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Obama’s Ground War vs. McCain’s Negativity Blitz

 by Hannah Lobel


Tags: Politics, Election 2008, Barack Obama, John McCain, Sarah Palin, negative ads, negative campaign, campaign strategy, Bill Ayers, Bill Kristol, get out the vote, voter registration, Washington Post, New York Times, American Prospect, FiveThirtyEight,

Obama's Cool vs. McCain's AngryWith less than a month to go until Election Day, Barack Obama and John McCain are pegging their hopes on two very different campaign strategies. Obama is waging a ground war to get out the vote, while McCain is lobbing grenades at his opponent’s character. Which tack wins in November will say as much about Americans as it does about the two candidates.

The two camps’ approaches have come into stark relief over the last few days. On Saturday, Greg Strimple, a top adviser to McCain, dimwittedly announced to the Washington Post that “We are looking forward to turning a page on this financial crisis and getting back to discussing Mr. Obama's aggressively liberal record and how he will be too risky for Americans.” Then the surrogates were unleashed on the Sunday talk-show circuit to stoke the fear about Obama’s association with Weather Underground cofounder Bill Ayers. Here’s a quick-and-dirty video roundup from the weekend smearfest by TPM:

Sarah Palin has beaten the same drum on the stump, saying Obama was “palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.” And in Bill Kristol’s column in the New York Times today, she resurrected—at the conservative shill’s prodding—the specter of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

I pointed out that Obama surely had a closer connection to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright than to Ayers — and so, I asked, if Ayers is a legitimate issue, what about Reverend Wright?

She didn’t hesitate: “To tell you the truth, Bill, I don’t know why that association isn’t discussed more, because those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country, and to have sat in the pews for 20 years and listened to that — with, I don’t know, a sense of condoning it, I guess, because he didn’t get up and leave — to me, that does say something about character. But, you know, I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring that up.”

And in advance of Tuesday’s debate, McCain unleashed his own vitriol. “Who is the real Barack Obama?” McCain asked a cheering crowd in Albuquerque, tipping his hand to show what will surely be the strategy from now until November 4: Scare people away from this Barack (Hussein) Obama. 

Meanwhile, on Monday, Obama’s key strategy came center stage as the deadline for registering new voters in several states hit. The Washington Post parsed the preliminary numbers, and things do not look good for McCain: 

In the past year, the rolls have expanded by about 4 million voters in a dozen key states -- 11 Obama targets that were carried by George W. Bush in 2004 (Ohio, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico) plus Pennsylvania, the largest state carried by Sen. John F. Kerry that Sen. John McCain is targeting. 

In Florida, Democratic registration gains this year are more than double those made by Republicans; in Colorado and Nevada the ratio is 4 to 1, and in North Carolina it is 6 to 1. Even in states with nonpartisan registration, the trend is clear -- of the 310,000 new voters in Virginia, a disproportionate share live in Democratic strongholds. 

(USA Today has a handy chart showing the two sides’ gains in battleground states. And to read a great account of what this effort looks like on the ground, read FiveThirtyEight’s dispatch yesterday from Tippecanoe County, Indiana.)

And so as McCain, Palin, & Co. rumble in the muck, the Obama team is still steadily hitting the pavement, reaching out to new voters in an attempt to remake the electoral map. (For an excellent dissection of Obama’s long-term strategy, read the American Prospect’s September cover story, “It’s His Party.”) 

Now, that’s not to say the Obama campaign hasn’t launched its own negative assault. Today, they unveiled their Keating Economics documentary and website. But, as Utne.com’s Jake Mohan notes, “it remains to be seen whether anyone besides the die-hard wonks will sit through a 13-minute video about the economy—and how well Obama’s attack will stick” amidst the McCain camp’s sharper jabs.

Then there’s the qualitative difference between the two negative tacks. The Keating punches are based in criticisms of policy, while McCain’s assaults are meant to question Obama’s character. If Obama wanted to take that lower road, he could, of course, run ad after ad showing Palin being blessed by a witch hunter who wants to ensure she’s elected so she can put God back into the public schools. Or, as Democratic strategist Paul Begala noted on Meet the Press, the Obama campaign could start hammering McCain for sitting on the board of the U.S. Council for World Freedom. Begala explains:

You know, you can go back, I have written a book about McCain, I had a dozen researchers go through him, I didn’t even put this in the book. But John McCain sat on the board of a very right-wing organization, it was the U.S. Council for World Freedom, it was chaired by a guy named John Singlaub, who wound up involved in the Iran contra scandal. It was an ultra conservative, right-wing group. The Anti-Defamation League, in 1981 when McCain was on the board, said this about this organization. It was affiliated with the World Anti-Communist League – the parent organization – which ADL said “has increasingly become a gathering place, a forum, a point of contact for extremists, racists and anti-Semites.”

Now, that's not John McCain, I don't think he is that. But you know, the problem is that a lot of people know John McCain’s record better than Governor Palin. And he does not want to play guilt by association or this thing could blow up in his face.

Bye, bye, Florida.

Instead, though, Obama seems focused on the ground war, a strategy that tends to make Dems fret about not swinging back hard enough (see Kerry, Swift Boat). And the nervous Nellies could prove to be right, though I can’t help but think back to 2000, when Bush’s evangelical get-out-the-vote effort stealthily won the day.

It all depends on whether American voters opt to open their hearts to seedy fear-mongering, and, if they do, whether a crop of newly franchised voters outnumber their weaker fellow citizens. In that way, this election seems more a test of Americans than of John McCain or Barack Obama.

Adapted from image by realjameso16, licensed under Creative Commons.