Bail Bonds
I have been thinking about whether there is some way in which John McCain’s campaign suspension last week paid political dividends for him. McCain’s initial dramatic gesture on Wednesday certainly earned him the undivided attention of media outlets and political observers alike, but that can be a mixed blessing for a campaign. My sense is that once McCain showed up at the debate on Friday night without any bailout framework in place (contrary to his stated intention), the potential for any real payoff was largely lost. Toss in yesterday’s legislative defeat, and the whole episode feels a like a political misfire. If anything, the combination of the debate and general legislative chaos has given Barack Obama a little lift over the past few days.
Still, at this point it seems like neither presidential nominee is driving the bailout bus around Capitol Hill. Both men say they are in frequent contact with the key players in Washington, but it is increasingly clear that this is primarily a partisan institutional battle between House Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps the Senate will take the lead going forward, which could move both McCain and Obama back onto center stage. But that hasn’t happened yet.
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Crashing the Party Line, No. 3
My latest Portsmouth Herald/Seacoast Sunday column is now out. I discuss four campaign clichés that I would love to see banished from our political discourse. You can read the column here. All of my Sunday columns can now also be found in the Seacoast Online's Election 2008 coverage here.
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Tonight's Debate
In case you missed last Sunday's Portsmouth Herald column previewing tonight’s presidential debate at the University of Mississippi, you still have time to read it here.
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Political Polling Potpourri
Sunday morning, I’ll be a guest on WMUR-TV’s Close Up (10 a.m., Ch. 9). We’ll be discussing the latest WMUR/Granite State Poll results, and their implications for the presidential race and all of the key state races.
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Veep Wow
News reports make it sound like some sort of framework for the financial bailout will be reached later today in Washington, in which case John McCain would likely show up for tomorrow night’s first presidential debate in Mississippi. But I had to smile last night, when I read the McCain campaign’s suggestion that the debate be postponed until October 2nd, which happens to be the current date for the only scheduled vice presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. That debate would in turn be rescheduled for some later undetermined date.
Given the pitched battle currently being fought between the McCain campaign and the media over access to Governor Palin, I can’t imagine a quicker way to set off a new media firestorm than by pushing her debate debut back any further. Given his penchant for dramatic gestures, if McCain really wants to wow political observers and the press corps, he should ask the Commission on Presidential Debates for an even swap. Palin and Biden would debate tomorrow night at the University of Mississippi, and then he and Barack Obama would follow on October 2nd at Washington University in St. Louis.
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McCain Calls a Timeout
Well, I certainly didn’t see the John McCain campaign suspension, debate postponement curveball coming, but it sure will make for a lively weekend of political discussion. Whatever you might think of his campaign’s motives, on one level the move is pure old school, country first McCain.
Putting aside the empirical question of whether either nominee’s physical presence in Washington will make any difference in the financial bailout negotiations, my sense is that initial reaction to the move will fall along fairly predictable partisan lines. Republicans will laud McCain for putting the interests of the nation ahead of his own personal ambition, while Democrats will label it a political stunt designed to shift public and media attention away from a difficult week on the campaign trail and sagging poll numbers.
The real question is whether moderates and independents will view McCain’s move as altruism or gimmickry. Because the announcement came only a few hours ago, I don’t really have a good feel yet for how the suspension is playing with these crucial swing voters. But given the few conversations I’ve already had with journalists, we will soon find out. Only then can we fully assess the impact that this remarkable political gamble by McCain might have on his electoral fortunes.
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The Color Purple
Almost two weeks ago, I put up a post suggesting that despite New Hampshire’s recent reputation as a purplish toss-up state in electoral map calculations, conditions on the ground appear primed for the Granite State to trend more predictably blue. I based this speculation partially on the fact that while other battleground states in the most recent set of Time/CNN polls were trending noticeably toward the McCain-Palin ticket, Obama’s lead in New Hampshire remained largely unchanged from its margin over the summer.
But now the latest University of New Hampshire survey complicates this scenario. The new WMUR/Granite State Poll has McCain +2 over Obama. If you look at state polling averages, the picture gets even murkier; the RCP average has Obama +1.7 over McCain, while shows McCain +2.7 over Obama.
So, what is going on here? In my original post, I suggested a few possibilities for why the gap between Obama and McCain might close in the coming weeks. First, campaigning matters, and additional retail politicking in the state can certainly help a candidate make up ground. McCain’s recent visit to New Hampshire may have helped him regain his footing with independents, and there is indeed some evidence of movement toward him among these voters in the WMUR/Granite State Poll.
Second, there may have been a lag in our seeing the same effect that the McCain-Palin ticket has experienced in other battleground states. If trends in New Hampshire are lagging behind other battleground states, however, then we should soon see a swing back to Obama, as he gains traction on the economy. This reversal is already visible in the most recent round of other battleground state polls out today.
Finally, with virtually all of this trending toward one candidate or the other occurring within the margin of error, it may be what we are seeing are varying levels of statistical noise across all of the different polls out there. Averaging the results helps a bit, but the race may be too close to read much substantive opinion change into any individual poll. At a minimum, I will be interested to see whether the next round of Time/CNN battleground polling in New Hampshire tracks this new trend toward McCain. But by that time we may have already come back around to talking about an Obama lead.
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Into the Wild
I will be a guest tomorrow morning on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange, as part of the show’s Issues and Elections series. Tomorrow’s installment will focus on the presidential candidates and environmental issues. You can listen to the program live here (lower left) at 9 a.m., or catch it later here.
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Update - Crashing the Party Line, No. 2
You can now read my Sunday Portsmouth Herald column previewing Friday’s presidential debate here.
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Crashing the Party Line, No. 2
I am taking a brief pause from trying to follow the current financial crisis without getting political whiplash for a quick reminder that the second installment of my new column, Crashing the Party Line, will be out in the Sunday Portsmouth Herald.
I preview the first of three upcoming presidential debates. The first debate takes place next Friday evening at the University of Mississippi, and is scheduled to have a focus on national security issues. If you can’t get ahold of a copy of the Sunday paper, you should be able to find my column at  You can read last week's inaugural column here.
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Circular Firing Squad
In a post yesterday, I suggested that given recent developments in the financial markets, it was reasonable for John Sununu to steer away from both John McCain and the Bush Administration on economic policy matters, if necessary to keep his campaign competitive. Well, he may have just gotten some additional help in that regard from McCain and other Congressional Republicans.
McCain’s all-out populist assault on Wall Street and SEC Chairman (and former Republican Congressman) Chris Cox earlier today is apparently not sitting well with some GOP legislators. And they are in turn voicing sharp criticism of the Bush Administration’s overall handling of the financial crisis. So, with the Republican economic message now fragmented across the campaign and two branches of government, Sununu clearly has some additional cover (and incentive) to go his own way should he need it.
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Sununu Steps Away from McCain
One piece of conventional wisdom around here has been that having a presidential nominee at the top of the Republican ticket who is popular with New Hampshire voters should provide John Sununu with an additional boost to his Senate reelection battle against Jeanne Shaheen. John McCain’s favorability in New Hampshire was at a very respectable 56 percent over the summer in a University of New Hampshire survey. Even with the demise of straight ticket voting, the sense of political observers in the state has been that Sununu’s ability to associate himself with the popular McCain, while distancing himself from the tremendously unpopular President Bush, could pay dividends for him in the voting booth.
So I was very interested to see this item on today reporting Sununu’s decision to distance himself from McCain’s recent remarks that despite several large Wall Street institutions going under, “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.” While I don’t think Sununu is exactly forsaking McCain, he is smart to chart his own course away from both the Republican ticket and incumbent administration, whenever he deems it necessary for maintaining his own campaign’s viability.
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Murphy Name-Checks Concord
Late last week, I put up a post arguing that New Hampshire may actually be turning more solidly blue in practice than is suggested by its current reputation in the media as a swing state. I based this conclusion on the observation that we are not seeing the same kind of movement toward the McCain-Palin ticket here post-Republican convention that we are seeing in recent polling in a number of other key battleground states.
Along these same lines, earlier today a reader directed me to a post at’s Swampland blog, written by Mike Murphy, former senior strategist for the McCain campaign, in which he discusses a possible scenario where the margin of victory for Obama in November turns out to be New Hampshire’s four electoral votes. Murphy also notes the obvious irony (as did I) that this would represent for McCain, given the central role New Hampshire has played in his rise to national prominence over the past 10 years. But the race is still close here, and I am sure both campaigns would agree that come November 4th, New Hampshire will be right in the thick of the battle over the electoral map.
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Name That Talking Point
Like a lot of political junkies, I watch way too much Sunday morning political programming. One game I like to play, in order to keep my viewing fresh, is to see how quickly I can identify the key Republican and Democratic talking points for the morning’s line-up of talk shows. When Members of Congress fan out to do these interviews on behalf of one presidential ticket or the other, they can usually be counted on to hammer away at one or two predetermined themes. I picture a secretive campaign memo with the phrase of the day arriving late Saturday evening or early Sunday morning to the surrogates’ personal fax machines and email accounts.
This weekend, viewers were quickly treated to what was clearly the big Democratic talking point du jour, as expounded by surrogates across virtually all program options. I was able to see New York Senator Chuck Schumer on Meet the Press, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill on This Week, and Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz on Face the Nation, all repeating the famous phrase about talking the talk and walking the walk. In this instance, the reference was to Sarah Palin talking the talk on governmental reform out on the campaign trail, but not walking the walk with her actual record in Alaska.
Now I know that having all of your campaign surrogates stay on message is supposed to be an important part of campaign strategy for framing the choice between candidates. And I understand that it is a way of potentially getting the upper hand in the next day’s news headlines. But there was something almost comical about watching all three of these individuals endlessly repeat (and occasionally stumble over) this obvious talking point that seemed to weaken its impact for me. The reality though is that just like with stump speeches, campaigns expect most viewers to only catch the message once or maybe twice. So, political junkies like me will have to be content with playing name that talking point.
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Crashing the Party Line, No. 1
My new Portsmouth Herald column was out in Sunday’s paper. You can read it here. I take a look at the biggest challenges facing both John McCain and Barack Obama, as each tries to move the Granite State from purple to red or blue.
One small correction: President Bush’s overall approval rating in the UNH survey I reference was 24%, and approval of his handling of Iraq was at 28% in a separate UNH survey. These two numbers were unintentionally transposed in the column.
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The Other New Hampshire Primary
You can catch me this Sunday as a guest on WMUR-TV’s Close Up (10 a.m., Ch. 9). I will be participating in a roundtable wrap-up of Tuesday’s state primaries, and a look at the general election campaign to come.
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Purple in Theory, Blue in Practice?
You may have seen the new Time/CNN battleground state polls out yesterday, including the results for New Hampshire, where Barack Obama leads John McCain, 51% to 45%. Obama’s single digit lead over McCain in the Granite State is similar to his position before the two party conventions. What I find particularly interesting with these results is that at a time when some polls show the addition of Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket moving key demographics like blue collar voters, women and independents toward McCain in significant numbers, Obama is still holding firm with these groups in New Hampshire.
This raises the possibility that New Hampshire, for all of its swing state cache, is actually becoming more safely Democratic than toss-up in its electoral outcomes. In recent years, we have seen big Democratic victories in the state at virtually all levels of government, party registration outpacing Republican additions (and now approaching parity), and more independent voters choosing a Democratic ballot in the presidential primary.
I am speculating a bit here, and it is certainly possible that the New Hampshire poll will eventually reflect the same shift toward the Republican ticket we are seeing elsewhere, especially once McCain brings his post-convention road show to our neck of the woods. But it would be quite an irony, if McCain ends up losing a state in the general election whose primaries have been so central to his rise to national prominence over the past decade.
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Hey, Where Did Everybody Go?
Tomorrow the McCain-Palin ticket faces its first major post-convention challenge. After a big rally in Fairfax, Virginia today, the duo will separate so Sarah Palin can return to Alaska for the first time since her nomination, while John McCain continues on to campaign in Pennsylvania. You may have noticed that McCain has spent the past week glued to Palin’s side, visibly energized (and grinning ear-to-ear) by the rapturous reception Palin has received while campaigning through several battleground states.
Now political observers and the media will be watching closely to see whether there is a measurable drop-off in enthusiasm for the Republican nominee’s campaign events, once he carries on without his magnetic running mate.  It is quite possible the campaign will avoid having McCain go solo in venues where a marked decline in attendance from the Obama-sized rallies of the past few days would be obvious. I am sure the campaign is quite sensitive to any suggestion that Palin is now carrying the ticket.
In fairness to McCain, I do think his choice of Palin has earned him some real cred with many in the Republican Party who were previously ambivalent about his candidacy. As a result, McCain may see a genuine up-tick in his own ability to turn out a crowd. But given the momentum this week of big rallies has provided the McCain-Palin ticket, it will be interesting to see how quickly the two are reunited on the campaign trail, once Palin’s son deploys to Iraq later this week.
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On Second Thought
Coming out of the RNC convention last week, I was under the impression that Barack Obama would avoid directly attacking newly-minted vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, instead continuing to focus his attention on John McCain. Well, that strategy seems to have been revised in the past few days. Obama is now going directly after Palin on a variety of questions pertaining to her record in Alaska.
My sense is this sudden change in approach is being driven by tightening poll numbers, and a growing frustration within the Obama campaign that Palin continues to use talking points in her stump speech, which it believes have already been discredited by multiple media outlets. The Obama campaign is wagering that having its presidential nominee hammer away at Palin is its best opportunity for keeping intensive media scrutiny focused on her record.
The danger here is that in having Obama himself voice the criticism (rather than Joe Biden or other Democratic surrogates), the resultant rhetorical back-and-forth between Obama and Palin suggests an implicit equivalency between these two relative newcomers to the national political scene (certainly in comparison to old warhorses like Biden and McCain). I would think that this is something Obama wants to avoid, especially since he is at the top of his ticket, but Palin is not.
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Crashing the Party Line
I am very pleased to announce a special election season partnership with The Portsmouth Herald. For the next ten weeks, you will be able to read my new column, Crashing the Party Line, in the paper’s Sunday edition. If you live in the paper’s circulation area, I hope you will check out the column in print. For those of you who can’t get your hands on a copy, I will link to it on Seacoast Online, and also eventually archive a copy in the essays section of my website.
I will of course continue to post regularly at my website, but the column will give me an opportunity to step back from daily reactions to the latest political news, in order to take a broader look at where the presidential and congressional races are headed, and at what it all might mean for New Hampshire politics.
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I'm Economical, Too
This week, New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange will begin its series Issues and Elections. The show will dedicate an entire hour each week to an in-depth consideration of how a particular policy issue is playing in the presidential election. I will be helping them kick off the series tomorrow with a show focused on the economy.
While I spend most of my time talking about campaigns and elections these days, you can read more about my background in economic policy-making here. You can listen to the show live tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. here (lower left), or catch it later here.
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Reformer Redux
McCain the Reformer saddled up and rode once again last night. Swinging into full maverick mode, the newly-minted Republican nominee pledged to shake up business-as-usual in Washington, and went out of his way to extend the olive branch of bipartisanship to all takers. I wish him luck with that second task. Given the two days of Obama-bashing that preceded McCain’s acceptance speech and culminated in the Sarah Palin tour de force, I don’t imagine the Democratic majorities likely to control Congress next January will be in much of a mood to compromise. And if you tuned in to hear what McCain’s reformist impulse might mean in policy terms for the future of our country, you were probably disappointed.
Still, I have watched John McCain up-close in New Hampshire for almost 10 years, and when he urged Americans to fight for what's right for our country that was vintage McCain straight from the heart. It is now clear to me that going forward McCain will use reform, rather than policy differences, as the primary means of distinguishing himself from President Bush. His surprising (and equally heartfelt) attack on the moral failings of the Republican Party represented a political down payment on this strategy. But we won’t know for some time whether this promise of reform will be sufficient to sway voters disheartened by the current state of affairs.
For more analysis of the post-convention presidential race, and also Tuesday's state primaries, you can catch me as a guest on New Hampshire Public Television's NH Outlook this Sunday at 9:30 a.m., or on Monday at 6 p.m.
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Base Jumper
Who would have thought that with a single decision John McCain would electrify the conservative base of his party? In fact, in listening to the speech by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin last night, I realized the extent to which McCain has not been a culture warrior out on the campaign trail this year. In this respect, Palin is much closer to George W. Bush, who has remained very popular with social conservatives, even as his national approval has plummeted.
Palin’s speech was certainly tough enough on Obama to demonstrate that she is ready and willing to fulfill the traditional role of vice presidential attack dog (note her pit bull with lipstick comment). But I would bet some moderates and independents found Palin’s tone to be a bit too sarcastic for an introductory speech to the nation, especially coming right on the heels of Rudy Giuliani’s quadrennial Democratic mock-fest. At a minimum, I predict the Palin nose-scrunch (when she delivers a good punch line) will soon replace the Kaine eyebrow-raise as the most frequently commented upon oratorical mannerism in national politics.
There is no denying that Palin’s strong debut has bought McCain instant street cred with a group of voters that has been muted thus far in its enthusiasm for his candidacy, which makes her an immediate asset to his campaign. But Palin will still need to give a broader cross-section of Americans a sense of how she performs under pressure in an unscripted environment, such as a press conference, town hall meeting or debate, before all doubts are erased. All of that will come in due time.  For those in the arena last night, Palin passed her first vice presidential test with flying colors.
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The Biography Channel
You may have noticed that other than a brief recap of Bush Administration initiatives by First Lady Laura Bush, there really wasn’t any talk about policy at last night’s session of the RNC convention. That was by design. More than any presidential candidate in recent memory (even George W. Bush) John McCain is campaigning for the highest office in the land largely on the strength of his character.
My guess is that you will only see McCain talk policy detail to the extent it is necessary to put some distance between him and the current administration, otherwise the focus will continue to be on those aspects of his biography which highlight the qualities McCain believes are essential to effective presidential leadership, individual traits like loyalty, integrity and perseverance. While Fred Thompson’s moving account of McCain’s well-known POW experience was a highlight of the evening, each of the speakers attempted to shed additional light on the candidate along these same lines.
In an election year where Republicans are experiencing low public approval, this is probably not a bad strategy for McCain to adopt. I have written on several occasions (you can click through the links here) about how voters actually weigh these kinds of personal characteristics quite heavily when deciding on a president. So, the campaign’s decision to put a biographical face on the proceedings is not surprising.  It is in large measure how McCain views the imperatives of the office, and, more importantly, how many voters assess presidential potential.
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Did You Know McCain is a Maverick?
Let’s stipulate that John McCain’s pick of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate was a big surprise. But if you were playing a television drinking game keyed to the word maverick, you would have spent most of the holiday weekend flat out under the table, such was the ad nauseum use of the word by the media and political elites to describe both McCain and Palin over the past few days.
It is true the choice of Palin is a gamble, for all of the reasons now being furiously chewed over in the media. But there is another way McCain could have truly demonstrated his maverick credentials. He could have picked former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge or Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman (my earlier comments aside) as his vice presidential nominee. As we are now learning from additional reporting, McCain really wanted either of these men as his partner, but was ultimately dissuaded by staff from doing so, for fear of a convention floor backlash against their pro-choice credentials.
Once those two options were off the table, McCain quickly settled on Palin, a darling of the party’s right wing. So, in one sense, McCain was actually captured by social conservatives, who exercised a veto over his true vice presidential preference. McCain may now believe Palin is his political soul mate, but by picking someone who hit the sweet spot of his own party’s base, McCain didn't necessarily make himself any more of a maverick.
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