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.
Eight years ago, 24% of voters claimed being "honest/trustworthy" was the quality that mattered most; among them, George W. Bush trounced Al Gore by 80% to 15%.
In 2004, Bush walloped the supposed flip-flopper John Kerry by 70% to 29% among those claiming honesty was the most important presidential attribute. Among those wanting a "strong leader," Bush swamped Kerry by a staggering 75 points.
In his 2007 book The Big Con, Jonathan Chait described how Republicans consistently win elections despite almost universal disdain for their policies among the American people. In a nutshell, Chait argues that Republicans must convert elections into contests of character because they simply can't win on issues. While their man, be it George W. Bush or John McCain, is the "authentic" guy you'd "like to have a beer with," the GOP drives the media conventional wisdom that paints the likes of Al Gore, John Kerry and now Barack Obama as effete, out-of-touch elitists whose positions change with the wind:
"Media outlets functionally affiliated with the Republican Party have been able to create news that makes its way into the nonpartisan media. It is a kind of machine that manufactures images of character.
The Republicans' seminal insight was that the random process by which small events come to wield great symbolic insight into the character of presidential candidates didn't have to be random. It was possible to prime the pump, in a way." (p.169)
No doubt, John McCain tried to replicate the same trusted formula in 2008. The Republican Convention was a four-day paean to his personal biography and war-time sacrifice. (Both before and after, McCain and his surrogates deployed the POW card to shield him from criticism on everything from his 11 homes to his health care plan). And to be sure, the Republican smear machine was in full swing, branding Obama as disloyal, a socialist, a communist - and worse. With supporters chanting "John McCain, Not Hussein," it's no surprise that 54% of Republicans in Kentucky and a quarter of Texans wrongly believe Barack Obama to be a Muslim.
And yet, it appears that it may not work, not this time. Despite all of the Republicans' efforts to paint Barack Obama as "the other," the final NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed voters see each man sharing their values by virtually identical margins (Obama 57% to 39%; McCain 57% to 38%). McCain has always led Obama on this question in previous NBC/WSJ surveys. As Republican pollster Robert Newhouse put it:
"Obama seems to broken through on the values attribute. For the first time in our polling, a majority of white voters believe Obama has a background and set of values they identify with."
On other personal attributes, Obama enjoys advantages over McCain. An October 23rd CBS poll revealed that voters saw Obama as more honest than McCain (53% to 46%) and view him more favorably (52% to 46%). In all, CBS reported Americans were more comfortable with Obama:
Obama has been more successful in evoking a positive response from voters: Sixty-two percent say they feel personally comfortable with the Illinois senator. Far fewer - 47 percent - feel comfortable with McCain. In fact, a slightly higher percentage - 49 percent - report feeling "uneasy" about the Republican nominee. Thirty-four percent feel uneasy about Obama.
On all of these questions of demography, philosophy and personality, American voters will provide the answers Tuesday. Some, like the unshakably monolithic support of evangelicals for Republican candidates, will come as no surprise. But when it comes to the GOP's perpetual character war against Democratic candidates, on November 4 Barack Obama may well open some eyes.
(This piece was crossposted at Perrspectives.)