Back in May, I argued that with the American electorate's across-the-board preference for Democratic policies and a historically unpopular Republican president, John McCain's campaign would turn the November election into a "character war." In September, campaign chairman Rick Davis confirmed the GOP would follow its tried and true strategy from 2000 and 2004 when he announced "this election is not about issues" but instead about "a composite view of what people take away from these candidates." On Tuesday night, Americans will learn not only whether Barack Obama won the election, but whether voters literally thought he was a better man.
Heading into Election Day, Senator Obama looks like to outperform his recent Democratic predecessors across a range of policy and demographic measures. An October Rasmussen survey showed that Americans trust Democrats more than Republicans across each of the 10 issues tracked. The party of Obama enjoys double-digit leads on the economy (by 13%), Social Security (12%), health care (20%)and education (by 19 points).
That issue advantage, compounded by John McCain's feeble response to the economic crisis and the GOP's increasingly xenophobic line towards immigrants, is helping fuel Obama's strong performance among critical voting blocks. As I detailed last week, media myths notwithstanding, Barack Obama will approach traditional levels of Democratic support among Jewish voters and outpoll Al Gore and John Kerry among Hispanics. And with his backing among white voters reaching 44% in the final CBS News/New York Times survey, the African-American Obama may surpass the levels achieved by Gore (42%), Kerry (41%) and even Bill Clinton (43%). Four years ago, John Kerry lost among white men by a 25 point margin (62% to 37%); according to a Fox News poll, Obama now trails John McCain by only 5 points among the same group.
But from the moment John McCain secured the Republican nomination, his fall strategy rested on creating a "character gap" between himself and Obama. As in 2000 and 2004, I argued, the Republicans would try to turn the race into a presidential personality contest:
And to win it, they need to manufacture a "character gap" between John McCain and Barack Obama...The data is clear. If the election is about the economy, health care and Iraq, John McCain cannot become the 44th president. Only if the GOP succeeds once again in transforming the race into a media medley about lapel pins, angry ministers and Muslim-sounding middle names can the Republicans hope to maintain their hold on the White House.
Sadly, we've been here before. The 2000 and 2004 exit polls clearly show the Republican Party succeeded both in portraying the presidential contest as being about character and in defining the accepted media narrative for candidates Bush, Gore and Kerry.