Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sarah Palin: An interesting choice

The reactions to McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his VP nominee break into two camps:

The Democratic Camp: She's less experienced that Obama, and she's a hard core conservative that won't attract women.

The Republican Camp: She's a solid conservative that excites the base, and has the reformist credentials to out change Obama (and hence, will attract independents). And she'll attract disaffected woman upset with Obama's perceived slight of Hillary because he didn't even vet her for the VP slot.

Today's Washington Post had a number of pundits from both sides weighing in on Palin's nomination. Democratic pollster and author Douglas E. Schoen wrote the following: "An ardently pro-life, anti-gay rights woman is unlikely to appeal to whatever is left of Hillary Clinton's heretofore disaffected constituency after the Democrats' show of unity this week."

Schoen would be right on, but that's not the constituency McCain is trying to reach with Palin. Last year, in the months before the Iowa caucus, I read that Hillary Clinton's campaign was particularly focused on older women--especially those who were over the age of 65. The hope was, as it was expressed in several news outlets, that these women--who do NOT normally participate in the caucus process or vote Democratic in that process--might be convinced with the historic nature of the Clinton campaign to participate in the hopes of seeing the ultimate glass ceiling broken.

Well, those women were activated and many of them were activated for the sole purpose of voting for a woman on the national ticket. These newly activated woman are the ones that McCain hopes to reach with Palin. And these are EXACTLY the types for whom Palin's conservative record matters little. They already express skepticism with Obama, and perhaps the addition of Palin to the GOP ticket might convince them to vote for McCain this fall. I tend to believe that Palin, assuming she doesn't pull a Dan Quayle, can be just the game changer that McCain needs.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Party Conventions Matter

I read a piece the other day that lamented the arrival of 15,000 journalists in Denver to cover the Democratic convention.

Why did 15,000 journalists need to cover an uninteresting event? The nomination was settled, so why report on it at all? And, as a voter, why pay attention when nothing was happening?

I was troubled by this report because it assumed that the only reason conventions exist at all, is to decide the party's general election nominee. This is most certainly not true.

Yes, party conventions today simply ratify the decision made by primary and caucus voters many months ago. The excitement swirling around who might be the nominee, whether a dark horse might emerge, and party bosses pledging their state delegation's vote en masse are long gone. The death knell rang with the arrival of the primary election and the change in Democratic convention nominating rules away from the 2/3rds rule in the 1930s.

But the nomination of presidential candidate is one role of the party convention. There are plenty of other things conventions do and these things are worth observing.

First, conventions serve to bring the party together under one tent and banner, to prepare for the general election canvass in the fall. Old wounds are healed and activists are reinvigorated for the fall. We saw Hillary and Bill Clinton attempt to bring their supporters under the Barack Obama tent in Denver earlier this week.

Second, they allow political parties to stake out their issue agenda for the fall election. Conventions allow them to set the terms of the debate and what the party's stance is going into the election. Parties are responsible: they develop and adhere to a set of principles. Where are those principles articulated? At the convention.

Third, they excite the activist base. Monday night at the Democratic convention was all about getting the activists excited for the hard work ahead. Monday night was about the party's history, and a tribute to its past titans.

Fourth, they allow politicians from different parts of the country to introduce themselves to a national audience. Barack Obama certainly benefited from his speech to the Democratic convention in 2004. And our own Governor Schweitzer might benefit in the future from his rousing convention speech this year.

Finally, they are about defining the opponent. The Democratic Convention said very clearly how they want to define John McCain: More of the same.

In closing, conventions are important to the election campaign even if the nominee isn't in doubt. I urge you to tune in now, if you haven't already.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

National polls: Ignore them

I'm blogging from the great state of Alaska today. I've been doing research on Mike Gravel, one of the case studies for my next book. Very interesting subject about which I will have more to say at a later date.

A couple of national polls came out today showing McCain in the lead. See the story here.

I want to caution you. National polls are not terribly useful in an election contest decided by the electoral college. In other words, it's the state by state polls that really matter, not the popular vote total nationally. More troubling for Obama are not national polls, but the Real Clear Politics State average of state polls that shows McCain inching ahead in the Electoral Vote Count. That's a better indicator of where the race is and the challenges both candidates face.

But, again, it is so very early in the game right now. What really matters is how both candidates perform at the convention, who they choose for running mates, and where the election stands in each state after the Republican Convention. That's when much of the electorate will begin to tune in and pay attention.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Alaska Redux: Stevens, Part Deux

Is this Alaska's new Senator?

As I'm going to Alaska this weekend for a two week research trip, I thought I would comment again on Senator Stevens (R-AK).

I read somewhere, perhaps in the Post or the Times, an account suggesting that scandal or not, Stevens might still pull this thing off come November.


I don't think I'm going out on a limb here when I say that the Republicans will lose the Alaska Senate seat unless they get Ted Stevens off the ticket. Then, they'll need to put him in a box and hide him until long after all the ballots are cast just in case.

The fact of the matter is the bribery scandal is the tip of the iceberg for Stevens. The federal investigation into the corruption of Alaska's public officials began in 2006. Stevens' home was raided by the FBI in 2007. Combined with Stevens' age, the investigation probably prompted popular Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich to seriously consider and ultimately decide to launch his campaign against Stevens in early 2008.

The power of incumbency is the ability, first and foremost, to discourage serious, quality challengers from emerging. Incumbency failed for Stevens because he was unable to do that. The scandal and Stevens' age put questions in the minds of voters and the Alaskan political elite: can Stevens continue to be effective at his job? Once he became an issue, and a quality challenger made the decision to take a run at him, the chances of Stevens winning decreased markedly. It is hard to see how he can win while mounting a serious legal challenge against the federal government's case.

Republicans, and Stevens himself if he is still the nominee, will likely pour money into this campaign. While Alaska is a cheap media market, there are only so many ads one can buy. The question becomes where to spend additional money. And, given that Stevens is so well-known, that money is much less likely to be effective. Begich doesn't have to outspend Stevens to be successful--he merely needs to spend ENOUGH money to get his message out and provide an attractive alternative to Stevens. I think he can do both. Begich can even make the argument that Stevens will be less effective in a Democratic-controlled Senate than he would be.

The last two Rasmussen polls show an 8 (July 17th) and 13 (July 30th) point lead for Begich (see here). I just don't see how Stevens can change the dynamic in the race and remove himself as the issue--unless he can unload on Begich with a devastating negative attack that sticks.

At the end of the day, I don't think the question is whether Alaska will have a new Senator come December. The question is, rather, will that Senator be Begich or some other Republican that the party nominates to fill Stevens' place on the ballot.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Drinking too much of the Kool-Aid

There's been a lot of attention in the last 24 hours to the issue of race in the presidential race. Obama has suggested that Republicans will attack him because he's black, and McCain has angerily rebutted that Barack is the one who is injecting race into this campaign.

I'm not terribly interested in this dialogue. I'm more interested in how McCain and Barack are trying to establish their biographical bonafides, to make the case that they can be the leader America needs.

Obama's campaign has been of the classic outsider variety: Washington is broken, and I am the one who can fix it. At times, his campaign has been inspirational and lofty. Of late, however, one gets the feeling that perhaps Obama is a bit overly impressed with himself.

McCain, on the other hand, began his general election campaign re-introduction with an ad highlighting his experience as a POW in Vietnam. Combined with an Internet ad release showing clips of Churchill and TR, the message was clear: he's a person of strong character and will, and hence, he has the capacity to be a strong leader. But one wonders if this is an advantage in today's political environment.

Both campaigns are centered on the question of leadership, but both are approaching the question from very different angles. Which dialogue will win is anyone's guess, but this election feels very much like 1976. Voters were disgusted with corruption and scandal, and wanted a fresh, honest face. That face, of course, was one-term Governor Jimmy Carter. Obama is this year's Jimmy Carter.

McCain's biography is his weakest and strongest suit. Voters are eager for change, and they've experienced a President who was certain that he was right. As Bush himself put it, "You may not agree with me, but at least you know where I stand." In this sense, McCain's inflexibility (an asset at other times) might actually hurt him come November.

McCain and his staff, of course, are worried that Obama's change argument will win the day. McCain's campaign has chosen to attack Obama's perceived strength--as an agent of change--by suggesting he's not experienced enough to do the changing. This is the classic response to an outsider challenge: sow the seeds of doubt among voters. But McCain's response is different from past attempts. Look here:

The McCain folks are lambasting Obama, ridiculing him. This is a stronger attack than the one Bush Senior made against Bill Clinton (essentially calling him a two-bit Governor of a two-bit state). This ad, along with the celeb ad, make us question Obama's sincerity and whether there is any "there there", so to speak. One might say that McCain is taking from Hillary's playbook: It's 3AM, do you want this guy answering the phone? Or, do we want someone else in the White House who doesn't have any doubts--just like W?

Doubts remain about Obama among voters. They should. He's less known than McCain--and there's a lot of time left to update one's priors and make a more informed decision about him. McCain is hoping that in voting for change, voters vote for experienced change. It's a risky gamble, but to win in November, McCain will have to take some risks in this political atmosphere that's becoming more and more toxic for Republicans.