Autumn Angst: Dems fret about Obama
By: David Paul Kuhn and Bill Nichols
September 11, 2008 08:26 AM EST
Polls showing John McCain tied or even ahead of Barack Obama are stirring angst and second-guessing among some of the Democratic Party's most experienced operatives, who worry that Obama squandered opportunities over the summer and may still be underestimating his challenges this fall.
"It's more than an increased anxiety," said Doug Schoen, who worked as one of Bill Clinton's lead pollsters during his 1996 reelection and has worked for both Democrats and independents in recent years. "It's a palpable frustration. Deep-seated unease in the sense that the message has gotten away from them."
Joe Trippi, a consultant behind Howard Dean's flash-in-the-pan presidential campaign in 2004 and John Edwards' race in 2008, said the Obama campaign was slow to recognize how the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate would change the dynamic of the race.
"They were set up to run ˜experience versus change,' what they had run [against Hillary] Clinton," Trippi said. "And I think Palin clearly moved that to be change [and] reform, versus change. They are adjusting to that and that threw them off balance a little bit."
A major Democratic fundraiser described it a good bit more starkly after digesting the polls of recent days: "I'm so depressed. It's happening again. It's a nightmare."
This week's USA Today/Gallup poll reported a split on which candidate "can better handle the economy"; 48 percent chose Obama while 45 percent said McCain. In late August, Obama had a 16-point edge on the issue.
Also this week, an ABC News/Washington Post poll reported that when voters are asked "who can bring about needed change to Washington," McCain still trails Obama by 12 points. But in June, McCain trailed by 32 points.
That shift in the public's perception of the issues, in Democratic pollster Celinda Lake's words, "tremendously concerns me."
Lake joined other Democratic veterans, some speaking not for attribution, in emphasizing a classic liberal woe: that the Democrat let the Republican define him.
"Obama needed to define himself," Lake said. "I do think that during the Democratic convention we should have done a better job of defining McCain."
Steve Rosenthal, a veteran field organizer for Democrats and organized labor, said that some entrenched Democratic vulnerabilities never receded this year. And in his view, Palin has reawakened those liberal weaknesses.
"For some white, working-class voters who don't want to vote for Barack Obama but weren't sure about McCain, Palin gave them a good reason to take another look and consider supporting McCain," Rosenthal said.
"On the one hand, it could be a temporary reshuffling of the deck," he added. "And on the other hand, it underscores the deep-seated problems we have in this race with race, class and culture.
"In some ways, you play the cards you're dealt," Rosenthal continued. "There is a good amount of time left for Obama to make ˜the connect.'"
Asked if partisans in his state are worried, New Jersey Democratic Chairman Joseph Cryan responded: "Absolutely, absolutely. It's a ˜sit up straight and listen' kind of thing.'"
While Obama's campaign is "a little bit off-balance," Cryan added, "that's okay. Campaigns ebb and flow."
Like Rosenthal and Cryan, most of the Democrats interviewed for this article, both on and off the record, expressed confidence that the landscape this year tilts in favor of a Democratic victory and that Obama has plenty of time to retake command of the race. Many predicted that any bounce in polls caused by Palin's selection could be followed by a plunge as her record and qualifications continue to be scrutinized.
Still, a wide range of conversations with Democrats yielded several reasons to doubt that Obama is quite the political natural "” or the November shoo-in "” that some of his most ardent supporters believed.
Among the problems:
Obama's Summer Doldrums: After his months of exhausting trench warfare with Clinton ended in June, Obama faced a delicious opportunity "” to further define himself to the American public and hone a transcendent message in advance of the August Democratic convention.
Yes, McCain's campaign had enjoyed months of free kicks at the Democrats after the GOP primary race ended and the Obama-Clinton steel cage match continued. But most of those months were spent with the McCain camp in severe disarray, both on message "” Phil Gramm's "mental recession" comes to mind "” and in campaign tactics, such the infamous green backdrop at his June 3 speech in a New Orleans suburb.
Yet the latest polls "” and the seeming ability of Palin to instantly transform this race "” would seem to indicate that voters got no overarching message from the Obama campaign other than he is a gifted, even inspirational political performer who aspires to change the country. The economic message Obama is now scrambling to hammer home was either absent or mixed in with a variety of other topics.
The thing voters likely remember most from the period is Obama's July trip to Europe "” a trip that prompted the McCain campaign's focus on the issue of elitism and celebrity and that some Obama campaign officials now privately acknowledge was a mistake.
Did the Obama team spend this period quietly building up formidable ground operations in all 50 states? Possibly "” and no one could question the fundraising prowess that makes this 50-state strategy possible. But as the campaign frantically tries to combat Hurricane Sarah with a meat-and-potatoes economic message and an effort to identify McCain and Palin with an unpopular president, it seems logical to conclude that its chance of success would be greater if that thematic strategy had begun months earlier.
There are also some doubters, by the way, about whether it is wise to be trying to expand the national playing field as broadly as Obama is seeking to "” as opposed to putting chips on a select number of undoubted swing states.
"Their 50-state strategy is insanity," said Schoen. "If they don't use their financial advantage where they need it most," he said, citing states from Ohio to Nevada, "and put every thing there and blow it out, they are at deep risk of losing."
Forgetting the lessons of 1992: One of the certainties of American politics is that it is hard for Democrats to win presidential elections without a deep connection to Main Street values and economics. That would seem doubly true for Obama, given the unstated but undeniable barrier his race presents in certain areas of the country. And few nominees have ever had such an inviting target as the economic record of the Bush administration "” from a ballooning federal budget deficit to higher unemployment rates to a mortgage crisis that could be the most menacing fiscal threat in decades.
McCain has shown little interest in economics throughout his career, and Palin's limited budgetary experience comes in a state that relies heavily on earmarks from Washington and the largesse of Big Oil. The primary economic cure voiced by the GOP tickets is more tax cuts and an unspecific pledge to be tough on congressional earmarks. Perhaps the only economic solution given prominence at the St. Paul convention was a push to allow domestic coastal oil drilling.
Yet still, the Obama campaign seems to be struggling to find a consistent, cohesive economic message. One can understand why aides would not want to muddy his mantra of change and his image as a post-partisan, revolutionary figure. But blue-collar voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Michigan likely won't vote for Obama because of some meta-narrative or a series of fabulous speeches.
"The [Obama] campaign is beginning to look like other campaigns," said a former top strategist for past Democratic presidential campaigns, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Obama is struggling with working-class whites just like John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis did, and Walter Mondale. He's struggling with voters in the border-state South. And he's struggling with an enormous wind at his back, a hatred for George Bush and a mainstream media that is little short of a chorus for his campaign."
Clinton, of course, was the only one of these Democrats to actually win the struggle. As he could tell Obama, voters want to know how their lives would be bettered by an Obama presidency in very specific terms. This connection (along with independent Ross Perot) is what powered his upset run against George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Clinton probably would have offered Obama that advice personally months ago "” but the two men were scheduled to have their first campaign-year meeting on Thursday, just over 50 days from Election Day.
The Expectations Game: Anyone who thinks the presidential election should be a layup for Obama should remember that Democrats have broken the 50 percent barrier in presidential elections only twice since 1944.
Did Obama himself forget?
Even if he didn't, he let a narrative take hold in the news media and among many of his own supporters that led to expectations that he should be far ahead, leading to disappointment when he isn't.
"A lot of Democratic elites thought this was a slam-dunk. And I thought, no it's not," said Lake, the pollster. "People in this town were already measuring drapes. And I was thinking, have you been in the real world lately?
"If you have been involved in campaigns, you thought it was going to be close for a year," she added. "And I think a lot of Democratic elites are waking up to that."
Alexander Burns, John F. Harris and Avi Zenilman contributed to this story.