Mr. Mojo Risin'
It sounds like John McCain will be returning to New Hampshire on Sunday for one final visit, less than 48 hours before polls open here. There has been some suggestion that given the difficult electoral map he currently faces, New Hampshire could play a potentially critical role in a close McCain victory. I suppose it is possible that McCain’s campaign views this visit as an important tactical decision, but as my colleague Dante Scala suggests, McCain faces a pretty tall order in trying to close the gap with Barack Obama in the Granite State.
So why else would McCain want to come back again at the last minute? In last week’s Portsmouth Herald/Seacoast Sunday column, I offered some perspective on his deep connection to the state. Anyone who has watched McCain campaign here over the years knows he derives a tremendous amount of psychic energy from our retail politics experience. If the candidate and his campaign genuinely believe they are gaining momentum in the final hours of the contest, then perhaps McCain simply wants one final rub of his granite talisman, with the hope of recapturing the New Hampshire Primary mojo that has served him so well over the past decade.
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Let Me Assure You
Compared to the nastiness that has transpired between the Obama and McCain campaigns in recent weeks, last night’s prime-time Obama infomercial went down like a cherry-flavored soother. Everything about it was designed to reassure voters about Barack Obama’s suitability for the presidency. What we saw was essentially a subdued, slickly-produced repackaging of ideas and anecdotes take from Obama’s stump speech.
The only new wrinkle in terms of policy proposals was hearing Obama clearly set the income threshold for a tax cut under his fiscal plan at $200,000. The use of this figure instead of the “no tax increase below $250,000” phrasing we usually hear from him was an attempt to clear up the confusion around this issue, ambiguity which the McCain campaign has latched onto quite vocally in recent days.
The vignettes presenting the personal struggles of several middle class families in battleground states were used to great effect, and were probably sufficient to hold viewer attention for the duration, when they might have otherwise changed the channel after a few minutes of Obama in the Oval Office-style setting.
Finally, Obama chose not to go after John McCain directly, which probably made sense given the program’s soft focus. But you can certainly make the case that the entire half hour was an implicit rebuttal of McCain’s central argument that Obama is too risky a choice in these difficult times. So, those tuning in last night got to see something a little different than the usual campaign fare, including the clever final cutaway to the live rally. Whether it justified the roughly $5 million price tag is really for voters to decide.
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The Following is a Paid Advertisement
Like a lot of other political observers, I plan to watch Barack Obama’s half-hour block of prime-time television this evening, partly out of curiosity to see what the millions spent on this infomercial is buying him. While I don’t think the risk of overexposure is as great as some others have suggested, I am interested to see whether the program provides any new perspective on the candidate, or simply offers a fancy repackaging of what we have already heard from him over the past 20 months.
My guess is the campaign won’t take any big risks so close to Election Day, so I don’t expect Obama to say anything new that could potentially alter the current advantageous political narrative, or weaken his lead in the polls. We will no doubt see lots of imagery designed to cast Obama in a presidential light, and some combination of an affirmative case for his candidacy and a rebuttal of John McCain’s two central arguments against him, that he is too liberal and too inexperienced to lead the country. If Obama can accomplish this in a way that also brings some previously undecided voters over to his side, then it will have been money well spent.
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A Thumb on the Scale?
I have noted in previous posts that both the McCain campaign and its supporters believe the mainstream media is in the tank for Barack Obama. An interesting piece posted at today addresses this issue of media bias in the presidential campaign. The authors take a look at the website’s own coverage of the race and suggest it is driven more by personalities and process, than by the pursuit of an ideological agenda. They conclude that the prevalence of negative stories about the McCain campaign in this election cycle is really a function of the campaign’s own difficulties, rather than the media’s desire to put a thumb on the scale in favor of Obama and his issue positions.
I don’t know whether Politico’s analysis will mollify critics, but having just read my umpteenth story on the Republican ticket's internal tension between the McCain and Palin camps, I am inclined to believe the authors when they say reporters are drawn more to stories about campaign turmoil and intrigue than to those pushing a particular ideological viewpoint.
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Crashing the Party Line, No. 7
You can read my latest Portsmouth Herald/Seacoast Sunday column here. I offer a personal perspective on John McCain’s recent campaign difficulties. Links to all of my columns can be found in the center column here.
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Attention Plumbers and Socialists
I will be a guest Monday morning on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange, as part of the show’s Issues and Elections series. I helped kick off the series in early September with a show on the economy. Given all that has transpired in the intervening weeks, we are going to go back and take another look at the economy’s impact on the presidential race. You can listen to the program live here (lower left) at 9 a.m., or catch it later here.
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Needle in a Haystack
You may have heard about yesterday’s Associated Press poll which has Barack Obama leading John McCain by a single percentage point nationally, 44% to 43%. What I found most fascinating about this poll was the immediate impact it had on conservative talk radio. A sampling of radio shows revealed hosts around the country crafting a comeback narrative for McCain based solely on this particular result. Other polls showing a wider lead for Obama were quickly dismissed as the biased work of the liberal media.
It is certainly possible the AP’s data could turn out to be the most accurate snapshot of the national electorate out there. But within the context of the blizzard of polling data released this week, it is nonetheless an outlier. You can find one suggestion for why this is the case here.
It is human nature to select the poll which reflects the best possible outcome for your candidate. I witnessed plenty of Democrats engaging in this very same exercise with John Kerry in 2004. A result that provides hope can be a powerful tool for campaigns hoping to turn out their maximum vote, and for broadcasters trying to keep their audience tuned in.
Still, as I tell anyone who will listen every four years, your best bet is to resist the temptation to cherry-pick polling results, and instead focus on trends and averages, whether you are tracking a particular battleground state, or the entire nation. As I often note, these data can be easily located at websites like,, and They may not tell you what you want to hear, but they will give you a more realistic feel for your candidate’s chances.
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Doomsday Scenario
I have posted a couple of items recently touching on the inevitable Democratic anxiety that even with Barack Obama leading in a variety of national and battleground state polls, there is still time for the party to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Traumatized by two narrow losses in 2000 and 2004, some of the party faithful are having difficulty accepting the possibility that Obama could actually win in two weeks.
Along these same lines, Roger Simon has posted a tongue-in-cheek piece on, in which he considers this phenomenon at greater length. Simon depicts Democrats as concerned that not only will they be undone by the foibles of their own ticket, but also by the likelihood that Republican strategists are too shrewd not to have at least one more potentially game-changing surprise up their sleeves for the closing days of the campaign.
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Minority Report
Earlier today at the National Press Club, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) predicted Barack Obama would win big on November 4th, with more than 300 votes in the Electoral College. I now await the anxious emails from my Democratic readers expressing their concern that Schumer may have jinxed the Obama-Biden ticket with his on-the-record prognostication.
While Schumer has actually made similar predictions in the past, what struck me as more interesting were the comments by his Republican colleague Senator John Ensign of Nevada. Both men were speaking at a National Press Club event in their capacity as chairmen of their respective senatorial campaign committees. In noting this has been a tough election year for Republican candidates, Ensign remarked, “We have a country who thinks that not only Republicans hold the White House, but about half the country still think that Republicans are in charge of the House and the Senate.”
I hadn’t really thought about the possibility that a majority of Americans might still think Republicans control Congress. While I haven’t seen any data on this question, it is probably out there somewhere. The argument against Democratic candidates in congressional races around the country (including here in New Hampshire) has to a large extent focused on the fact that public approval of the Democratic-controlled Congress is even lower than that for President Bush. If significant numbers of voters are not making this distinction, and are instead blaming Republicans, then the situation would be especially bleak for the party. Ensign may not have meant the remark literally, but it raises a fascinating question of voter perception with real electoral consequences.
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Crashing the Party Line, No. 6
You can read my latest Portsmouth Herald/Seacoast Sunday column here. I use last week’s visit by both vice presidential nominees as a window on the issue of whether New Hampshire is now trending more predictably blue than in previous elections.  Links to all of my columns can be found in the center column here.
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For Those of You Counting Chickens
As the presidential race enters the homestretch, I was interested to hear Barack Obama raise his loss in the New Hampshire Primary yesterday as a warning to his supporters against cockiness and overconfidence. I mention this because over the past few days I have also received a few emails from Obama supporters expressing concern that the candidate’s current lead may be an indication that he is peaking too early in the polls. These readers do not cite specific reasons for this feeling, only a general concern that in this rollercoaster of campaign season there is still time for the electoral pendulum to swing back towards John McCain one final time.
At a minimum, I am sure the Obama campaign would like to avoid any media reports of the measuring the drapes variety, a well-worn hubris line also floated by John McCain at a recent campaign rally. And, my guess is some Obama staffers fear a return of what has come to be known as the Shrum curse, a reference to Democratic consultant Bob Shrum’s penchant for jumping the victory gun. Even though McCain supporters frequently argue the mainstream media is in the tank for Obama, I would bet few journalists would pass up the opportunity to write a stunning McCain comeback story. In the meantime, nervous Obama supporters will have to sit tight (or mobilize), hope for no October surprises, and be prepared for the possibility that the race could tighten again in the next two weeks.
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Cheaper by the Dozen
After dozens of debate-related posts on dozens of primary and general election debates over the past 20 months, it is hard to believe that this is probably my last one on the topic for this election cycle. Like a lot of other political observers, I thought last night’s performance on Long Island was John McCain’s best of the three general election debates, but I also didn’t hear anything that would fundamentally alter the dynamics of the race. In fairness to McCain, I have already stated that I didn’t think he should try for a single game-changing performance.
McCain gave it his best shot, however, and the conservative base of the Republican Party will certainly be happy with his performance, although my guess is that its members will also say that it was too little too late in this election cycle. Given their pent-up frustration over William Ayers, ACORN, and other questionable Barack Obama associations, they were no doubt relieved to have McCain finally give voice to them in a single contentious debate segment that made for some engrossing television viewing. McCain’s own frustration was also increasingly evident in a variety of reaction shots and a little reminiscent of Al Gore’s famous sighing debate performance from 2000. Obama seemed to get through the exchange largely unscathed, which will no doubt further annoy his opponents on the right.
Having finally aired these issues in a televised debate, McCain now has to decide whether he will continue to use these attacks on the stump, or instead focus more fully on a positive economic message. If McCain continues to let the two approaches divide his attention, as they did last night, I think it will be more difficult for him to make a closing argument with broad electoral appeal.
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New Blue?
I am often asked whether I think New Hampshire can still legitimately be considered a toss-up state for purposes of electoral map calculations. I have previously written that it certainly seems like the Granite State is transitioning from purple to blue, at least in the context of recent elections.
But the larger question is whether these recent results are indicative of a more permanent demographic shift in the state’s underlying partisan composition. One could make the alternative argument that the big Democratic victories we have seen here recently are simply a function of the national turmoil of the past 8 years, and the desire of voters to punish Republican incumbents for it.
But now the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire has weighed into this debate with a new study, one which provides some hard data suggesting the Granite State’s rapidly changing electorate has been trending Democratic over the past 10 years. With the two parties now roughly at parity in the state in terms of voter registration, the study finds that a majority of new voters are more likely to self-identify as Democratic. So while this debate is likely to continue among local political observers for some time to come, the study’s implications for future voting trends in New Hampshire have given us some new food for thought.
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We Meet Again
I have written previously that I am typically skeptical of attempts by a candidate to jump-start a struggling campaign by reintroducing himself to the American people. This classic campaign technique may provide the candidate with a temporary psychological boost from clearing the decks and refocusing his energy, but I am not sure it has much positive effect on anyone other than the campaign’s most loyal (and concerned) supporters.
Still, John McCain may not have had many other options left when he gave this time-honored strategy another shot yesterday morning in Norfolk, Virginia. Both McCain and the crowd were clearly energized by the biography-heavy speech, which echoed the stand up and fight theme of his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.
If McCain can sustain this renewed focus through his rollout of some new economic proposals today, and turn in a strong debate performance tomorrow, then perhaps the race will tighten once again. But campaign reintroductions don’t really wipe the slate clean; they only temporarily divert voter attention away from what ails a candidate. Unless McCain also deals with these underlying issues, his latest campaign reset may be short-lived.
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Crashing the Party Line, No. 5
You can read my latest Portsmouth Herald/Seacoast Sunday column here. I take a look at the First Congressional District race between Democratic Representative Carol Shea-Porter and former Republican Representative Jeb Bradley. Links to all of my columns can be found in the center column here.
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Old School
The McCain campaign’s renewed focus on William Ayers has finally given Joe Biden an opportunity to get back into the political fray. You may recall that John McCain did not directly raise the Ayers issue with Barack Obama during Tuesday night’s debate, even though the McCain campaign had already been hitting Obama relentlessly on the association for several days.
Now Joe Biden has issued an old school, say it to his face taunt to John McCain that is getting more attention than anything Biden has said in weeks. When Biden first issued the challenge to McCain at a campaign rally, he even whipped off his jacket for a little extra old school emphasis. You can watch him issue it at a second rally here (jacket already off). With Obama making essentially the same point to Charlie Gibson on Wednesday, you can almost count on McCain responding during next week’s debate, but hopefully there won't be any dueling.  In the meantime, Biden seems thrilled to be back in the mix.
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Beware the Game-Changer
In the past few days, the McCain campaign has entered into dangerous territory with the political narrative currently being crafted by the national media and key political observers. I am not talking here about the William Ayers, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Tony Rezko mudslinging. I have already discussed why I think that approach has run its course.
Instead, the McCain campaign should be very concerned that the national media and key political observers have begun talking about the presidential race almost exclusively in terms of John McCain’s need for a game-changer. In fact, most of the coverage and analysis of Tuesday night’s debate was driven by the political narrative that McCain needed the debate to be a game-changer, and it turned out not to be one for him.
Even if the McCain campaign genuinely believes that the entire mainstream media is in the tank for Barack Obama, it cannot afford to have the overarching political narrative of the race be constrained by the idea that McCain needs to pivot his electoral fortunes on a dime with a single spectacular speech, debate performance, or campaign event. If anything, I think the media is itching to write a McCain comeback story, in order to keep its huge national audience tied into the race. But its current preoccupation with the game-changer metaphor is a real problem for the McCain campaign. With the final presidential debate only days away, it can’t afford to have all of its moves viewed through that single lens.
Plus, if the McCain campaign actually buys into the game-changer narrative, then it is more likely to risk flailing through a succession of political stunts and public relations gimmicks, in order to quickly reverse course. My sense is that McCain’s best hope for getting out of the grip of the game-changer metaphor is to retool with a more focused and optimistic economic message, one which is much clearer about what it would mean for the middle class, and how it would differ from the Bush Administration’s approach to the economy. Absent that change, I’m not so sure he’s still in the game.
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Energy Boost
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 energy policy. You can listen to the program live here (lower left) at 9 a.m., or catch it later here.
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McCain's Choice
Going into tonight’s second presidential debate in Nashville, there has been a lot of speculation about whether John McCain will piggyback on the negative attacks launched against Barack Obama by Sarah Palin over the weekend. The goal of these attacks has been to cast new doubt on Obama’s character and judgment in the minds of undecided voters, many of whom seem increasingly comfortable with the idea of an Obama presidency.
If McCain chooses this strategy tonight, he may encounter several potential pitfalls. The most obvious is the potential for a backlash among moderate voters, who, unlike members of each party’s base, are typically uncomfortable with this kind of aggressive partisanship. Also, the current attacks on Obama using the likes of William Ayers, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Tony Rezko and others are already quite familiar to many voters from the presidential primaries, so it may be the case that these attacks have already had their maximum impact on voter perceptions of Obama. Finally, it may be very difficult for McCain to launch these kinds of negative attacks in a policy-oriented town hall format without it sounding awkward and out of context.
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Crashing the Party Line, No. 4
You can read my latest Portsmouth Herald/Seacoast Sunday column here. I discuss the role negative ads are playing in the U.S. Senate race between Senator John Sununu and former Governor Jeanne Shaheen. You can also read the paper’s companion editorial here. And, links to all of my columns can be found in the center column here.
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An Anniversary Thank You
Today marks the first anniversary of I can honestly say that the past year has been a blur of candidates, campaigns and analysis. To get an idea of how much things have changed in 12 months, you can read my very first piece of posted analysis here.
Also, I am pleased to report that September saw a new monthly record for visitors to the website, as more and more of you find a place for me in your regular rotation of web-based reading. For that you have my sincere thanks.
Given the heavy presidential election focus of my analysis, some of you have asked whether I will continue to post beyond the outcome of this contest. The answer is…of course. We’ll have a new administration to discuss, and, before you know it, midterm elections will be approaching once again. After that, it will be full throttle back into another cycle of presidential primaries for 2012. So, I plan on sticking around here, and I hope you will, too. -Dean
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Two and Out
I took two things away from last night’s vice presidential debate in St. Louis. First, Sarah Palin’s performance was sufficient to reassure nervous conservatives that their initial enthusiasm for her wasn't misplaced. I don’t think she won over many new converts last night, but she stepped back from the brink of career ruin within her own party.
Second, while keeping his foot out of his mouth, Joe Biden did a good job of putting the focus of the debate on the lack of policy separation between John McCain and President Bush. I was actually surprised that Palin wasn’t more effective in painting Barack Obama as a risky choice during difficult times for our country. She needed a stronger performance in this respect, in order for last night’s debate to have any significant impact on the presidential race’s current lean-Obama dynamic.
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He Said, She Said
There has been so much hype preceding tonight’s vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, that I am not sure what else there is to say in advance of the actual event, but here goes. To some extent, I expect both candidates to focus on Barack Obama and John McCain, as that is a time-honored role for vice presidential nominees to play, and it is ultimately where the race will be won in the end. But there has also been some buzz out of the McCain camp in the past few days that Palin will go directly after Biden. At this point, anything that keeps the focus off of her post-convention troubles is probably a reasonable forensic strategy, and tonight’s tightly controlled format will encourage scripted attacks.
There are of course a few potential pitfalls for both candidates to avoid. Based on what we have seen from Palin in interviews thus far, if she attempts to drop names or policy specifics, in order to demonstrate greater depth on the issues, she runs the risk of seeming forced or over-prepped. Biden simply needs to resist his penchant for saying things that are bizarrely out of context. It is in the midst of those confessional moments when Biden tries to level with the American people that he gets himself into the most difficulty. Given the substantial amount of time both candidates have spent sequestered in preparation for this evening, however, we may end up essentially watching dueling scripted campaign events. And then, let the spinning begin.
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No News is Good News?
You may have already seen video of the latest curiosity emerging from Katie Couric’s interview with Sarah Palin. In the clip, Palin either can’t or won’t name any of the newspapers and magazines she reads on a daily basis. Some Democrats have suggested this non-response is an indication that Palin lacks any intellectual curiosity about the world. They are quick to draw parallels with President Bush’s now legendary comment to Fox News anchor Brit Hume that he doesn’t read newspapers, but instead gets his news from top White House aides.
Tomorrow night’s debate will give us a better gauge of Palin’s intellectual curiosity. But I think something else is also at work here. My guess is that Palin reads Time or Newsweek on occasion, especially when she is on the cover, and she may even read the New York Times and other similar sources, as well. But to admit any of this would have undercut the McCain campaign’s ongoing war with the media, which includes regularly bashing these kinds of news outlets for their liberal bias. This very thought may have crossed Palin mind at that moment and triggered the odd response to Couric’s question.
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