Inside Washington's Headlines

by Ken Feltman

Radnor Inc.

October 2008


Legislative insight

Political intelligence










Ken Feltman is Chairman of Radnor Inc., a political consulting and legislative relations firm in Washington, D.C. He is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists.




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A few-state strategy

Change is not a destination.

- Rudy Giuliani

Shortly, the voters will end these seemingly endless campaigns. High time. Or is it?

Voters are tired of this marathon. They want it over. They want an end to the Bush years. They are ready for change. Everything seems to be lining up in Senator Barack Obama's favor. But many voters still say that they do not know enough about Obama.

A surprising number say that the first debate did not help. What do they want? When will they learn what they want to know? How will they learn? What will they do if they don't? The answer is simple: They will do what they have done in the recent past.

The Obama campaign has not come to this realization. They started off with a 50-state strategy and talked about wholesale realignment of the national map. They threw millions of dollars into red states because they thought that they saw a blue tide building. As wavering red states took on their recent reddish hue, the Obama strategists finally began to shift their spending to the few states that seemed to be in play. But after mistakes by Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin, and favorable polls after the debate, the Obama camp is again talking about a blow-out. They talk about winning Ohio, Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina and Florida. They hint that perhaps 12 red states will flip to Obama.

Vanity is every political campaign's companion. The Obama campaign is back to contesting about a dozen red states. That may be the only major mistake that the Obama people have made. It could be fatal. Certainly, it was wasteful of millions of dollars and millions of hours of staff and volunteer time earlier this year. Money and time spent in North Carolina cannot now be spent in Ohio.

Coasting through foreign capitals

Obama signaled that he thought he would win handily when he coasted during the summer and went off to foreign capitals. What was he thinking? He reminded me of "American Pie'" songwriter Don McLean's lyrics in another of his hit songs: Everybody loves me, baby. What's the matter with you?

What's the matter with us voters? We are cautious. We need a real shock before we change. Our last shock was 9-11 and we are not over that yet. Maybe the meltdown on Wall Street is the next real shock. Obama must hope so. Change is always easier to predict than to bring about. Obama's talk of change is tonic to the young, the alienated and the down-and-out. It is toxic to the fearful and threatening to many others. Change can be sold when voters see it as incremental. Abrupt change makes people want to wait and see. That is why a surprising number of voters say they do not know enough about Obama. Some see voter uncertainty as a way to conceal racism. I disagree. Voters seem to mean: "Is Obama serious about change? What will he change? How much change?"

Presidential elections play out against a background of national issues and events, with a dash of international crises affecting voter decisions. This year is no different. For nearly two years, the campaigns have concentrated on all sorts of policies and decisions that take our (and their) attention away from the essential truth: Each election is pretty much like the last election. The map's colors change slowly.

The states that were in play last time will be critical this time. Decisions that take a campaign away from that truth can doom a candidate.

McCain has run what may in retrospect be seen as a rudderless campaign. In fact, McCain's campaign as been dominated by tactics rather than a strategic plan. But McCain seems to be lucky: His tactics may outperform Obama's overreaching strategy - because Obama's strategy may cause his resources to be spread across too large a map.

Every team can have a bad century...

So many from outside the U.S. have asked about this year's fate of my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. The fate is still to be decided.

The Cubs have not won the championship since 1908 but for the second year in a row, they have won the Central Division of the National League. They had the best record in the league and now play the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first round of the play-offs. Hope is running high that the Cubs will advance to the World Series against the champion of the American League.

One of the teams playing to represent the American League is the Chicago White Sox, the World Series champs in 2005. Chicago is going crazy. Worries about Wall Street, elections, Iran, Russia and everything else will melt away as the Windy City imagines a "Subway Series," which last happened in 1906. Everything will slow down except the beer. More than a few Obama campaign workers will find their way from campaign headquarters to Wrigley Field or Sox Park over the coming days.

There is a myth that Cubs fans hate the Sox and Sox fans hate the Cubs. Not really. Chicagoans love Chicago more and will support the "other" Chicago team if their team is eliminated.

My boyhood hero, Andy Pafko, played on the last Cubs team to make the World Series (1945) and once said, "Slow down! Baseball is as close as we get to heaven until, well, you know." Indeed, I do.

Left-leaning politicians never appreciate how unsettling change and new ideas can be. Here is a comment from a lifelong Democratic woman in Pennsylvania: "All this change. I just want to hold on to what I've got." From a Democratic man in Nevada: "I'm not sure what the change would mean for me. Too much change can't be digested."

A Democratic campaign consultant told me that change is a powerful campaign theme that works until a candidate is forced to specify what his or her change will entail. Then, those who oppose that particular change turn away. Obama has used the power of change without the risk. He has avoided specificity. But when you have an undefined messenger of change, everybody may be a little more anxious - and a lot more cautious.

When voters feel uncertain about a candidate or a candidate's platform, they keep waiting and waiting to make their final decision. They decide, then change their mind. On election day, they more often than not vote for stability over change.

So Obama must decide whether he can coast to victory without becoming more specific - or whether he must risk losing some support if he becomes more specific. If he had put a little flesh on the bones before heading off to adulation abroad, he might have been able to trap Republicans into arguing around the edges of his proposals. Then, Obama could philosophize around the edges right through election day. But he has waited too long and too many of his natural supporters are nervous about what the change is all about.

Not surprisingly, both campaigns have picked up this voter ambivalence. But some Democrats and media analysts attribute the indecision to racism, not cautiousness about undefined change. Folks, the good news is that there seems to be less racism out there then might be expected. For Democrats, the bad news may be that ambivalence could have the same effect as racism.

Incidentally, where racism does seem to make a difference, it does not seem to have the potential to be decisive except in a few states. Racism will benefit Obama in a few states and hurt him in a few others. Michigan may be the only state that could turn from blue to red because of racism. But Obama is working to get thousands of Michigan African-Americans to register and vote. The advantage would seem to go to Obama.

Lucky or cynical?

The reason McCain could suddenly embrace change with almost no risk is so simple as to be cynical. We know much more about McCain. Who believes that he will push for radical change? So McCain can have a risk-free change message. Beside that, when McCain claims to be a candidate of change, Obama can't avoid talking about change, too. And did you notice that Obama was trying to move past change? Perhaps he hoped that leaving change behind might mean that he would not get pinned down on specifics. McCain gets the next move.

McCain supplemented his change message with Palin and made the Democrats worry that they should never have turned their backs on Senator Hillary Clinton. More than Obama at the top of the ticket, Palin represented change from good-old-boy politics. Many undecided voters told pollsters that Palin was a bigger change than Obama. But as she makes errors, McCain's judgment in selecting her is questioned. The VP debate may be the most important of this election. Amazing!

Also amazing is how quickly GOP prospects improved in Montana and the Dakotas when Palin was chosen. Move those three states from purple to red. This would seem to be a very close election.

Republicans and "dumb" voters

For their part, right-tilting politicians cannot hide their astonishment that some people do not accept - or understand - that the right is, well, right. A Republican official in Florida expressed anger that "dumb people get to vote."

True, we do not have an intelligence test for voters - which is probably a good thing for that Florida politician. The clannishness of the Republicans is a major liability. it affects GOP campaigns and GOP governments, too.

Perhaps an unintended result of Palin's selection will be an opening up of the musty back rooms of the Republican Party.

All of this means that the election may again be decided in a few familiar states: Florida and Ohio will be pivotal again. The demographic change that Obama hopes for in Virginia is perhaps four years away. Can Obama's superior registration and turnout operations speed up the shift to blue? Michigan may be the only state that could switch because of racial voting, unless the Hispanic trend toward Obama in states such as Nevada is viewed in retrospect as racially motivated (although it does not seem to be).

Everything points to a Democratic year. Obama has the advantage of motivated volunteers and the young voters of the cell-phone generation may be undercounted in polls. Obama understood that among committed Democrats, change would beat experience. But he stuck with that message so long that when McCain grabbed it, the mavens of the media did not squawk. Change has become generic in 2008. Of course this election will bring change. The question is whether voters will opt for undefined change or more comfortable change.

The two candidates will try to tip things their way. Unless one makes a bigger than average mistake (and McCain is mistake prone, especially in discussing domestic economic issues), Obama may regret his decision to wage a 50-state campaign. He could really use those resources in Ohio right now.

Maybe a few-state strategy would have been better. Or maybe Obama is right and this will be an election that remakes the map. But in attempting to sweep the election, Obama seems to be risking a narrow loss.


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