Fighting Phantoms

Chuck Todd offers up some musings on possible paths to the White House for Senator John McCain; the principal argument that John McCain badly needs one of the Democrats to actually win the nomination first.

In a presidential election season that has thus far bucked convention, it’s rather vogue to go against conventional wisdom, which is what Todd is sort of attempting to do here. The consensus that he argues against right now, that the prolonged Democratic battle is actually good for McCain, isn’t half bad, but it’s not particularly new either.

It’s a concept that we see all the time in looking at polls.

You will notice that when a candidate runs up against a generic opponent, the generic opponent typically tends to do a little bit better (or a little bit worse depending on the circumstances) than if the poll replaced a generic opponent with a real one.

These phantom opponents typically poll differently than real oponents because they simply aren’t real. They essentially are rorschach tests for the electorate. The circumstances surrounding the poll provides the parameters of the test. For instance, if the real politician in the poll is one that evokes significant opinion by the electorate, than the Rorschach phantom becomes a metric for how the real politician is performing. If party affiliation is assigned to the phantom, then the poll carries with it the potential to measure public opinion of the party as opposed to the real opponent.

The significant thing is, when using a phantom opponent, that phantom lacks the specific idiosyncracies that a real candidate would have.

The crux to Todd’s argument is that he is essentially designating Obama and Clinton as a combined phantom opponent to McCain’s real opponent. As long as the nominee could be either of them, then opinions about McCain and his chances to become the president could potentially pit him in a situation where he favors a phantom opponent with the advantage.

Once the real nominee is selected, there is likely to be a bump, but then the opponent becomes a real opponent complete with flaws, weaknesses, and strategies that can be used against him or her.

Thus, according to Todd, it is better for McCain to get this done and over with sooner than later to give his campaign time to absorb the bump the Democratic candidate is likely to get, and then devise a campaign strategy.

I haven’t spent much time actually pondering ways for McCain to win, but for the most part, I think Todd’s essentially on the right track.

There are some flaws in his logic, though.

For instance, I think one of the things that McCain is benefitting from greatly right now is the emotionally charged polarization of the Democratic party. At this stage, I believe the polarization is largely temporary and capable of being healed. But even if it is both temporary and capable of being healed, it still produces a noticeable drag.

For one, the split in the party I think is greatly undermining support for either Democratic candidate when matched up with McCain. In other words, support is being masked pretty greatly as, right now for many Democrats, the question of Obama or Hillary is far more important than Democrat or McCain.

If this contest continues too long, these divisions carry with them the possibility of becoming permanent, which would be the single biggest hope that McCain has at gaining the White House.

If, on the other hand, the nomination were to be settled within the next 4 to 6 weeks as Todd suggests, that would pave the way for an almost complete reconciliation of the party and the ten to fifteen point bump Todd predicts for the Democratic has a respectable chance of not eroding.

Another flaw I find in Todd’s argument is for McCain to woo the Rust Belt states through his economic message, though Todd at least admits that this would be unchartered territory for McCain as well.

Simply put, McCain’s strong point is National Security, his weak spot is the Economy, and he’s really not exactly dazzling on either. When it comes to Foreign Policy he is riding on a lifetime of experience that isn’t necessarily valuable in the current state of affairs.

Further, while McCain is known to have a populist streak, I’m afraid that the kind of economic populism that will be needed to woo the Rust Belt is in the Democratic corner.

McCain can still win, don’t get me wrong. He was the most dangerous Republican in the field this time out. His military history resonates with a lot of Americans, and his reputation (regardless of how little it’s actually deserved) as a Maverick will make him more attractive to swing voters. And Todd’s right in that once a nominee is picked that McCain will at least be able to campaign against their weaknesses.

But while McCain does have a path to the White House, that path does not exist in a vacuum. There are many things that the Democratic nominee can and should do to make a McCain win impossible, the most important being to tie McCain irrevocably to Bush. And they’re going to do that.

McCain’s got a lot holding him down, from his temper, to his, how shall we put this, less than honest approach to lobbyists, his laughably poor knowledge about Iraq, and a policy platform that looks remarkably similar to that of a president who is suffering from record low approval ratings. In short, this race is still the Democrats’ to lose.

In fact, the thing that should worry McCain the most is that he’s not just fighting phantoms; he’s trying to beat two candidates that are in turn beating the piss out of each other.

And he’s barely staying afloat.

(edited by DrGail)

2 Responses to “Fighting Phantoms”

  1. Dynamic says:

    To be honest, I think the notion of a “generic candidate” applies a lot better to McCain than it does to the two Democrats. Right now all we’re seeing in the news is the Democratic primary and the attacks from Obama and Clinton; when McCain shows up, it’s usually as an aside. For the moment, he is, for all intents and purposes, a shadow puppet. And the polling reflects this.

  2. Very astute observation… I like it.

    And where we’re seeing this the most is in those stupid polls that measure how many people would be willing to vote for McCain over the Democratic candidate that they don’t want to win.

    Which is really going to suck for McCain when a nominee is chosen because then he’s going to get compared toe to toe with someone who is smarter, more amicable, younger, and nowhere near as Bushish as he is.

    Bring it on.

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