Unintended Consequences: The McCain Strategy Flaw genre: Econ-Recon & Polispeak


If you're going to foment a gender driven divide, or any other contrivance, in order to win votes, you have to realize that its effect can't be isolated within one party...and it isn't apt to resonate with those voters who haven't the time to participate in the pettiness of politics. In an attempt to garner my own understanding of the significance of Sarah Palin's interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson, I've spent several hours reading numerous postings and the subsequent comments of countless readers.

As one would expect, die hard Democrats are convinced Palin demonstrated she is woefully unprepared to step into the presidency should something happen to John McCain. Similarly, those loyal to the GOP felt she held her own under a barrage of poorly crafted questions and a biased media swarm bent upon damaging her candidacy.

In truth, I think it's been clear that the Palin selection was a relatively savvy political calculation...although one that will likely be too clever by half. Yes, playing upon the frayed feelings of Clinton supporters, attempting to expand concerns of gender bias, and recasting one's campaign as the means to change seemed like a reasonable approach to a stalled campaign. Notwithstanding, I suspect that the strategy has an unintended consequence that may undermine the McCain campaign's objectives.

My moment of insight came from one particular comment. The comment was from a woman. In her remarks, she notes that she hadn't yet seen the interview, but that she did have a chance to speak with her son on the phone, who had just watched the ABC segment. She offers the caveat that her son isn't all that political, but she went on to note that her son, like his father (her husband), isn't one to mince words or sugar coat what he sees and thinks. As she put it, in unedited jargon, her son's view of the the Palin performance was, "Gimme a break, she had no fricking clue what she was talking about."

Now one might wonder how one comment can lead anyone to any particular insights...other than the fact that this woman has an outspoken son who reminds her of her husband. I'll try to explain.

By and large, the majority of comments, negative or favorable, came as first person observations...and they divided along party lines as well as gender. From GOP partisans, the women's view posits that Charlie Gibson was intent on catching Palin in a gaffe and his mannerism were rather condescending. As for GOP males, they noted some hesitation and a lack of knowledge on Palin's part, and then they proceeded to rationalize that her performance was sufficient given the circumstances...and the McCain strategy.

On the Democratic side, women were either fully dismissive of Palin's presidential bona fides or lamenting the fact that her gender would allow the GOP to advance the victim argument. Men who were clearly aligned with the Democratic Party seemed to focus on specific policy gaffes in order to conclude that the Palin selection was a ploy that will ultimately be exposed and hurt the McCain ticket's chances in November.

However, in the comment of this particular woman, I think it's important to note that it was a woman reporting on the views of the men in her life...men she clearly cares for. It suggests she isn't a full fledged partisan and that her family isn't deeply invested in one particular party or all that concerned with back and forth political high jinks. In other words, her family represents the unaffected middle...those voters who discern their votes absent the ideological inclinations of party affiliation.

So what does that mean? Well, I took away two observations. One, issues of gender bias are primarily being discussed by partisans from both parties in the hopes of finding advantage. Two, the average American family, too busy to follow the blow by blow of the election process, and unwilling to become invested in the partisanship, will do what they always do...quickly cut through the faux filters and find essence.

So here's my own takeaway from this woman's comment. She knows the men in her life and they know her. Their lives are an acknowledgment of reality rather than an abstraction of rhetoric. When her son cuts to the chase on the Palin interview, mom sees the truth in his comments...regardless of their gender differences or the efforts to cast the election as little more than gender warfare. She undoubtedly knows that society still holds biased positions with regard to women...and other groups...and she can probably see some of that in Charlie Gibson...just as she does in the Maytag repairman who fixed her broken washing machine last week.

At the same time, she can also see through a candidate who lacks a grasp of the issues that will confront the individuals who will be seated in the two highest offices in the land...without the need to filter her conclusions through a manufactured gender prism. In the end, her family represents the simple pragmatism that keeps America in the center...pulling it back from one extreme or the other. They function as a family and they respect and trust each other...regardless of the idiosyncrasies they possess. They have to in order to survive...and they vote with that in mind.

Those who think this kind of voter can be swayed by a smoke and mirrors strategy underestimate this family at their own peril. When it's all said and done, their votes will express a clarity that can't be clouded by misdirection and misinformation.

Cut it however you like, but this is a change election...and the fact that the McCain campaign has suddenly altered its message in the hopes of pulling victory from the jaws of defeat will not go unnoticed by the family noted above. They can figure out the real reason Sarah Palin was selected. They can determine which news outlet and which pundit is biased.

But more than anything, they have to determine which candidate will offer them the best hope for the problems they face as a family. They haven't the luxury of endlessly mulling through the minutiae or participating in partisan platitudes. When this mom chose to report her son's views, she was explaining how her family sees the world, and how they makes decisions, to those who routinely discount them as inconsequential. When it comes time to vote, her family will sort through the noise...because they have to. When November 5th arrives, the rest of us will finally hear her.

Tagged as: 2008 Election, ABC, Barack Obama, Campaigns, Charlie Gibson, Democrats, GOP, John McCain, Politics, Pundits, Sarah Palin

Daniel DiRito | September 12, 2008 | 10:02 AM
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1 On September 12, 2008 at 2:20 PM, Tina wrote —

This would be a sound proposition if we could in fact be 100 percent sure that the poster wasn't partisan.

I have witnessed numerous incidences of people passing the partisanship of their view through the 'filter' of a supposedly unbiased third party, precisely because it could carry the type of weight you describe.

If Palin really lacks appeal to the apolitical Joe average, we would not be seeing such a massive swing in the polling. The entrenched partisans were already on board with thier team before Palin's entrance. Palin impacted the swingers.

So I would argue that I'd have to see evidence of those swingers returning to pre-Palin positions in 'reaction' to her percieved flubbing of interviews, before I'd conceed that the apolitical middle will swing against rather than towards Palin.


2 On September 12, 2008 at 3:02 PM, Mark wrote —

As a person who knows statistics I can say that while your analysis of that individual woman at that particular point in developing her opinion may be spot on but it has no implication for the overall response to Palin.

Let's think from first principles about McCain's choice. Certainly her gender makes her stand out, but 51% of the populous share her gender. Her position as a reformer, with a record to prove it makes her a very rare commodity. There were a lot of safe choices with skirts in the field but realistically only two reformers with a resume of actual reform. (I wonder if she was his 1st choice.) The recent bump is not particularly meaningful and I am curious what the eventual response will be. I have spoken to a number of people, particularly women, but don't have enough information to say.

The landscape is much more complex than you present. It is not the Hillary women that are the keys to the overall result. Nor is it the women that base their judgments on what their children say. It is the truly independent women who backed Hillary not because of her gender but because of her desire and record of creating change. The message of "just words" has permeated the electorate. Obama asked the "change question" but could not provide the answer. He had no track record to make people comfortable.

McCain clearly has had a major impact, and for the most part, favorable impact on Washington. Each ill thought out comment by the Obama team (i.e. he is a puppet of Big Oil when he voted against Bush's oil plan while Obama and Biden voted for it) reinforces that fact. Campaign Finance reform, Earmark reform and rejection of torture all show he is not business as usual. There is more to go on with him, but he too could not close the deal. Obama hit it on the head; middle America had become cynical that Washington would ever fulfill its promises.

Obama, in his choice of Biden, said he will not stray too far from Washington norms. I don't mean that in a disparaging way. Some particularly vocal people had concerns about radical change and Biden was a signal to that group.

McCain selected a person who had bucked her own party, reduced earmarks, fought Big Oil, etc. She has both the scars and the stars to prove it. In his last substantive act before the election McCain said, "I mean business." The selection of Palin was not a statement on Women's Rights but on the rejection of the corrupt status quo. The fact that Palin is an engaging speaker who has real "street cred" on bucking the system is a major step forward. Perhaps 12% of her attractiveness to non-partisan women voters is her gender, the vast majority is that she represents pragmatic action against what has irked them for years in Washington. While I have not spoken to enough women since her nomination I have spoken to many women over the years and "pragmatic solutions" is music to their ears. I think her life story gives her instant credibility with them and her record backs that up.

Obama (and Gibson) are correct that only by attacking her ability to deliver should she be elevated to President will change people's opinion of her. But that will not change the election. "They" are running against McCain and he has selected a tough, well spoken, accomplished reformer to remind the electorate which of the candidates talks and which has acted and will continue to take bold action. Can Obama and his supporters counter that fact? I honestly don't think so. His candidacy was built on promises of new thinking and his first opportunity to demonstrate that was to choose old thinking. McCain promised he would continue to buck the system and his last act before the election was to buck the system.

There is not enough statistics yet to make a prediction, but selecting Palin was the pivotal act of this election cycle. Her speech at the convention and the recent interview were only side items.

3 On September 12, 2008 at 6:43 PM, daniel wrote —


You're observation is technically accurate. I can't be sure of the motivations of any commenter...though over time one does learn about the views and positions of those who comment regularly.

Regardless, given the number of comments I read, I have a pretty good nose for partisan bias. In truth, bias and discrimination exists in everything we do so, yes, even this woman is apt to harbor some partisanship. However, in my opinion, it seems far less than the typical individual commenting.

That aside, as to the voters who have embraced the Palin candidacy, I would argue that the bulk of the bump comes from the increased enthusiasm she brought to the ticket in those loosely identified as values voters. James Dobson is an excellent example...and he is likely representative of those who ascribe to his views.

While I'm speaking anecdotally, it isn't difficult to imagine that Dobson was an undecided, or unlikely to vote, respondent pre-Palin...as were many of his followers. Simply looking at the dramatic rise in enthusiasm amongst Republican voters should instruct us of the shift I'm describing.

At the same time, I suspect Palin has cursory appeal to some independent voters. However, one must ask on what basis? If McCain lacked appeal to an independent, it certainly wasn't Palin's maverick status that appealed to them. So one must look at the differences between McCain and Palin rather than the similarities to understand the shift. I contend that difference is her views on social issues and hence I return to my contention that the shift is primarily the coming home of religious conservatives...or those independents who strongly lean that way.

Clearly, my posting is an attempt to impart understanding from a fully fluid situation. I don't see the "massive" swing you note, though I do see the impact of enthusiasm.

Thanks for sharing your thoughtful observations.



4 On September 12, 2008 at 7:57 PM, daniel wrote —


I appreciate your background in statistics. However, you do little to bring it to bear upon your argument. You don't employ statistics to refute the significance of those voters who share the view of the subject in my posting any more than you support your own views with statistics.

Further, one of the prevailing measures of the worthiness of a statistical model centers upon the assumptions being made. The fact that your argument posits Sarah Palin as "a reformer, with a record to prove it" doesn't comport with the evidence. Has she instigated reforms in Alaska? Yes. However, in comparison to the other 49 states, can we call those reforms significant? I don't think so...especially when the basis of the McCain "reform" argument centers upon rejecting earmarks and pork-barrel spending.

The data simply doesn't support your hypothesis...which returns us to the my hypothesis...the one that suggests voters can discern fact from fabrication. Now don't get me wrong, I understand the limitations of anecdotes...as well as the merits of hyperbole. After all, I recall when Karl Rove, prior to the 2006 midterm election, made the fantastical statement that the GOP would hold the house and the senate...based upon the fact that he "had the good numbers". We both know how that turned out, eh?

As to your argument that Hillary was the change candidate, pardon my candor, but that's nonsense. She, like McCain, adopted the change mantra when the experience meme failed to sway enough voters. In the interest of full disclosure, I believe this because I listened to my own mother, an unyielding Clinton supporter, repeatedly argue against the change message and in favor of experience. Further, her allegiance to Hillary will never translate into support of the McCain-Palin ticket...even if it became the Palin-McCain ticket.

Please reference the above response to Tina to see my views on which voters the inclusion of Palin actually influences. Look, I understand your rhetoric...but that's all it is. Palin has appeal...but it isn't appeal that changes stripes into spots. Yes, she enthused the base...and those independents who typically embrace conservative values...but the change meme is, as Obama noted, the lipstick on the pig (and that's not a slam directed at the honorable governor). If you prefer, I'm happy to use another metaphor...the McCain camp is selling a pig in a poke.

These illustrative examples are simply an indictment of the GOP and the fact that McCain votes overwhelmingly with the GOP on the issues that impact voters like the women I reference in my posting...and my own mother. They, like countless others, aren't going to be swayed by the argument you or John McCain are putting forward...nor are these voters going to be drawn in by the reformer assertion.

Let's be honest, McCain admits his economic bona fides are limited...and the good governor is nary an economist. The substance simply isn't there for voters to believe the McCain-Palin ticket will solve their pocketbook issues.

Granted, one can argue that Obama isn't an economist either...which brings us back to the 2006 election and the overwhelming message sent by the voters...a message that said the GOP isn't the party they want to lead them out of the mess left by George Bush.

All things being equal (subjective as it is), I think 2006 is a better predictor of my hypothesis than yours. I'm simply not buying the contention that Sarah Palin solved the issues that led to that GOP "whooping"...or that voters have even concluded that Sarah Palin is an acceptable running mate. It's simply too early to tell...one way or the other.

Regardless, that doesn't negate the established thought processes of the woman I reference or the manner in which she and her family discern the merits of a candidate. I'm simply arguing that time isn't on Palin's side given the nature of the voters she needs to sway.

With that said, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree.

I do appreciate your comments and I fully enjoy the dialogue. Thanks for sharing.



5 On September 13, 2008 at 2:12 PM, Mark wrote —

Dear Daniel,

I appear to have inadvertently offended you. My apologies. I did not intend to pontificate. I was simply saying that while the one example you give is interesting it is not convincing.
I am by no means a partisan. I live in New Jersey and know where my electoral votes are going, so I can look at the election process from afar. I can live with either as president.
Your response brings up a number of points.

When Palin was announced my response was “What the toast!”. I then set about looking for any evidence as to how bad a pick this was. So far my conclusion is that Palin has a thin resume, but it includes some real reform. This morning I bumped into an article that provides in part such resume as she has: http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/015/553oxoax.asp. It is not much but it gives her characterization as a “reformer” concrete support.

I will recast the point in hopefully a less confrontational way. I was very impressed with Obama's statement in January 2007 when asked if he thought he had a chance, “Look, it comes down to 47% on one side and 47% on the other with the decision made by the 5% (sic) in the middle.” That meant to me that he really “got it”, something rare in our politics.

Up to the Biden nomination Obama had captured his 47%. I don't think the disgruntled Hillary supporters were going to vote McCain in sufficient numbers to have a significant impact. McCain had not done as well. Many very vocal elements of the McCain 47% were saying that his track record had been only moderately acceptable. He had indeed fought corruption convincingly but his record on “their” hot button issues was spotty.

The 5% in the middle really hadn't decided. The polling has shown consistently 7% plus undecided. Obama was working since locking up the nomination on it by expanding his platform and adjusting his positions to target the 5%.

My characterization of that middle group is “cautious”. They are not leaning left or right. Their key interest is in not losing what they have, and Obama again was right, they don't trust Washington. In the Biden choice he played to the “cautious” side but within the context of the Washington they don't trust.

McCain was in a different position, he needed to shore up his 47%. remember that he had won most of the states prior Romney's withdrawal only by a plurality. He could not get even a majority of Republicans. In recent weeks there had been a blogstorm on the possibility of selecting a centrist VP, heaven forbid Lieberman. McCain did not have a choice but to pick someone clearly conservative. He badly needed credibility with conservatives even to get in the game, let alone win. There were only a couple of people that could do that for him. We will eventually know if Palin was his first choice. I don't think so, but I have no inside information.

Most of the bump that has been seen is McCain reaching his 47% (47.3% this morning). I don't know if McCain is actually taking any of that crucial 5%. There is rumblings and anecdotal evidence but not enough to be convincing. The recent data on “white women” points in that direction but the overall sample has a +/- 3% accuracy, the various strata such as white women are far less reliable. If McCain had actually had a broad based 20% improvement with white women his overall numbers would be well over 47% so that statistic is not convincing.

The big swing is the drop by Obama. He had his 47% since May (RCP average). I think it is not Palin but his response to Palin that has hurt him. His team was clumsy and frenzied when he needed to stay “presidential”. Some surveys indicate that most centrists believe that the media is effectively an extension of the Obama campaign. As such the equally irrational response by the media has hurt Obama.

There is a structural problem with the race which Obama must overcome. His “change” motto appeals to his 47% and won him the nomination but the 5% would be happy with “the same” and think change from Washington is more likely to hurt them than help them; they are not unemployed; they do not have crazy mortgages; they don't feel that opportunity has been denied them. To capture the critical 5% Obama needs to reduce the number of changes he speaks about and to focus on making those few tangible and clearly positive. McCain's shift to a “change” theme was a bad idea but he is keeping it focused on a few very tangible changes which “don't hurt” that 5% seems to be this overall direction. McCain's promises are more modest and therefore a more credible, less scary set of changes.

I don't think the current blip is indicative of the eventual outcome. I think it remains Obama's to lose but he needs to use a two step process; clearly disavow the frenzied and gaff filled attacks of the last two weeks and then move in a measured, “presidential” way toward convincing that key 5% that he will not change their lives for the worse – they don't want him to try to make their lives better.

Best regards,


6 On September 13, 2008 at 5:42 PM, daniel wrote —


Thanks for the expansion of your prior comment.

No apology needed. I wasn't offended by your first comment...I simply couldn't see how you were connecting the dots. I also think your assertion that Palin is a reformer, is, for the most part, a talking point generated by the GOP.

At the moment, I don't have the time to offer a detailed reply...but I'll try to get one posted in the next day or so.

Mark, I definitely enjoy dialogue and debate...and I'm glad you took the time to share your thoughts. I hope you'll continue to comment.



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