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The Grinch Who Stole The Olympics

Cue commercial. Lebron James chilling out with Yao Ming and drinking Coca-Cola with some panda bears. Michael Phelps hawking Visa and AT&T Wireless. And then … a political attack ad?

McCain’s $6 million Olympic ad buy is getting lots of ratings points here in Chicago. I’ve also heard from a reader that it’s been in widespread circulation in Utah. If the ads are running in Utah and running in Chicago, that means they’re running everywhere, and so far the buy has been exclusively limited to the negative ad that I linked above.

This is certainly an unorthodox decision. I’d also venture that it’s a stupid one. Not just because the ads seem tone-deaf in context, but also because they sacrifice a major opportunity for McCain to do some branding for himself. McCain’s whole America First theme could have worked extremely well in the context of the Olympics. Work in pitches from McCain-friendly athletes like Lance Armstrong and Curt Schilling, and there are a million directions you could go with this — almost any of which would be better than the one he chose.

The McCain folks seem to be convinced that the ‘Celebrity’-themed attack ads are working for them. Even if that were true, that’s not necessarily a reason to run them during the Olympics. But there’s not much evidence that they’re working in the first place. If you look at our tracking graph, you’ll see a slight downtick in Obama’s numbers that occurred between roughly mid-June and mid-July … before his trip abroad and before McCain’s attack ads started running. Since then, the trend has been essentially flat.

There’s a lot of noise in polling data — and there has been especially much noise lately. A campaign that’s cherry-picking the polls can tell itself almost any story that it wants to. But if it’s making decisions like this one, it is doing so at its own peril.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.