he has largely been able to distance his brand
from that of the Republicans. This is evidenced by the fact that
polling during the primaries indicated that Obama was in fact headed
toward a landslide victory against virtually any other Republican,
whether Mike Huckabee or Fred Thompson or Mitt Romney (though the later
might have had some interesting opportunities in light of the current
economic crisis). By contrast, for all the time her advisers spent
trumpeting her electability, Hillary Clinton never had more than a 3-point lead against McCain before exiting he race, and trailed him for much of the primary season.It
may be quite difficult for McCain to attack Obama in this fashion
without significantly damaging his own brand. The chart below presents
a smoothed curve of each candidate's net favorability ratings since the first of the year:What's
interesting is that, with the exception of the past couple of weeks,
McCain's and Obama's ratings have been fairly strongly correlated,
tending to rise and fall together. This is not to say that negative
campaigning doesn't work -- it sometimes does -- but it works at
diminished efficiency, because you may be giving back 50 cents on the
dollar by harming your approval scores.If the McCain campaign
brings up William Ayers -- or Jeremiah Wright -- it will almost
certianly be seen as attack politics. This might seem to be stating the
obvious. But remember that this wasn't
the case during the primaries. The Wright and Ayers stories were
instead driven by actual news -- ABC's reporting of Wright's
inflammatory sermons, for instance -- and were largely not pushed by the Clinton campaign. So unless McCain's oppo research team is sitting on some fresh
news about Obama's ties to Ayers or Wright, the stories are liable to
be reported as a typical partisan attack, which will impeach their
credibility in the public's eyes and reduce their staying power.The Obama campaign does face a bit of a dilemma. By responding to the attacks aggressively -- as they seem inclined to do
-- they may be able to mitigate their impact, and possibly turn them
around on John McCain. But they also keep the story in the news. The
Obama campaign can't afford to be swiftboated, but it also wants to be
careful not to make this the story for more than a couple of news cycles.Ultimately,
however, the fact that McCain is resorting to these sorts of attacks
are an indication of just how much his brand has been damaged.
They certainly aren't likely to help him to repair it.

--Nate Silver 

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