"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

And the Race Is On

So I was out of the world for the Democratic National Convention, and experiencing re-entry for the Republican shindig, so it's been catch-up on the politics front. It's definitely game-on at this point, with McCain taking his first ever national polling lead (slim, but statistically significant) and the state-by-state electoral college picture shaping up to look a lot like 2004, except perhaps with Colorado and Virgina as alternate "keys to the kingdom" from Florida and Ohio.

I've got a number of thoughts on the VP choices, so I thought I'd give a run-down of those before my take on the overall scene as it shapes up for the home stretch.

Vice Presidents

It's clear that Sarah Palin's selection shook up the campaign, something the McCain campaign needed badly, and they took a risk to get. While I doubt she'll peel off any meaningful numbers of Hillary Clinton fans from Obama -- they're not stupid -- she serves a much more important purpose for Republicans: as a devout Pentacostal Christian with strong socially conservative bonafides, she brings home many of the evangelical voters who put Bush over the top in 2004.

Palin also shook up the scene by virtue of her novelty, both in that she's relatively unknown, and in that she's a telegenic woman. It's a story, and conservatives are excited again. Paradoxically, while she brings home a devout demographic, she also gives more secular red-meat Limbaugh-lovers something to get excited about. VILF is the term, which sounds silly, but the anecdotal evidence is strong.

By contrast, Joe Biden seems a much less exciting choice, somewhat in keeping with the Obama campaign's generally risk-averse nature. They picked a #2 unlikely to ruffle any feathers, well connected, but also capable and effective. While Biden's a bland addition politically, he does offer some important aspects to the ticket. Most importantly, he can be effective and passionate on the offense, which is something team-BO needs to play well in order to win in November.

From Here on Out

The GOP is revived, which was probably bound to happen. These people don't want to lose, and even if they've turned on Bush, Obama's soft message of inspecific hope wasn't going to keep them at bay forever. It's a real race now, which, if we get some real debate and action, could be a good thing. The media trends so far aren't good -- typical crap -- but we'll see what the next few weeks hold. For now, here's what I'm going to be looking at:

  • A change in direction from Obama. With the McCain campaign and conservatives in general rising up, some public response is necessary. They'll need to stop complimenting McCain so much, and probably sharpen their message overall.
  • Can McCain/Palin create their own reality? This is clearly their strategy: a full-force run against "the reality-based community" to drive their message home. Their meta-position is that issues are irrelevant, and that this is about personality. Will it?
  • State-level polling: will it hold with an edge for Obama, or will McCain's bounce trickle in over the coming week?
  • Palin's scandals and McCain's temper: as the pressure cranks up, will they keep their game intact?

Barring any big external events, the next potential shakeup will be around the debates, which I think favor Obama, but I may be wrong about that. One big meta-dynamic of the race is that Obama has a 20-point lead with people under the age of thirty, and McCain a narrow edge with everyone else. Maybe people really do fear a Black President, or maybe the culture wars really are alive and well.

In general there's a perception that Obama is not doing as well as he should, underperforming the generic Democratic ballot and generally seeming as though he's been slowly losing ground over the past several months. By all accounts, they're counting on their field campaign to pull it out, which should be worth something but may not be enough if they keep getting beat in the media over the next two months.

In general, I think Obama's message became somewhat played-out over the protracted primary. Everyone's heard it before, and everyone who's going to be a true believer is already on board. They need something fresh, something to refocus the campaign on the issues:

  • General economics and taxes
  • Energy
  • Health Care
  • Iraq

If the campaign is about personality and spin, it's dangerous for Obama, even though he's charismatic. The fact is that 80% of citizens think the country is on the wrong track, and under those conditions, McCain can only gain by making the conversation about cultural and tribal distractions. So far, he's made real progress on that track, re-casting his campaign as no longer being about "experience" and now saying he too brings "change." They need that kind of muddle.

Interesting times ahead.