John McCain and ‘Ordinary Americans’

One of the hardest things for a stone-cold political junkie to do is to step outside his obsession long enough to consider politics from the viewpoint of the non-junkies — the non-partisan, apolitical people who pay little notice to the continual sturm und drang of Beltway combat.

These so-called “swing” voters, who ultimately decide every presidential election, regularly confound the expectations of us political junkies. Today, I had an exchange with my American Spectator colleague Philip Klein that raised this topic. In response to my AmSpec blog post about Barack Obama’s apparent slump in the polls, Phil wrote:

I wonder what it would take to get McCain’s numbers up into the high 40s, let alone low 50s. The larger point I’m making is that historically, convincing voters that your opponent is bad can only get you so far. At some point, you have to give voters a reason to vote for you rather than merely against the other guy. . . . Even if he can raise doubts about Obama, what does McCain have to do to get more people to rally behind him? I’m not so sure.

This is a perfectly valid point, and a troubling concern for Republicans. In recent days, I’ve repeatedly referenced Patrick Ruffini’s argument that, in order to win, the McCain campaign must fight the election as a choice between Obama and Not Obama. Given the Republican “brand damage” problem and given Maverick’s alienation from the conservative base, his only real shot is to make the election a referendum on his opponent.

Phil is a young political junkie and I felt that he, in seeing an absence of positive arguments in McCain’s favor, was overlooking the attitudes of Ordinary Americans. My reply to Phil on AmSpecBlog:

The obvious responses to your doubts, Phil, would be (a) George McGovern and (b) Mike Dukakis.
Richard Nixon was never a beloved hero or a rallying point for the American people. Nor was Bush 41 a charismatic figure. Yet in 1972 and 1988, the Democrats suffered blowout defeats because they nominated candidates whom the Republican Party could portray as outside the political mainstream.
For 40 years, Democrats have refused to face up to an obvious fact: Americans don’t want a liberal president. Democrats have won the White House during this four-decade span only when they have nominated Southern governors who could be depicted, however inaccurately, as moderate/centrist types.
As to the positive appeal of John McCain, ideologues like ourselves cannot resist eye-rolling, shoulder-shrugging exasperation over the man’s unprincipled Maverickhood. Yet the fact is that the guy’s POW biography, his “Straight Talk” shtick, and his non-partisan reformer “brand” have a genuine appeal to independent voters. And the powerful Geezer Vote is a factor not to be dismissed.
I am not guaranteeing that Team Maverick can pull this off, but to see how it could happen, you’ve got to think in terms of non-ideological “swing” voters out in the sticks — the people I call “ordinary Americans,” who see politics very differently from the way we political junkies do.

That was about as much as I could get into a single AmSpecBlog post (I don’t like to clog up a group blog with long-form arguments) but it’s an important point. Even if conservative ideologues can’t see it, or don’t like it, the appeal of McCain’s patriotic non-partisan image is quite real to those patriotic non-partisan people, the Ordinary Americans.

A lot of those folks are “seasoned citizens” who’ve voted for Republican presidents many times before. Since the 2004 election, they’ve been turned off by the GOP for several reasons — Bush’s 2005 push for Social Security reform, scandals in Congress, high gas prices, etc. — but this doesn’t mean that they’re automatically going to pick Obama over McCain. And the fact that McCain is 71 (a negative in the eyes of many) could actually be a big plus for him on Nov. 4.

Media elites are always fascinated by “the youth vote,” but in 2004, exit polls show 54% of voters were 45-plus, of whom 24% were 60 or older. If Obama loses the Geezer Vote, it’s going to be a sad day in Hopeville Nov. 5.

Despite all the problems of the GOP, despite all of Crazy Cousin John’s shortcomings, Obama is the kind of liberal Republicans have beaten before, and since Steve Schmidt’s taken charge of Team Maverick, they’ve made some moves that suggest they still remember how to do it. And one of the most important challenges they face is convincing Republicans that Obama can be beat.

The “we’re doomed” vibe coming from within the GOP is a major obstacle that Team Maverick must overcome. This newly aggressive strategy that Schmidt has implemented, and the consquent slump in Obama’s poll numbers, are part of knocking down the powerful myth of inevitability that Obama created by knocking off Hillary in the Democratic primaries.

Ask yourself what would happen if, going into the Democratic convention, Team Obama was looking at a string of polls showing Obama behind, with his “negatives” going through the roof? Will Axelrod and Plouffe be able to deal with that? Will Obama? And what kind of holy unshirted hell will the PUMAs unleash if, on the eve of Denver, they have every reason to believe the superdelegates have saddled them with an unpopular candidate who’s sure to lose in November?

None of this is likely, but it’s entirely possible, because if you talk to those undecided “swing” voters — the Ordinary Americans — they’ll always tell you proudly, “I vote for the man, not for the party.” And what kind of man are the Democrats asking them to vote for?

That’s the key question the GOP hopes to ask — and answer — between now and Nov. 4. As I said in a follow-up at AmSpec blog, I’m reminded of one of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies:

Flounder: Will that work?
Otter: Hey, it’s gotta work better than the truth.
Bluto: My advice to you is to start drinking heavily.

Cheers!

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