The initial shock and euphoria that accompanied the Palin choice was followed by intense curiosity about this new star that had suddenly burst onto the political scene. But this was not all for the good. The focus abruptly shifted from Obama’a experience (or lack of it) to Palin’s lack of experience. The concerns about Palin’s readiness to be president also brought to the surface the latent worries about McCain’s age and health. And the answers people were receiving were not reassuring.
Starting about a week after the Palin selection, McCain’s poll numbers started to fall steeply and on September 17, Obama took the lead again and never relinquished it, steadily gaining with time.
Palin did not help matters by her own overreaching, especially her claims that she had said ‘thanks but no thanks’ to the infamous ‘bridge to nowhere’ and that the proximity of her state to Russia gave her some foreign policy credentials. The first claim was shown to be false and the second was widely ridiculed, always a bad sign. Her inability to speak and think coherently, or even in complete sentences without a script, and the campaign’s careful shielding of her from the press resulted in her early luster rapidly becoming tarnished. Amazingly, she went through the entire campaign without giving a press conference.
Furthermore, McCain, as is his wont when defending his decisions, tended to go overboard in his praise, making absurd claims and opening himself up for ridicule as well. For example, he recently said of Palin in an interview with Don Imus that “she’s the most qualified of any that [sic] who has run recently for vice president.” Really? More so that Dick Cheney? Or Al Gore? Or George H. W. Bush? Or even his best buddy Joe Lieberman, who was reportedly his own first choice before he was nixed by McCain’s advisors?
Another example of going overboard was when McCain said that Palin “knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America” even as she babbles incoherently on that very topic.
Once the experience argument was seen to be not working anymore, the McCain camp struggled to find another winning message and it is their inability to stick with one new alternative message that has given the impression of them flailing around.
The first attempt was to try and co-opt Obama’s successful theme of change which took advantage of the fact that people are well and truly sick of president Bush and think the country is headed in the wrong direction. McCain’s careful cultivation of his own image as a maverick was hitched to Palin’s outsider status and rural outdoorsy persona to create the idea of a pair of reformers, willing to buck the political system to bring much-needed reform in government. But trying to portray McCain and Palin as the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid agents of mavericky change was a hard sell when plenty of evidence existed of McCain warmly embracing Bush, both literally and in terms of policies.
Trying to co-opt the mantle of change was simply not working either.
Mr. McCain’s renewed efforts to cast himself as the candidate of change have apparently faltered. Sixty-four percent of voters polled said Mr. Obama would bring about real change if elected, while only 39 percent said Mr. McCain would. And despite Mr. McCain’s increased efforts to distance himself from President Bush, a majority still said he would generally continue Mr. Bush’s policies.
Given that Obama had for a year and a half been plugging away at the theme that he would bring about change and had been tying Bush around the neck of McCain, to try and reverse public perceptions at this late stage was an uphill task and the campaign looked around for some other message to try as well.
Next: Another new star is born: Joe the Plumber.
POST SCRIPT: The country music menace
In an article published in the journal Social Forces (Vol. 71, No. 1, September 1992, pp. 211-218), Steven Stack and Jim Gundlach report on a study on the effect of country music on suicide.
The abstract of the article concludes:
This article assesses the link between country music and metropolitan suicide rates. Country music is hypothesized to nurture a suicidal mood through its concerns with problems common in the suicidal population, such as marital discord, alcohol abuse, and alienation from work. The results of a multiple regression analysis of 49 metropolitan areas show that the greater the airtime devoted to country music, the greater the white suicide rate. The effect is independent of divorce, southernness, poverty, and gun availability. The existence of a country music subculture is thought to reinforce the link between country music and suicide. Our model explains 51% of the variance in urban white suicide rates.
So, country music lovers, don’t say I didn’t warn you.