Is The McCain Bubble on the Verge of Collapse?

As the faint of heart on the left and the quick to celebrate on the right have both been all too eager to point out, McCain has had a great couple of weeks in the polls.  To listen to some folks out there, McCain continues to be on the verge of running away from this election, this despite the fact that it looks like McCain’s post-convention/Palinmania bounce has already all but eroded.

At its height, John McCain enjoyed a bounce that put him over Obama by about five points; just barely in the range of being statistically significant.  Granted, this lead excludes certain outliers, but let’s not make no bones about it, over the past two weeks, Team McCain has enjoyed a great deal of success.

Now, this bounce is thought to be greatly the result of a confluence of two significant events that came so close together it is difficult to identify which of the two had the greater effect.  There was the Republican convention which was truncated due to hurricane Gustav, but seemed to try and make up for the loss of a day on the other three days where enough red meat was thrown out to conservative Republicans to put the whole lot at high risk for a heart attack.

And of course there was the selection of Sarah Palin; her very appearance on the ticket itself a bloody hunk of raw red meat for the radical right.

The end result has been a jubilant right, and a left that seems unwilling to wait until November 5th to begin in the time honored tradition of navel gazing and hand wringing.

But is the trademark Democratic worrying a little premature?

All indicators suggest that, yes, with fifty days left until people cast their ballots, it is far too early to start treating this election as a foregone conclusion.

Paramount to this concept is the fact that the polls themselves don’t seem to bear out the idea that McCain is running with the wind to his back.  As the most recent data point in the Gallup Daily Tracker points out, after only a week the bounce that put McCain ahead of Obama has eroded down to statistical insignificance.  Meanwhile, both RCP, and Pollster have McCain’s lead down to under two points.

Interestingly, the erosion of this lead occurs out of the context of a major political event such as a convention or debate (of course, the major economy news that began last night would be considered a major political event, but one that has happened too recently to be rightfully projected by polling).

Shorter, McCain did much to jump himself up in the lead, but he has done poorly to maintain that lead thanks due to a number of factors.

For one, there is of course Palinmania, which I believe may already be coming to an end.  Attempts to demonize the media for publicly vetting her seems to have only encouraged the media further.  Compounding the problems include such things as embargoing any and all meaningful interviews, and then having Palin botch the one real interview she gave to Charlie Gibson.

But I think you have to look at the nature of  the Palin selection further in order to understand why the surge in popularity and interest does not carry with it the promise of longevity.  Palin was a shock selection the shock not entirely unlike the gotcha moments you see in slasher flicks.

The point behind the shock is that you don’t see it coming, but such jolts to the senses rarely have a significant amount of staying power.  Think of it this way; you’re watching a movie and all of a sudden the killer with a machete and a hockey mask jumps out of nowhere and stabs the screaming girl.

The first time you see it, you jump and spill popcorn all over your date.

Maybe the second time you see it you flinch a little bit.  But by the third or fourth viewing, you lazily yawn because you’ve seen the whole thing before.  Palin’s entrance into the presidential race surely caused no shortage of shockwaves, but even now those shockwaves are beginning to ebb, and are being replaced largely by intense scrutiny, and in the case of Saturday Night Live, high mockery.

But let’s not forget; Palin is not the top of the ticket, and we have already seen the net positive influence she will have on McCain’s chances at winning the presidency.  In the end, I think it boils down to this; as voters get over the shock value of her selection, an increase in opinion of the Alaskan Governor will have little effect as it’s McCain’s standing that really counts.  On the other hand, if public opinion of Palin continues to falter, there’s a reasonable risk that it would serve as an indictment against John McCain’s judgment.

Speaking of which, it was McCain’s judgment that could lead the charge in bursting his own polling bubble–antagonizing the media.

Look, no politician has the perfect relationship with the media, or, at least, no politician other than McCain did.  McCain enjoyed something of a self created status with the MSM; he went off the Republican Reservation on a few high profile issues that the press fell in love with, labeling the Arizona Senator a “Maverick.”

They loved their Maverick.  McCain did well during the primaries to capitalize on the press’s crush on him by giving them more access than any other politician on the trail.  As long as their beloved Maverick gave them all the access they craved, there was no amount of water for them that they would not carry in his name.

But in selecting Palin as a running mate, McCain made a tactical error.  Having not fully vetted her himself, it was clear that the media would be all too happy to vet her, love affair or not.  Given the swirl of controversies and misdeeds on her behalf, the only hope that the McCain campaign had to defuse the scrutiny from the press was to make them the bad guy.

The problem with this is that in order to get away with some of the things that McCain would hope to get away with, it would require a compliant press corps.  Of this I talk about the multiple lies that his campaign has put forth about Obama, as well as hoping that the fact checkers and political journalists turned a blind eye to the many inconsistencies (read: flip-flops), and counter-intuitive positions (the economy is fundamentally strong) that the campaign would take.

He was faced with a simple choice; he could either have the running mate that would really charge up the conservatives in his favor, or he could have a press corps that would let him get away with murder.  He attempted to have both, and now we see even Fox News of all outlets beginning to rebel against the rebel the media has made.

From this falling out, two major criticizing memes are really beginning to catch fire, and there is no one that McCain can turn to blame other than himself and his campaign.  The first of course is the lying meme; McCain-Palin are outright liars, and it wasn’t just that they tried to get away with a little white lie, but instead they have told some serious whoppers, and continue to do so even after they have been debunked.

The other is the out of touch meme which isn’t catching fire quite as fast, but with the economic developments that have been breaking recently, it’s sure to be a bigger factor as this election continues on.  I mean, it’s not good to say that the economy is still fundamentally strong right in the middle of a crisis on Wall Street.

The McCain bubble has yet to burst.  He’s currently riding the tail end of the bounce he received from the Palin announcement and the convention.  But there are several factors to look to, any single one of which could easily have McCain playing catch up for the final month and a half of the election.

  • The Palin Situation-There are more ways for Sarah Palin’s selection to go wrong than there are for it to go right.  Should any of the controversies surrounding  her really catch fire (ie. Troopergate, cronyism/nepotism, book banning, lying about earmarks, etc.) that alone will be enough for low information voters to take a second, harsh look at the McCain-Palin ticket.  But outside of this there is simple coverage fatigue that will ensue, as well as the high probability that voters deem her unqalified to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.
  • Serial Liars-The media is addressing the McCain campaign lies at an almost alarming rate.  McCain can go ahead and ask Al Gore how devastating being labeled a liar can be.  The real damage that comes from this narrative is not the refutation of past claims, but instead the cynicism with which all future claims will be held; that’s to say that if McCain-as-a-liar sticks, he can spend the final days of the campaign being 100% honest and no one will credit him for it.
  • It’s the economy stupid-First Fannie and Freddie, and now Lehman and Lynch, it is looking now more  than ever that the economy is going to be the leading issue of this election.  It’s going to be very difficult for McCain to win on a message of strong fundamentals given the almost perfect storm that exists on this one point.  McCain already suffers a deficit with voters when it comes to the economy, but he’s also painted as easily out of touch, and not knowledgable.  In fact it’s pretty difficult to say anything more all encompassing on the point than what McCain himself said this morning; the economy is still fundamentally strong.

(edited by DrGail)

2 Responses to “Is The McCain Bubble on the Verge of Collapse?”

  1. bill says:

    I suspect that “shock selectionm ” should be “shock selection”.

  2. I have absolutely no clue what you are talking about…

    *grin*

    (thanks)

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