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McCain’s strategy: force a gaffe?

The conventional wisdom is that when a candidate asks for more debates, said candidate is probably behind. We see now that McCain has invited Obama to a series of weekly town hall debates. So does the conventional wisdom hold here?

Actually, I think yes. Particularly so because John McCain is not an especially strong debater. The GOP had some very capable debaters in its primaries; Rudy Giuliani was one of the quicker candidates on his feet that I’ve ever seen, and Mike Huckabee’s entire opportunity probably came as a result of his strong performance in the debates. But John McCain’s performance in the debates was middling. Barack Obama, meanwhile, while not a terrificly strong debater, improved significantly as the primary season wore on. The aesthetics of having the two of them on the same state together — where Obama’s height and relative youth make him more telegenic — also play well for him.

McCain may be hoping to score a cheap political point or two (“he’s afraid to debate me”), assuming that Obama won’t take him up on his offer. Nevertheless, this is a reminder that the underlying dynamics of the race favor Obama. The two candidates are essentially tied right now, with about 20 percent of Democrats defecting to John McCain. If Obama can get that number down to 15 percent — still higher than the 10-12 percent rates that most nominees get, but lower than where it is now — that’s worth a couple of points for him depending on the state. The bounce is likely to be especially large in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which have been trending Democratic in party affilaition but that also have a lot of Clinton supporters. If Obama moves Pennsylvania from “lean Democrat” to “safe Democrat”, and Ohio from “toss-up” to “lean Democrat”, McCain will need to have a nearly-perfect Election Night to win the Presidency.

The Democrats are also likely to have a significantly more compelling convention than the Republicans. Obama himself is a better speaker than McCain by a couple of orders of magnitude, and the Democrats will also get speeches from Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and (health willing) Teddy Kennedy. With the incumbent President and his family being more a liability than an asset, the Republicans simply won’t have the star power to match that.

Obama is also likely to have a significant advantage in fundraising. He’ll have the presence of an energized blogosphere to serve as a counterweight to right-leaning radio and television outlets like FOX News. The three official long-form debates scheduled by the networks, which are so structured as to resemble stump speeches as much as real debates, are also likely to favor Obama. The economy and the situation in Iraq aren’t likely to have improved significantly by November.

So in order to win, McCain is going to need to capitalize on gaffes that Obama has already made — the whole elitism/patriotism/liberalism/friends-of-Barack ball of wax remains a very significant vulnerability for Obama, especially if tinged with undercurrents of racial politics (as it invariably is). Or, better yet, McCain is going to have to induce some new gaffes from Obama. The more times that Obama speaks to a national audience, the more opportunity there is for him to do so. But this is not a strategy a candidate takes when his fundamentals look good.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.