The Public Eye: McCain's Surge, Obama's Challenge

By Bob Burnett
Friday August 22, 2008 - 11:44:00 AM

Over the last six weeks, John McCain's campaign has gotten its act together. The latest Pew Research Poll indicates the 2008 presidential contest has tightened and Barack Obama's lead is now within the statistical margin of error. 

On July 2nd, Steve Schmidt—trained by Karl Rove—took control of the McCain organization. Since then, the Arizona senator's campaign has been relatively free of mistakes and has displayed more message discipline. Schmidt initiated three successful campaign thrusts: negative ads demeaning Obama, coupled with positive ads about energy and McCain's supposed leadership skills. As a result, the Arizona senator has solidified his conservative base, increased his majority among white men, and improved his image as a leader. 

Since June, John McCain has strengthened his support among Republicans from 82 to 87 percent—only 7 percent of Republicans now say they'll vote for Obama. McCain has held his base: 88 percent of Republicans who supported a candidate other than McCain in the primaries now plan to support the Arizona Senator. Many of his attack ads appeal to conservative sentiments by accusing Obama of being a "tax and spend" liberal who's unprepared for the presidency. 

During the same two-month period, Obama's support has stayed relatively flat in his base, increased from 82 to 83 percent—10 percent of registered Democrats now say they will vote for McCain. While McCain has won the votes of Republican who supported Giuliani, Huckabee, or Romney in the primaries, Obama has a problem with Hillary Clinton supporters; only 72 percent plan to support his candidacy and 18 percent say they will vote for McCain. 

Of the three issues 2008 voters care about the most—the economy, gasoline prices, and the war in Iraq—McCain has captured energy. He promises quick relief in the form of a gasoline-tax rebate and new petroleum exploration. Obama's stance has been more nuanced: he's promoted a $1,000 rebate to be paid for by a windfall-profits tax on oil companies. Initially the Illinois senator opposed offshore drilling, but now says he would consider limited drilling if it was part of a comprehensive energy plan. 

McCain's aggressive stance on energy, coupled with his attacks on Obama, explains his newfound strength among male voters. In the past two months, the Arizona senator has opened an eight-point lead among men—49 to 41 percent. Most of this is attributable to traditional GOP constituencies; McCain has a 20-point lead among white men, and runs particularly strong with working-class whites, Christian evangelicals, and southerners. McCain appears to be holding the constituency that elected Bush to two terms. 

McCain's negative ads have had a two-fold impact on poll numbers: they've portrayed Obama as an empty suit—a celebrity, long on style and short on substance—and, at the same time, played up McCain's image as "commander-in-chief." Over the past two months, the Arizona senator has enhanced his image as a leader willing to "get things done" and done a good job portraying Obama as "Dr. No." Because of the energy issue, McCain now leads the Illinois senator by 11 percentage points in voters' perception of the candidates' willingness to "take a stand." In the eyes of many voters, McCain seems experienced and straightforward; by comparison, Obama seems unseasoned and vague. Americans understand McCain's energy proposals, while they don't see what Obama offers as a rejoinder 

Less than eighty days before the 2008 presidential election, it's clear that John McCain's campaign has new energy. How should Barack Obama respond? 

First of all, the Illinois senator needs to lock up his Democratic base. He has to take the steps necessary to win over Hillary Clinton supporters who currently are either indifferent or antagonistic to his campaign. By giving the Clintons a major role in the Democratic convention Obama has taken steps to accomplish this, but his campaign still needs to point out the key differences between McCain and Obama on issues that matter to women, such as reproductive rights, where John McCain is not only pro-life but decidedly anti-woman. 

Second, Obama needs to shift the focus of the presidential contest from energy to the economy, the highest priority issue among likely voters. The Illinois senator needs to make this his signature issueand highlight his differences from McCain, who doesn't really have a plan for the economy, other than more tax cuts. Obama must tie McCain to George W. Bush, point out they have identical conservative positions. Finally, Obama's ads should note that McCain is a multi-millionaire who doesn't understand the problems of middle-class Americans. 

While John McCain has pulled into a virtual tie with Barack Obama, the Illinois senator can still win in November. But he has to pay attention to the lessons learned from the unsuccessful Democratic campaigns in 2000 and 2004, winnable contests scuttled by hubris. So far, Obama has run a very smart campaign and made few mistakes. Now he has to turn up the heat, take the fight to McCain and take full advantage of his weaknesses.