Playing His Own Game

For years, Democrats have marveled at Republicans' ability to create compelling visuals. When Ronald Reagan's advisers began treating his every appearance as a tableau that required careful attention to lighting, perspective, and composition, it was revolutionary. The series of attack ads George H.W. Bush used to eviscerate Michael Dukakis were so intricately structured and layered with symbolism that entire dissertations have been written about them. George W. Bush's team continued the visual artistry with a careful eye toward placing its lead actor in manly costumes and heroic poses (take this remarkable bit of framing). Democrats, it seemed, could never keep up.

But look at what we saw this week. While Barack Obama was photographed standing on mountaintops and being mobbed by adoring troops, John McCain was filmed tooling around in a golf cart with George H. W. Bush, a figure from the political past. Then, while Obama spoke in front of a crowd of 200,000 Germans waving American flags, McCain answered questions in the dairy aisle of a supermarket.

Watching the week's events, I was reminded of the 1990 U.S. Open, when John McEnroe, clearly past his prime and five years removed from his last Grand Slam final, made an improbable run to the semifinals. There he met 18-year-old Pete Sampras, whose cannon serve and freakishly precise ground strokes were so overwhelming that it seemed as though he were some kind of tennis-playing cyborg sent by an advanced race of aliens to humiliate human athletes. By the end of the match, it was clear McEnroe's career would soon be over.

The imbalance is more than just the two campaigns' relative talent at staging photo-ops. The fact is that in every aspect of campaigning, Obama's team is showing more skill and results than that of his more seasoned Republican opponent.

To say this is a reversal of recent history would be an understatement. Over the last few decades, we've gotten used to Republicans running circles around Democrats. In a book that was released in 2006, I note that the 2004 Bush campaign outperformed its opponents in field organizing, the one area at which Democrats had always excelled. As a consequence, the Democrats faced "an extraordinary realization: there is now not a single area of campaigning -- not organizing, not message development, not candidate recruitment and training, not fundraising, and certainly not ruthlessness -- at which Republicans are not demonstrably better than Democrats."

Why was this the case? The most important reason may be that Republicans have almost no interest in governing. Freed from the burden of coming up with new ways to more effectively deliver services that will produce tangible benefits to the public, they put their finest minds to work on the messy business of getting elected and keeping their opponents on the defensive.

Yet look where we are today. The outcome of this race is far from assured -- the polls remain close, and with three months remaining, almost anything could happen. But there is no doubt which campaign is a smoothly humming machine and which is a sputtering jalopy. Of course, there are always limits to how deep an understanding outsiders can gain of an organization, particularly one as large as a presidential campaign. Even the reporters who travel with the candidate and have daily conversations with the staff are getting only a small part of the picture. But some things are clear. Let's start with fundraising.

It's a common myth that campaigns are won by the candidate with the most money; there are plenty of examples of wealthy candidates spending millions of dollars of their own money to little effect. But all else being equal, you want to be the candidate with the bulging bank account. And that candidate is Obama: As of the end of June, he had raised more than twice as much money as McCain -- $339 million to McCain's $145 million -- and had more than twice as much left in the bank. The greater amount of money that Obama spent in the primaries, furthermore, is an investment that will produce enormous dividends. Since Obama had to battle Hillary Clinton in all 50 states, he left behind organizers and volunteers who are now being reactivated in every corner of the country.

One of the things that all that money buys is people. According to The Boston Globe, "As of May 31, the Obama campaign staff was well over twice the size of the Bush re-election campaign staff in 2004 and nearly three times the size of McCain's current staff, and has expanded significantly since." At this rate, Obama's could end up being the largest and most widely spread campaign in history.

Then there's the Internet. A campaign's Web strategy is a complex and many-faceted enterprise, much of which is invisible to an outside observer, but it's fair to say that the Obama campaign has created the most effective and fruitful Internet effort of any presidential campaign. It isn't just a means by which supporters can pour funds into the campaign's bank account; it's also an extraordinary organizing tool. McCain's Internet effort is anemic by comparison.

This isn't entirely the McCain campaign's fault. As one influential Internet strategist recently stressed to me, one can't overestimate the importance of demographics in assessing different candidates' Internet efforts. Because so many Obama supporters are people who are used to using the Internet for things like social networking and donating money, it was only natural that they would help build the Obama Internet machine into a key part of the campaign. McCain's supporters, on the other hand, are much more likely to be older and therefore either aren't online at all or are online in a more limited, Web 1.0 kind of way.

Perhaps the most important difference between the two campaigns lies in their core messages. Look back at recent elections, and you see again and again that the eventual winner had a clear, simple, easily understood message, a story he wanted the public to hear that could be summed up in a single sentence. Obama's message has been the same since he began his campaign (and even before): He is the candidate of change, hope, and unity. Ergo, "Change We Can Believe In," all three ideas conveyed in five words. And McCain? One day he's the candidate of reform, one day he's the candidate of strength, one day he's the candidate of '60s-era cultural resentments, one day he's "the American president Americans have been waiting for."

Faced with all these deficits, we now witness the extraordinary spectacle of John McCain whining that the media aren't being nice enough to him. John McCain, who used to call the press his "base." John McCain, who just a few months ago was greeted at a meeting of newspaper editors with a standing ovation and a box of doughnuts. John McCain, who was called by his own campaign manager "the greatest earned media [i.e., press coverage] candidate in history." What's next? Will Miley Cyrus start complaining about not getting enough love from tween girls?

There is a bit of truth to McCain's complaint, however, at least in a narrow sense. It's the same sense in which the team that won last night's game got "better coverage" in today's sports pages than the team that lost. When Obama gives a speech to an enormous, adoring crowd, and McCain's event of the day involves spending some time contemplating the supply of Egg Beaters in aisle five, the most objective reporting imaginable will be more "favorable" to one than the other.

The new McCain strategy of complaining about the media is nothing new -- it's a tune Republicans have played many times before. They keep doing it in large part because it's effective -- browbeat reporters with accusations of bias, and the reporters begin trying to prove you wrong by bashing Democrats.

The danger, of course, is that McCain's admirers in the press will start treating him just like any other candidate. After all, without the media McCain is nothing. Had he not been constantly praised as a "maverick" and a "straight talker," had he not been invited on the Sunday shows to offer his wisdom over 150 times in the last 10 years (more than any other political figure), had his actions not been portrayed in the press for so long as the very definition of courage and his motivations the very definition of integrity, McCain would be an obscure backbencher, not the GOP nominee for president.

The real danger for McCain is that his campaign's ineptitude might bring on the stench of defeat. Republicans have for some time benefited from a widespread belief among reporters that they were winners -- after all, the press views politics largely as a game, and Republicans were better players. Reporters admired their greater willingness to play dirty, their instinct for the jugular, and their raw thirst for power. Democrats, on the other hand, were derided as wimps and losers, not man enough to contend with their adversaries. For instance, instead of condemning Karl Rove as a toxic virus on the body politic with the morals of a cockroach, reporters exalted him as a sage and a magician.

But now, it's a Democrat who strolls up to the three-point line and calmly knocks it down. You could almost feel sorry for McCain, watching helplessly as his younger, abler opponent passes him by.


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