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The Number That Explains It All

From yesterday’s CBS/NYT poll:

Fifty-nine percent of registered voters think McCain’s economics would favor the wealthy; just 11 percent the middle class. Far more than being a “center-right” country, this is a middle class country, and a candidate who fails to speak to the concerns of the middle class does so at his own peril.

Certainly to some extent, rough economic times favor the Democrats, at least when there’s a Republican in the White House. But in general, I think the pundits have been too judicious; Obama has gotten too little credit, and McCain not enough blame, for their handling of the financial crisis.

McCain did himself no favors with his “fundamentals” comment, nor the “suspension” of his campaign. But the former might qualify as a capital-G gaffe — McCain seemed to want to retract his words as soon as he uttered them — and the later was a snap decision the implications of which were hard to see in advance. These were arguably errors of tactics rather than strategy, if you will.

There have been plenty of other occasions, however, on which McCain had plenty of time to contemplate his message, and wound up coming across as tone deaf. The failure to mention the phrase “middle class” even once during the three presidential debates was either brazen, incompetent, or both. The notion that a capital gains tax cut would be persuasive to middle class families was naive. Joe the Plumber is gimmicky, and seems that way to most Americans. And McCain’s best talking point about the economy — that of high energy prices — has been strangely absent from the discussion on the post-Lehman economy, or has mutated into a strident catch phrase about offshore drilling.

Conversely, it is not as though Obama was Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney — someone who was seen coming into this crisis as an economic savant. But the basic message that a robust middle class is the foundation of economic growth is exactly the right one in troubled times like these, and Obama has delivered it with discipline and grace.

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