The presidential campaign’s homestretch is looking a lot more like President Bill Clinton’s 1996 solid reelection over Republican nominee Bob Dole than like Ronald Reagan’s late-breaking 1980 landslide over incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter. Democratic standard-bearer Barack Obama appears headed toward victory over John McCain.
But a campaign’s closing couple of weeks can be unexpectedly treacherous. Just ask John F. Kerry and Al Gore.
In 2000, Vice President Gore’s popularity had begun to dip after the Democratic National Convention, when his populist people-vs.-the-powerful theme came off to much of the electorate as a call for higher taxes. During the last three weeks of the campaign, he lost late-breaking voters almost 2-to-1.
Four years later, during the presidential campaign’s closing weeks, Kerry got hit by the famous Swift boat attacks. Meanwhile, his demeanor turned rather dark, and he spewed negative sound bites against President Bush, while the Republican incumbent appeared more confident and optimistic in the face of global security concerns. Kerry got beaten up as elitist, out of touch and weak on national security.
Even the closing weeks of a winning Democratic presidential campaign can be challenging. In 1996, the Chinese money scandal broke during the campaign’s final days; Clinton won, anyway, but the scandal sliced several points off his margin of victory.
This year, Democrats have considerably more reason for optimism about closing strong. Obama has skillfully fended off personal attacks, while John McCain’s campaign has engaged in the questionable tactics of linking his opponent with 1960s-era radical William Ayers and alleged voter registration irregularities by ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Those issues do not connect to the central questions: Who is ready to be commander in chief, and who can best lead the country out of economic meltdown?
Republican attacks appear to be premised on questioning Obama’s experience and labeling him a tax-and-spend liberal. But voter perceptions of Obama as calm, measured and knowledgeable amid the economic crisis seem to be overcoming the experience argument, while his retort about cutting taxes for 95 percent of Americans has proved effective.
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McCain, meanwhile, must counter tens of millions of dollars of Obama advertisements that tie the Republican nominee to Bush (McCain has voted with the administration 90 percent of the time) and must contend that his policy proposals would benefit Big Business at the expense of hardworking Americans. McCain does not appear to have the money to respond to those attacks, which are seeping into voters’ minds.
Obama need only keep this election on track — hold big rallies in key states; roll out any remaining endorsements, such as Colin Powell’s; flood the airwaves with ads; and mobilize young people to show up at the polls. He is winning because, in addition to a strong base of young voters, he is doing well among Catholics, working-class voters and seniors — groups that McCain needed to overcome Obama’s youth support. McCain has failed to make his long years of service relevant to the problems the country is facing today. Active grannies, who backed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primaries and might have been logical McCain supporters, are now with Obama, a helpful trend in Florida and Pennsylvania.
So what could change the race that Obama must guard against?
Offhand comments: As we’ve seen throughout the campaign, cable television and other news outlets can blow out of proportion four or five words that move voters and quickly change the campaign’s contours. Obama’s “spread the wealth” comment in Ohio has stoked Republican attacks on him as a tax-and-spend liberal. He must be more on guard than usual to avoid such casual rope line comments, which can be recorded by any number of cell phones.
Game-changing ads: Hillary Clinton’s primary season “3 a.m.” ad was successful in changing the discussion before the Texas primary, and in the general election McCain created something of a stir with his Paris Hilton spot. But given the worsening economic crisis, it is now pretty hard to change the conversation.
Personal charges: Recent late-campaign surprises have included revelations about Bill Clinton’s 1996 fundraising and George W. Bush’s 1976 drunken driving arrest in Maine. You can never fully prepare for this kind of thing, other than to label it a last-minute, desperate attempt by the opposition to change the conversation.
External events: Another eruption between Russia and one of its former republics could exacerbate voter concerns about Obama over national security. Still, Obama appears the most ready, while McCain does not seem up to the challenges of the fast-paced modern world.
Overall, Obama seems on track for victory, having masterfully avoided post-convention pitfalls. It looks like he’s in for a smooth homestretch — but, of course, it seemed that way in previous Democratic campaigns, as well.
Mark J. Penn served as chief adviser to President Bill Clinton in the 1996 presidential election and to Hillary Rodham Clinton during her Senate and presidential races. He is the author of “Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes” (Twelve, 2007).