Why Sen. Barack Obama's campaign has lost traction

Once regarded as an overwhelming favorite, the Democrat has been sucked into day-to-day campaign sparring and forced to prove himself in Sen. John McCain's comfort zone of foreign policy and security. Here's what Obama needs to do to turn it around, starting with a focus on his turf — economics and other domestic issues.
Crosscut archive image.
Once regarded as an overwhelming favorite, the Democrat has been sucked into day-to-day campaign sparring and forced to prove himself in Sen. John McCain's comfort zone of foreign policy and security. Here's what Obama needs to do to turn it around, starting with a focus on his turf — economics and other domestic issues.

Both media and even veteran campaigners have been asking the same question recently regarding the presidential race: Why is Sen. John McCain staying so close to Sen. Barack Obama in national polls?

The last Gallup Poll — the most historically reliable all of all polls — had the two in a virtual dead heat.

Here is my own take on what is happening:

Fundamentals favor Obama

All polls point to a decisive Democratic victory in congressional races this fall. The outoing Bush-Cheney administration is unpopular. Housing/credit/energy/food price problems have voters understandably worried about the economy, which is the salient issue this fall.

Obama, as his nominating campaign unfolded, was seen to be energizing young voters. His basic message, reaching across partisan and ideological lines, drew independents and moderate Republicans. Obama raised record amounts of campaign money in the nominating period and maintains a fundraising lead over McCain. Voters registering as Republicans have diminished substantially nationally. McCain's campaign thus far has been lackluster. McCain himself has seemed tentative and unexciting in his appearances.

A strong tide is running for change. All of these factors, taken together, could be expected to have Obama at a double-digit lead over McCain at this point.

Why is McCain staying so close?

I do not believe, as many seem to do, that unpoken racism accounts for the close race. There surely are a few Americans who do not like the idea of a bi-racial president. But, it seems to me, the energizing of the African-American comunity and of young voters should more than compensate for that factor.

Nor do I believe that McCain's campaign commercials, casting doubt on Obama's experience, are the reason. Candidates of both major parties can be expected to concentrate, especially early in the campaign period, on their opponent's weaknesses so as to define him negatively. Obama, for his part, has been mischaracterizing McCain's stance on energy policy. Unless the campaigns are dealing in outright lies, this is what can be expected on both sides.

The reason for the closeness is that Obama has allowed himself to be the issue. This is a syndrome which is difficult for a candidate to escape.

Obama needs to clarify himself

Obama's international tour helped him gain a better grasp of global issues and also drew overwhelmingly favorable media coverage. Yet it did not result in an upward bump in his poll ratings.

Partly this was because voters generally place greater confidence in McCain in national security/foreign policy than they do in Obama. National security, in campaign terms, is McCain's issue. The economy and domestic policy are Obama's issues.

To the degree that campaign dialogue centers around international and national security issues, McCain thus gains.

The most extreme example of this syndrome came during the 1972 Nixon-McGovern campaign. Voters were dissatisfied with the continuance of the Vietnam War and the economy was flat. Yet President Richard Nixon was more greatly trusted by voters to deal with national security/foreign policy issues than was Sen. George McGovern. Thus, the more McGovern challenged Vietnam policy — quite properly — the more Nixon climbed in the polls. McGovern (and Democrats in general) were more generally trusted to conduct domestic and economic policy. But, there, McGovern's stumbing on a negative income-tax issue neutralized his advantage. Thus Nixon, in the end, carried every state but Massachusetts, even though the war and the Watergate scandal could have been expected to weigh him down.

There were other factors contributing to McGovern's loss, of course, including his selection and rejection of Sen. Tom Eagleton as his running mate and the defection of what later would be called Reagan Democrats on the basis of social issues. But the point is this: Any candidate must concentrate on his/her issues — in 2008, for Obama, the state of the economy — and not on the opponent's issues (in 2008, national security/foreign policy).

Obama's international trip, and his subsequent statements, have given him sufficient bona fides on foreign policy to be credible there. But he will never be more credible to voters than former POW/career Navy officer McCain.

If it were possible for him to do so, Obama should spend every day through Labor Day talking solely about economic and domestic issues. In fall general-election debates, he will of course be called on to debate McCain strongly and convincingly on overseas issues. He cannot stumble then. But he need only hold his own with McCain on such issues.

The candidates' personas

McCain is 25 years older than Obama. He has been on the national scene for a long period and became a national figure with his 2000 Republican nominating campaign against President Bush. Voters think they know him, although they really know only some aspects of him.

Obama has had a relatively brief career, in the Illinois state Senate and, then, the U.S. Senate. He is not well established. Beyond that, there lie in the background questions about his pastor, his principal Illinois financial backer, his relationship with 1960s radicals, and his constancy on issues where he has adjusted his positions since the nominating period.

McCain has background questions, too, about his sources of financing, his relationship with former saving-and-loan king Charles Keating, and some shocking pleadings on behalf of national and Arizona special interests. Yet these are discounted by voters because they think they already know McCain.

Because of the public sympathy McCain draws because of his former POW status, Obama must tread carefully in attacking him. Because of public sensitivity to any race-related implication, McCain must tread carefully in attacking Obama. But attacks relating to qualifications and experience are OK with voters. McCain has learned this.

Over the past three weeks, Obama has allowed himself to become the issue. His experience, his associations, his core values, his policy positions all have been questioned by McCain and by hostile media.

A candidate who allows himself — and not the substantive issues in the campaign — to become the issue can get stuck in a deep ditch.

Obama needs to watch some tape

Voters, too, are seeing a different Obama than the one they saw entering the nominating campaign. His calls for change, his "Yes we can!" optimism, and his message that Americans could reach across partisan and ideological lines to solve unresolved problems excited voters across the spectrum.

If you view tapes of Obama's appearances then, and his appearances now, you will see two Obamas.

The early Obama was confident, non-ideological, non-partisan, and a unifier. Obama's crowds still remain large. But they are less electric. Partly because he was forced to shift gears, in the nominating campaign against Sen. Hillary Clinton, he now speaks less as a unifier reaching beyond old boundaries and more as a traditional partisan liberal. The words coming from Obama now could just as easily be the words of Hillary Clinton, 2008, or those of Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards in their 2004 campaign. They contain strong anti-corporate overtones with particularly shrill attacks on the oil industry. (On Monday, Aug. 4, Obama proposed that oil industry "windfall profits" be taxed and that each individual taxpayer be given a $1,000 rebate immediately. It was a proposal sure to draw applause from Michael Moore and disaffected hard-core Democrats, but, to most others, transparent grandstanding doing little to address the immediate need to consume less and produce more energy.) McCain, surprisingly, finds himself on stronger political and economic sides of the issue by espousing an "all the above" strategy attacking the problem on multiple fronts. And Obama thus finds himself dissipating his natural advantage on economic/domestic issues.

Obama's body language, too, has changed. The confident, inspiring early leader has given away to an often hesitant, sometimes-eye-shifting candidate trying to one-up his opponent, news cycle by news cycle.

All of this feeds the McCain effort to present Obama as uncertain and inexperienced.

Obama is not ready to enter intensive care. He still must be rated the favorite in November. But in the weeks before the Democratic convention, he badly needs to take a first-principles review of the issues he is stressing and his manner of presentation.

There is one other factor which could work against Obama. Outside the African-American community, his strongest support is among young voters. Young voters canvass, turn out for rallies, and lend excitement to the campaign. But on election day, they notoriously vote in percentages lower than any other voting group. Obama's campaign must keep them energized and engaged. They should see "Yes we can!" as relating directly to them.

Obama is convincing when he is large and strategic, not small and partisan. Right now he is trapped in daily exchanges of partisan combat, which diminish him. Time to get back to where he started and to recapture an initiative he has lost.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.