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The Wrong Ads and the Wright One

At the Dole Institute panel last week, I got into an extended discussion with Sarah Simmons and Christian Ferry, the gracious and sporting McCain senior staffers present, about the wisdom or lack thereof of McCain’s messaging strategy. My point, which I might or might not have articulated very well, was that maintaining the strength of the McCain brand — and particularly, maintaining the differentiation between the McCain brand and the Republican brand — was an essential component of any winning strategy. This is the same point that I tried to make in the Los Angeles Times in August, at which time McCain was polling within the margin of error against Obama. I argued that this had at least as much to do with McCain as with Obama, and that against virtually any other Republican, Obama would have been cruising. I then suggested to Simmons and Ferry that certain of their commercials, such as the ‘Education’ ad (a.k.a. kindergarten sex ed), the ‘Celebrity’ ad, and various of their Bill Ayers commercials, were petty and vindictive enough as to have undermined McCain’s brand, and made him easier to caricature as a generic Republican.

What exactly is the McCain brand, by the way? I would argue that at its strongest, it was organized around two themes: honor and independence. These commercials, particularly ‘Education’, seemed dishonorable, as did the negative and often smallball (e.g. “Lipstick on a Pig”) tone of the campaign. The notion that McCain was independent, meanwhile, was also undermined by the tone of his campaign, which may have reminded voters too much of the Bush/Rove brand of politics — although the selection of Sarah Palin was probably the bigger impediment there.

Simmons and Ferry responded by saying that their campaign had perceived the election as a referendum on Barack Obama, and that only by undermining Obama could they hope to win. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I would argue that it was a necessary rather than sufficient condition. That is, in order to win an election in which Republicans faced a 7-10 point generic ballot disadvantage, McCain had to both:

(i) Undermine Obama’s brand, e.g. differentiate Obama in an unfavorable way from a generic Democrat, and

(ii) Present some reasonably compelling alternative, e.g. differentiate McCain in a favorable way from a generic Republican.

Had McCain managed to do one of these things but not the other — say, undermine Obama while taking himself down a notch in the process — the election might have been a little closer than it turned out to be, but Obama would probably have prevailed by 2-3 points on the strength of base turnout, with a lot of independents simply getting fed up with the whole thing and staying home. As it happened, however, McCain really managed to do neither; his unfavorables peaked mere days before the election, while he never managed to make much of a dent in Obama’s numbers.

Perhaps accomplishing both of these things at once was impossible — McCain could not have substantially damaged Obama’s brand without substantially damaging his own. In this case, the election was probably unwinnable, at least once the financial crisis hit.

The best attempt I have seen, however, may have come in the form of an ad that the McCain campaign chose not to run, which is an unaired spot they apparently were producing on Jeremiah Wright. Click forward to about 1:15 in the ABC News clip below to see the commercial:


There are two things that make this commercial effective. Firstly, it sets up an obvious contrast between the two candidates: McCain as honorable (cue the POW footage), and Obama as less so (cue “God Damn America”). None of the other commercials (“Celebrity”, Ayers, etc.) really managed to do that, or at least not very explicitly. Secondly, the ad shows some restraint. Wright is on screen for a grand total of five seconds, just long enough to get the point across, but he’s part of a broader narrative, and there isn’t the scolding and overbearing tone of many of McCain’s commercials.

Now, I don’t think that this commercial would have been any sort of a magic bullet — particularly not if it was released in the final few days of the campaign, when the media would surely have slammed it as a sign of desperation. But, this is arguably a fairer attack than Ayers or “Education”, and if it had aired in July or August instead of those Britney Spears commercials, it might have had more lasting resonance.

Simmons and Ferry also said that the decision not to go after Obama on Wright was not really a calculated move at all; McCain had vetoed the idea, and that was that. You can choose to believe that or not. I do tend to believe it, because it squares with my impression of McCain (both the man and his campaign) as being more ad-hoc than methodical or strategic.

For better or for worse, there aren’t a lot of politicians who would have made that decision. But that, in a way, is precisely my premise: McCain was pretty well differentiated from a generic politician, and particularly a generic, circa 2008, oogedy-boogedy Republican. If McCain wasn’t willing to air an ad on Jeremiah Wright — well, then, the McCain campaign should have been shouting from the rooftops that this was the case. And they should have been working backward from that decision by also not airing ads like “Education”, which had half the impact for twice the sacrifice of credibility.

All easier to say in hindsight, of course. But at the end of the day, the McCain campaign was too cynical to believe that the older, more maverick-y version of their candidate could have closed the sale. McCain had to pander to the base in the primaries because that’s how things are done in the Republican Party. He had to attack his opponent’s character (even if it meant tarnishing his own) because that’s what Republicans do. But Republicans have also been losing elections in droves since Hurricane Katrina hit, and a campaign that didn’t have the self-confidence to perceive that was probably due to meet the same fate.

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