Raising McCain

Underestimating the senator from Arizona is a crucial mistake

Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain.

Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain.

Photo Illustration by David Jayne

Readers may visit Steven Stark’s Presidential Tote Board blog at http://thephoenix.com/blog/ToteBoard/.

In the wake of Barack Obama’s triumphant European tour, the political press continues, by and large, to declare the election all but over. “Virtually all of the evidence that we have reviewed … point to a comfortable Obama/Democratic party victory in November,” write political analysts Alan Abramowitz, Thomas E. Mann and Larry Sabato on Sabato’s Crystal Ball ’08 Web site. Michael Grunwald of Time magazine agrees, asking, “Is McCain a no-shot?” Grunwald concludes that he probably is.

Obama may indeed end up the comfortable winner in November. But right now, there are a number of factors that still make John McCain at least even money—and by my current calculations, slightly better—to emerge victorious on Election Day.

It’s true that Obama has a powerful tail wind, thanks to the nation’s desire for change, and he is the most eloquent nominee since Ronald Reagan, with star power to boot. He also will be able to outspend the GOP decisively. And so far, McCain has failed to gain much traction against his Democratic rival.

But Obama’s head winds are just as strong. To win, he will literally have to rewrite history. Some of the hurdles he’ll have to overcome, as I’ve observed previously, include the following:

• No Democrat who hails from north of the Mason-Dixon line has been elected since 1960.

• No candidate in the modern primary era has ever been elected in November after failing to win more than one of the nation’s seven largest states in either its pre-convention primary or, if the state didn’t hold a primary, its caucuses.

• No candidate in modern times has ever been elected president with a voting record that could be identified as his party’s most liberal or conservative, yet in 2007 Obama was designated as the former (by the National Journal).

• No candidate arguably since Abraham Lincoln has been elected president with as little political experience as Obama.

None of this is to say that Obama can’t overcome these historical obstacles, and he has exceeded expectations before. But as any lawyer knows, try to defy too many precedents and the odds begin to run against you.

Moreover, McCain has some cards to play, even if he has not played them yet. The press seems to be under the assumption that, because it knows so much about McCain, the electorate does, too. The hunch here is that, while the outlines may be familiar to voters, the details are not. Few voters are intimately familiar with the specifics of McCain’s war heroism; or the fact that he and his wife adopted a little girl from one of Mother Teresa’s orphanages in Bangladesh; or the personal kindness he has displayed to colleagues like Democrat Morris Udall, who McCain visited regularly while Udall was dying. By November, they will.

In addition, for better or worse, the attacks against Obama haven’t really begun. There will be a raft of negative ads—and more, such as attacks from right-wing talk radio—likely featuring Obama’s own words, in his own voice (taken from the audio version of Obama’s book Dreams From My Father). We likely haven’t heard the last of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, nor the last attack on Obama’s wife Michelle, either.

Plus, consider the polls. Obama currently has a narrow lead, but in 1976 and 1988, Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis had much larger ones, only to see them diminish (or disappear) as November approached and voters weighed their fear of the unknown against their fear of the known. Even in 2004, right before the conventions, John Kerry had a small lead over George Bush. As for the comparisons of McCain to Bob Dole in 1996, they’re inapposite: by midsummer, Dole already trailed Bill Clinton by double digits—hardly the position McCain is in now.

Remember, too, that in the primaries, Obama tended to run a little behind what the pre-election polls predicted. If that pattern continues into the fall, he’ll need to lead McCain by about three to four points to be assured of prevailing on Election Day.

Sure, Obama is garnering all the favorable attention now. But McCain will have a number of opportunities—with the selection of his running mate, his convention, the debates and the fall campaign itself—to alter perceptions of both himself and Obama. This is an extremely fluid campaign, and both sides have yet to play their hand. Let’s see what happens when all the cards are on the table.