The Landscape, Six Weeks Out

In some ways the 2008 Presidential campaign has been surprising, yet the landscape we see, with six weeks to go in the race, is familiar–perhaps surprisingly so.

The race is tight. As Paul notes below, Obama has recovered somewhat from McCain’s convention/Palin bounce. An obvious question is whether the tide has now stabilized, or whether it will continue to run Obama’s way for another few percentage points. My guess is that it’s close to equilibrium, at least until the first debate.

There was a lot of talk this year about “transformational” candidates, etc. But what is notable about the electoral landscape, as we now see it, is how little transformed it is. Obama’s dreams of running strongly in hard-core red states–Nebraska!–are long gone, while McCain’s brief near-parity in states like New York and New Jersey was probably a mirage as well. The decisive swing states are what they have been been for a while: Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Michigan, New Hampshire. The list changes a bit every four years–is Indiana really in play for Obama?–but the battlefield has a very familiar look.

What is also striking is how close the race is in nearly all of those swing states. For the moment, at least, the race is turning on a knife edge in most of the hotly contested states. As Paul says, this is a much better position than most Republicans had expected to be in at this point, which probably accounts for the hysteria and hatred that we see emanating from the mainstream media.

Absent a successful terrorist attack–remember when that qualifier was routinely inserted into political predictions? Its absence these days is a testament to the Bush administration’s success–the dominant issue from now to November will be the economy. I agree with Paul that McCain needs to engage this issue (or complex of issues) every day in a manner that is substantive and, always, at least partly positive.

Newspapers routinely report that troubled financial markets and other economic turmoil are good for Barack Obama, since, for the last eight years, the Republicans have been “in charge.” Put aside the absurdity of that last assumption: most voters make a very different calculation from the one assumed by reporters. If times are tough and the future uncertain, voters want a steady, sober hand at the tiller.

As a Presidential candidate, Barack Obama is essentially a luxury item. He seems like a reasonably nice guy. His big appeal is that he’s African-American. Obama is a feel-good candidate; who wouldn’t like to see an African-American as President? But no one pretends that he is particularly well qualified for the Presidency or that he has demonstrated the sort of steadiness in a crisis that people want when times are tough.

If our economic future is becoming less certain, voters’ willingness to use their Presidential vote to make themselves feel good could diminish quickly. Already, Rasmussen finds that voters “trust” McCain over Obama on economic issues by 47 to 45 percent. Remarkably, a much wider plurality–49 percent versus 36 percent–worry that the federal government will do too much, rather than too little, in response to the current crisis.

These data suggest that John McCain has a huge opportunity to convince voters that his is the steady hand we need to make sure that the miscalculations of investment bankers don’t damage the prospects of ordinary American families. A big part of being a strong, steady leader is not panicking. McCain can afford to tone down some of his recent populism a bit. He can be a reformer without being maniacally anti-Wall Street.

Given his prescient warnings about Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac–once again, whatever you think of his positions on some other issues, he has indisputably been not just right but far ahead of the curve on one of the most significant issues of our time–McCain has a lot to work with. He needs to reaffirm his support for a free economy, while emphasizing his credentials as a reformist.

This isn’t at all contradictory, since the main corruption of recent times has come from the intermingling of the public with the private. A reaffirmation of free enterprise, with reasonably low tax rates, is entirely compatible with a righteous determination to drive the money-changers–in fact, nearly all Democratic money-changers–out of the federal temple. Someone needs to remind McCain that “reform” is not synonymous with “regulation.” On the contrary.

If McCain adopts the right approach to the day’s economic turmoil, the edge that voters already give him on the economy could become overwhelming, guaranteeing his election in November. That’s how it looks at the moment, anyway.

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