John McCain's campaign tries on new messages like Paris Hilton tries on new shoes. But since Sarah Palin entered the race, they've managed to deliver at least one consistent rallying cry: We are the ticket of small-town values.
Small-town mythology has become the cornerstone of Palin’s pitch to voters. She spoke about “Main Streeters like me” in the vice presidential debate and talked up “Joe six-pack.” In her speech before the Republican National Convention, she told the audience that the nation grows “good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity.”
Palin’s speech channeled Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to a friend in 1785, “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.” But the Jeffersonian portrait she sketched of rural America doesn’t tell the whole story.
Palin didn’t touch on the fact that small towns are hemorrhaging young people, who grow up and leave in search of opportunity. She didn’t mention that hope is scarce in some towns, as a 2008 survey (pdf) of rural Midwesterners completed by the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute found. Only 15 percent of those asked to forecast the future of their communities believed life there would be better in 10 years. Palin didn’t explain to the nation that small towns have fallen on hard times. Nor did she promise rural Americans that a Palin vice presidency would mean a better future was on its way.
Because that wasn’t really the point. Palin peddles small-town nostalgia and an outdated image of the “average American” to cast shadows of doubt on her enemies, not to offer solutions to her friends. The Wasilla gal is George Bush, the guy you’d like to swill beer with, in fierce pumps and trendy glasses. She embodies the same everyman appeal that Bush did and uses it to stoke the kind of fear and division that made Karl Rove a household name. But at a time when the country is fighting two wars abroad and trying to piece the economy back together at home, can the politics of cultural resentment still turn the election for Republicans?
To understand why, take a look back at the Republican National Convention, when McCain campaign manager Rick Davis told the Washington Post, “This election is not about issues.” If it was, the McCain camp looked to be fighting a losing battle as the campaign entered the home stretch: An ABC News / Washington Post poll released Oct. 13 reported that 68 percent of likely voters preferred Obama’s positions on the issues, with only 29 percent preferring McCain’s. But the poll found those voters favored McCain’s personal qualities over Obama’s 61 percent to 34 percent. The takeaway? McCain’s best shot at the White House was to make the campaign a referendum on character.
You might think that would mean we’d be hearing a lot about McCain’s dark days in Vietnam in these final weeks. But instead, the campaign has shaped its character attacks almost singularly around the image of Sarah Palin. They’ve deployed Palin’s small-town biography to tell the story of a fabled “real America” that the terrorist-friendly Obama, as Palin and others paint him, isn’t a part of. At an Oct. 16 fundraiser in Greensboro, North Carolina, Palin declared that, “the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America.” She went on that in these “pro-America areas of this great nation…we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans.”
“I bet bin Laden feels like a real asshole now,” Daily Show host Jon Stewart responded on the following Tuesday’s show. “What?! I bombed the wrong America?!” Stewart skewered Palin further saying, “I guess if you’re from New York City and you signed up to fight in Iraq and you died, I guess it doesn’t count.” Palin’s comments didn’t play much better beyond the Daily Show, either, and Palin eventually issued a half-hearted apology. The fact is, most folks don’t live in Palin’s “real America”; according to the New Republic, 84 percent of Americans live in the country’s metro areas.
It's true that rural voters play a disproportionate role in national elections. Just look at in Ohio in 2004, where they ignored pocketbook issues and handed George Bush the presidency because of his stances on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Palin’s job is to make sure rural voters put their values above their wallets again in 2008. But will they?
Small-town America no longer looks like a place Republicans can easily clinch by devoting a little airtime to their opponent’s Godless positions on abortion or gay marriage. Robert P. Jones, president of Public Religion Research, told National Public Radio that those two hot-button wedges of 2004 aren’t even among religious voters’ top five concerns this year. With social issues taking a back seat to the economy, Republican dominance in rural areas is waning. A late September poll by the Center for Rural Strategies showed McCain with a 10-point lead over Obama in rural America. The center's newest poll, however, shows a dramatic shift. Conducted in the first three weeks of October, the poll reports Obama leading McCain 46 percent to 45 percent among rural voters in 13 swing states.
Unlike past Democratic candidates, Obama has made a point of showing up in historically unfriendly territory, making sure rural swing voters hear his message. Explaining to New York Times Magazine reporter Matt Bai how he won rural Nevada in the Democratic primary, Obama said, “a lot of it just had to do with the fact that folks thought: Man, the guy is showing up. He’s set up an office. He’s doing real organizing. He’s talking to people.” According to Bai, Obama has 50 campaign offices in Virginia, 42 in Indiana, and 45 in North Carolina, all states his party usually writes off in national campaigns.
When he shows up, Obama appeals to rural voters with an economic message he's been hitting for some time. In July, for instance, he swung through rural Missouri on an economic tour, giving particular attention to his vision for the green economy of the future. The McCain campaign, by comparison, has delivered a shaky economic message at best. The economy simply isn’t what they want to talk about. McCain adviser Greg Strimple told the Washington Post in early October, “We are looking forward to turning a page on this financial crisis." But the page has not turned on our economic woes, and unfortunately for McCain, voters are interested in talking about it.
Nevertheless, McCain and Palin continue to push a campaign that celebrates the common man in lore more than substance. Joe the Plumber, who has recently eclipsed Palin as the campaign’s “average” sensation, is McCain’s symbol du jour of the further economic pain a President Obama would impose on the country. Yet Joe, at his current income level, would fare better under Obama’s tax plan than McCain’s, exposing deep imperfections in the relationship between McCain's message and his policy.
McCain seized upon Joe without vetting just as he seized upon Sarah, out of a belief that symbolism could trump candor. Sarah Palin is indeed a powerful embodiment of a certain American story that has a tight hold on our imagination. America was born as a nation of small towns, and we tend to celebrate presidential stories that originate there. But that is no longer the America in which we live. In 2008, it's a mistake to believe that there is only one quintessential American story or that Sarah’s is any more American than Barack’s.
Photo by cmaccubbin, licensed under Creative Commons.