Thursday, July 24, 2008

Priming and the Presidential Campaign

It is far too early to begin placing much stock in tracking polls, but the trend in the Gallup daily track may reveal a fundamental flaw in Obama's campaign strategy to this point. In short, he's priming voters to think about a set of issues that work to his disadvantage.

The Gallup results for July 18-20 were Obama 47%, McCain 41%, a six point lead; those for July 21-23, released today, have Obama up a mere two points (45% to 43%). This suggests not only that Obama's trip has yet to produce a bounce, but that it may be hurting him.

How could that be when the coverage has been glowing? Indeed, the more general question of why Obama's lead isn't larger, given that the environment is ripe for him, is on the minds of many commentators. Just yesterday, John Judis on The New Republic's blog "The Plank" noted that, in addition to McCain "inept" campaign,
Democrats enjoy an average lead of 11.6 percent in generic Congress polls. In addition, the Republican administration is wildly unpopular; the economy is in a tailspin; and the Iraqi president has endorsed Barack Obama's withdrawal plan. Yet Obama is only running an average of 4.5 percent ahead of McCain in the polls, and... is losing ground in some critical state polls.
Judis concludes that Obama remains a "mysterious stranger" to many voters. That's certainly true and, given his race, it is likely to remain true throughout the campaign making the contest much closer than it otherwise might have been. But there's another reason for Obama's inability to build a large lead over McCain and it also explains why he may fail to get a bounce out of his trip abroad.

For the past month, the Obama campaign has been placing a great deal of emphasis on foreign policy and national security with the goal of building the candidate's credibility in these areas. But by doing so, he is priming voters to think about the very issues on which they prefer John McCain. Indeed, his trip overseas was intended to portray him in a positive light on the world stage. It has certainly done that. But it has also reminded average voters (that is, those who are not wildly partisan) that, when it comes to foreign policy, they trust Republicans more than Democrats and John McCain more than Barack Obama. And, as if that weren't enough, it says nothing to voters about what they are most concerned with right now and that is the awful economic conditions facing the nation.

One understands the temptation of the Obama campaign to show that voting for him would not be a gamble with respect to foreign policy. But persuading voters to discard their assumptions about the strengths and weaknesses of the parties and their nominees takes years, not weeks or even months. Furthermore, foreign policy isn't likely to drive many voting decisions in the fall (barring a major international event). As a result, Obama's best bet is to return home as soon as possible and start priming voters on the issue area he can dominate - the economy.


lupercal said...

um. no. i disagree. obama has a special knack for making strength out of weaknesses. The Race Address is a prime example. So, by drawing mccain to parity on this issue, forcing him to make such flaps as he has been and leading the media to finally stop its love affair with him along with realizing that he's no longer the guy they fell in love with 2000 is crucial. i mean, what you're using polls that were conducted at the very beginning of his trip but reported towards its end to make your point, and i think that's a red herring. i mean, how long did it take for dan balz and joe klein and all the traditional media to cover mccain's many foreign policy gaffes? did you think that before this trip there was any way that the iraq and middle east debate would be a winner for obama? now, if done right, obama has the full potential to rewrite the narrative of the race. shifting the iraq debate on withdrawing, with the bush admin finally coming to its senses and iraqis favoring his plan is a winner. and when he debates mccain on foreign policy in aug., the narrative won't be written beforehand. now, we're in the middle of all of this hoopla. you're not going to see meaningful changes in polls. folks don['t have a clear enough sense of what's going on right now. but if he achieves anything, it's that he'll draw mccain to parity on foreign policy or reduce the gap (the media narrative is becoming that obama is a foreign policy realist in the realm of chuck hagel and colin powell, while mccain is an idealist in the neocon idealist tradition of good vs. evil and unilateral bellicosity). but what he'll do is that that will give him more room and ability to focus on the economy as many people are predisposed towards him. he needs to market his energy plan more aggressively, take an helicopter ride over the oil spill in the mississipi and visit the oil rigs while take a fully pragmatic approach (i would consider offshore drilling if it could help reduce oil prices, but experts universally agree that it won''t produce a drop of oil for teh next ten years. ultimately, what we need is a bold effort like kennedy's appollo's project to put a man on the moon to address the long term aspects of the oil addiction, and more help in the short term.) but i fundamentally disagree that his highly successful trip is hurting. if anything, it'll garantee more coverage of mccain, which will invariably cover his verbal slipups.

Keith said...

I agree with lupercal. It seems to me that McCain's incompetence with foreign policy issues has been highlighted by Obama's trip. I'd assumed a certain level of competence from McCain on this issue even though I'm not a McCain supporter but it's has become clear that McCain is somewhat of a nincompoop on these issues and both MSM and the blogosphere have been pointing that out.

Volare35 said...

Andre Agassi has a philosophy of attacking your opponents strength until it becomes weak and then force them fight them on their weakness (eg. if they are strong forehand keep attacking it, until that is tired, and then hit to their backhand).

This is what Obama has been doing effectively since he won the nomination. He has weakened McCain foreign policy strength. And yes, I agree now is the time to attack McCain economic weakness because Obama is very strong on that and with time to go in the election (no point wasting the economic advantage too early)

Tax said...

He's got to prove himself on this issue. No matter how strong he may be on the economy compared to McCain, people will not vote for him if they think that they may not be safe. He has to give them a basic level of comfort before the economic arguments even start to set in. I don't care how much money is in my checking account if terrorists are blowing up buildings in my city. That's why he is showing his mettle on foreign affairs so early. Once people are comfortable with him, his emphasis will shift to health care, energy policy, tax policy etc. where he should have strong advantages.

Chris D. said...

"But persuading voters to discard their assumptions about the strengths and weaknesses of the parties and their nominees takes years, not weeks or even months."

In general I agree. As a post-Boomer Democrat (who was an Edwards man in the primary and am now leaning toward Bob Barr), I think an individual Democratic Presidential candidate can overcome this residual bias if his every word and action evinces a well-conceived philosophy on defense and national security issues. I don't think Americans expect you to be warlike, but they very clearly do not like pacifists. And pacifism is the general strain of the Vietnam Era/Baby Boomer liberal elite from which all Democratic candidates must distance themselves. Simply put, Americans need to know that you value something about the American experiment deeply enough to kill for it. I don't see how Obama has established this by pretending to be the Second Coming of Clinton--that is, a bleedingheart world-hugger who blusters like a "neocon lite."