This is another paper from my Presidential Primaries, Nominations, & Elections course. It takes the form of a strategic memo for the McCain-Palin campaign a month before the 2008 election.
At this point in the election cycle, the McCain campaign is floundering. Real Clear Politics places the electoral vote count at 264 to 163 in Obama’s favor. There are 111 votes left in the swing states, and 89 of those votes are leaning Obama. In order to win, we need a miracle. But a miracle alone won’t provide the victory if we aren’t there to take it. In order to manufacture a miracle, and be there to take advantage of it, we must proceed along the following steps.
Change the Narrative
The story of the past month has been the financial meltdown and our fumbling response to it. We need to move beyond this if we’re to have a chance at winning. Now that the financial bill has passed, we can do this. We will bring the dialogue back to national security and terrorism, where we have a strong lead. Remind voters that Russia still has troops in Georgia, that Iran is building a nuclear bomb, and that al Qaeda is still out there. Tell voters that John McCain supported sending more troops to Iraq from the beginning of the war — and that if the Bush administration had followed his advice, we could have avoided the long and costly insurgency that followed.
When questioned on the economic woes, we should simply remind questioners that McCain cosponsored legislation to rein in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac 2 years ago, but it was squashed by Democrats. Remind them that he decisively acted, at great political cost, to try and solve the crisis while Obama simply campaigned like it was business as usual; would they rather have a President trying to get reelected or one trying to lead the country? Further add that Obama’s solution to our economic woes is to raise taxes, then move on.
Clean up our Image
Polls show that we are widely perceived as making more unfair attacks than the Obama campaign. Repeating claims about Mr. Obama consorting with domestic terrorists (in the person of William Ayers), rather than making voters worry, just tarnish our image more. This story should continue to be pushed by associates of the campaign, but our principals must rise above it and return to their clean and honorable images. Mr. McCain must remind voters that he has been a principled leader throughout his career in office by telling them of the things he has done to fight corruption and hypocrisy in government (for instance, McCain-Feingold). When commenting on these stories, associates should contrast his clean politics with those of Chicago, “Obama’s political home.” Governor Palin must continue telling America how she cut earmarks in Alaska, helped bring down the corrupt old-guard politicians within her party, and sold the governor’s wasteful private jet.
Focus our Campaign Where it Counts
We are nearly out of options. If we lose a single state that is already in our camp, we will lose the campaign. But even with all those states, we need more. Despite the sense of doom this inspires, it also gives us freedom. We can ignore the states already in our column and concentrate on the toss-up state, sending them the best candidate for their circumstances.
Governor Palin has strong appeal as a middle-class mom who made it big in politics. She should be used in the economically worried portions of the country where a strong narrative on security will be less influential than the government’s ability to handle the economy. She should campaign throughout Indiana, Ohio, and Virginia and narrate her experiences as a middle-class mom, reminding voters that she has gone without healthcare before — and then tell them that under McCain’s plan other families in similar situations would be better off because of their tax credit and the ability to buy across state lines. She must also play to their worries about Obama’s inexperience, reminding them that she has more executive experience than he does, that she oversaw a growing, healthy economy as both mayor and governor, and that she is only running for Vice President! Most important of all, though, she must simply identify with the voters, as George W. Bush did to great effect in 2000 and she has done so well thus far. Remind voters that she supports windfall profit taxes on the oil companies, and that she will push for that and similar measures as Vice President. Continue harping on how she is a maverick and McCain is the original maverick; in Indiana she should remind voters that Obama is a political child of Chicago.
When asked about national security she must drop the “Russia is near Alaska!” line. Instead, she can point to McCain’s decades of foreign policy experience and remind voters that her position, unlike Obama’s, allows the luxury of on-the-job training.
Perhaps most importantly, the campaign must drop the media shield we have erected around Mrs. Palin. We need her to overcome the image of the Couric interviews if we are to win, and if she can’t improve on that performance we are sunk even if we hide her.
Senator McCain should focus his efforts on Florida and North Carolina. He can tour the Florida panhandle with the popular Governor Crist speaking generically about national security and smaller government. In the southern area of the state he should tour independently (except where locally-popular representatives and mayors might assist him) reminding voters of his national security experience, but focusing largely on off-shore drilling and taxes. In North Carolina, he should focus on off-shore drilling and Obama’s deficiencies as both an inexperienced senator and a Democrat.
After we have seen the results of our campaign in those 5 states, we can move on — Mr. McCain can go west, and hopefully Mrs. Palin’s narratives will have swung Michigan enough that we can let her campaign through that state. By letting Mr. McCain speak to his strengths on national security and small government, we can let Mrs. Palin handle the economic issue by identification (rather than taking on the Democrats on their home turf) and (subtly) detract from Mr. Obama’s appeal by comparing herself, a Vice Presidential nominee, to him, the Presidential nominee.