Diary

The excellent Jay Cost says "Now is the time to define Obama"

Jay Cost is my hero for understanding the actual dynamics of political science. He is particularly good with understanding (and explaining) the importance of the cost of information flow in a campaign, and how getting information to voters who don’t have “perfect information” is the key determiner of election success.

Jay has just posted a typically excellent analysis of the current state of the race, and what McCain needs to do to win.

First of all, for those that have been worrying about how long it has taken McCain to take off the gloves, Jay tells us not to worry. Right now is the right time.

It waited until October because, as I noted last week, anywhere between 20% and 30% of the electorate is now making up its mind. This is the time to begin this process.

The reason it will be effective is that Barack’s campaign has been one of stealth and evasion. In the absense of specifics, Obama can be all things to all people, and garner broad support across the electorate.

It means the definition of “Barack Obama” is more open to interpretation than other past nominees. The Obama campaign has used this vagueness to great effect. Simply put, because Obama has a slender record, he can be many things to many people. He can be the prophet of a new age to the chi tea crowd in Hyde Park, and a hardy Jacksonian fighter to the black coffee crowd in Youngstown. Politicians have been doing this dance routine for centuries. The fact that Obama’s story is hardly conditioned by a paper trail enables him to do this with more facility than most contemporary politicians.

But there is an inherent risk to Obama’s strategy. In the absense of definition, not only does the Obama campaign get to define him, so does the McCain campaign.

What McCain and the Republicans will try to do is the opposite of what Obama and the Democrats are trying. The Democrats want to fold McCain into the generic Republican because they know that a generic Republican would be hard-pressed to do better than 45% this year. The Republicans, knowing that the country is in a mood to elect a generic Democrat, will speak specifically about Obama, trying to make him seem quite worse. Can they succeed at this? Perhaps. Again, Obama is less “credentialed” than most major party nominees in a hundred years. Public opinion of him is based largely upon political claims about him, as opposed to an immutable record of accomplishment or even a long history on the national scene. That means that the perception of who Obama is might be alterable. Obama certainly did himself no favors by associating with people like William Ayers. This gives the Republicans a tactical advantage. They don’t need to link Obama to Ayers; rather, they need to give specifity to the vague term “associate.”

Jay compares Obama to two other “phenomena” candidates of the past.

Relative to past presidential nominees – Barack Obama has little relevant experience. His résumé is comparable to past “phenom” candidates Thomas Dewey and William Jennings Bryan. As a political matter, this means two things for Obama. First, as everybody knows, it is a direct weapon to use against him, which the McCain campaign has been doing for some time with its “Ready to Lead?” attacks.)

We all know what happened in those two elections.