Falling Apart

I had actually watched this clip a little earlier today, but it’s taken me a little bit of time to kind of solidify my thoughts around it which is why I haven’t gotten around to commenting it until now. What you’re about to watch is a brief segment in which Brian Williams and Chuck Todd debrief Chris Matthews on the joint McCain-Palin interview set to air tonight. (h/t HuffPo)

What I really find fascinating about this, and what really got my brain sparking, was the point in the discussion where Chuck Todd starts discussing how dangerous a time this is for the McCain campaign, and how he talks about the campaign being in danger of losing “cohesion” as key players find themselves transitioning into a period where they are not just concerned with winning the election, but also preserving their reputations.

I find this fascinating because not too long ago my postings here have prompted a few scattered comparisons to Hillary Clinton’s loss in the primaries, and as this thing continues on, we begin to see more and more similarities begin to emerge prompting many interesting questions.

For instance, is this simply a case of the McCain campaign really not doing the kind of homework it needed to be doing in making preparations to face Obama in the general election? Or was it something else? Does Obama and his campaign team play a larger than normal role in the similar melt downs we see in the two campaigns?

Is he really that frustrating of a political opponent that he has the ability to create the same kind of internal problems among what would otherwise be very different campaigns?

Of particular interest to me at this juncture is the inner campaign tension. NYT released an absolute must read for process geeks like me that really takes a deep look at what I’m getting at here.

What we see in this nine pager is evidence of internal turbulence among key high level staffers from very early on, particularly between Mark Salter, the crafter of the McCain’s messaging, and Rick Davis, the campaign manager.

The inner turmoil that we see rear its head over and over again even early on reminds me of the highly polarized figure of Mark Penn in the Hillary Clinton campaign.

But Steve Schmidt comes in and kind of “filled the void” but in so doing, he gave himself perhaps too much control over the McCain operation.

Still, the same chicken and egg question I think persists for both the McCain campaign and the Clinton campaign. Did these internal struggles propagate a losing formula for the campaign over time, or did electoral misfortune propagate the internal struggles to self destructive levels?

To be honest, I don’t think we’ll know the answer to these questions, but for those budding future presidential candidates take note; make sure the upper echelon of your campaign staff knows how to play nice with each other!

Wrestling this discussion back into the same zip code as Todd’s comments above, what we see is that the McCain campaign is in a place that should feel very familiar to veterans of Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign. They are now caught in what I called the Chinese finger trap, or what Shane Falco in the movie “The Replacements” called “quicksand.”

No matter how hard the McCain campaign struggles, no matter how hard they push, it is almost beginning to seem like every move they make ends up being a losing move. It’s like playing chess against someone and after every move you make your opponent quickly takes one of your pieces and smugly says, “check”.

Indeed, this is about where sports metaphors tend to break down in relation to politics. This is because in sports you are up against your opponent, but in politics, this would be like keeping a score in a football game not based on which team scores the most points, but instead which team gets louder cheers from the crowd.

The voters are the score keepers which means that even if you can rally your team in the eleventh hour, it’s not your opponent you have to beat, it’s the voters you have to win over which can be much more difficult.

In any case, all of these things have combined to put the McCain campaign in the kind of danger zone that Chuck Todd was speaking about, and it’s important because this has a direct impact on the size of the window McCain has to turn this election around.

In my recent polling analyses, I’ve taken to mentioning that McCain doesn’t really have until November 4th to turn this election around. In order for national trends to get reflected in state by state trends, McCain has got to get this thing turned around much sooner; if I were an insider in Team McCain, I would be operating on the assumption that if we can’t pull even in most polls with Obama by one week from today, all is lost (note: This is the attitude I would have as a McCain insider. Non partisans who don’t have a particular stake in this election have the luxury of calling it whenever they feel confident enough to do so, and Obama partisans better be operating under the impression that McCain can win this thing even if he’s behind ten points on November 3rd).

But polling is only one of the reasons why the McCain campaign’s window of victory ends before November the 4th. The other reason why is because when the campaign itself gets locked into a losing mentality, it begins to cannibalize itself, it begins to self destruct, and we saw this with the Hillary Campaign. Messaging begins to get more erratic, tactics that get employed begin to get viewed with increasingly larger doses of skepticism by both the media and by the voters, and staffers begin to have a shift in values.

On this last point, what I mean to say is that when a campaign begins, most staffers will agree that a win for the campaign will be good for them. But when it begins to appear that the campaign can no longer win, what is good for them is no longer necessarily good for the campaign. This causes more in-fighting as well as encourages a break down in campaign discipline.

For instance, when we look at the end of the Clinton campaign, we started seeing an awful lot of post mortem articles. Okay, people are going to write articles about how losing campaigns lose, that’s to be expected. But what was so remarkable was that at least a couple of these articles were fueled by quotes taken from campaign staffers. For whatever motive they had for going on record with reporters, the added effect is that this further increases the perception that the campaign is in fact losing.

So what Todd is essentially talking about is that the McCain campaign is swiftly arriving a point in which it will, simply put, just break. If they don’t get some good news, sustainable good news, and get it fast, everything inside the campaign is going to fall apart, and that’s going to kill the McCain candidacy on the outside.

(edited by DrGail)

2 Responses to “Falling Apart”

  1. allen says:

    But in constantly alternating among story lines in order to respond to changing events and to gain traction with voters, the “true character” of a once-crisply-defined political figure has become increasingly murky.

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  2. enzamatic says:

    The most disconcerting part of this in my mind is that the pattern I see is one of not leading, but following. I realize that in a military situation people are trained to follow orders, one of the reasons people have found McCain’s example of his experience in Cuba as an example of being a tested leader puzzling. McCain had built a reputation as a free thinker, responding per issue rather than along party lines. But it appears to me that McCain may in truth be more the type of a person who finds a person he finds intelligent and persuasive, and follows their lead. Is it possible that Mark Salter was the maverick, and McCain’s muse, and only with the influence of other persuasive advisors and the weakening influence of Salter did he seem to be pulled in separate direction? This paints McCain as much more the follower than the leader, and I think the public is increasingly weary of leaders as puppets of their unelected backers.


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