The key word in this election is accountability. Pollster Frank Luntz has found “accountability” to produce by far the largest positive reaction in his focus groups; far more than either “experience” or “change”.
People know that Washington has serious problems. Obama is trying to persuade people that the problem is ideology. We had government from the right and it didn’t work out too well. McCain is pushing the idea that the problem isn’t ideology, but rather accountability.
I’m going to suggest an inflammatory analogy.
In the 2006 Palestinian elections, voters rejected Fatah and elected Hamas. There were two competing narratives in the election. There was the ideological split between Hamas as the more radical, Islamist party and Fatah, which was more moderate and secular. The second narrative was corruption and competence. Fatah was seen as corrupt and not meeting the basic needs of the people, while Hamas was perceived as committed to clean efficient government.
The bulk of the Palestinian people, by comparison to Hamas, are not Islamic fundamentalists. Alcohol consumption, smoking, and women’s participation in civil society are fairly well established. As a result, it was widely assumed that voters would not embrace a Hamas ideology that conflicted with these ingrained cultural traditions.
As a result, when Hamas won 74 seats in the parliament compared to Fatah’s 45, many people were shocked. They should not have been. People who were surprised by the result failed to appreciate the level of dissatisfaction in the electorate with the incompetence and corruption of Fatah.
People were frustrated with the government’s failure to deliver improvements in quality of life and disgusted with Fatah placing its own corrupt interests above those of the people. Seen from this perspective, it should have come as no surprise that the people voted to Throw the Bums Out without regard for what would follow.
The lesson that we can take from the Palestinian elections is that most people are not ideologues. While voters do have ideological preferences, for most the highest priorities are simple competence and honesty. The average citizen just wants the trains to run on time.
If our upcoming Presidential election was decided by ideology alone, McCain would win in a landslide. We are still a center right country and he is the center right candidate. The challenge is when ideology and competence can not be separated, as was the case in the Palestinian election. American voters are being asked to choose between the record of an incompetent center right and the promise of a competent center left.
Given those two inseparable options, voters will choose competence over ideology every time. For Sen. McCain to win, he must disaggregate the choice. The election will turn on McCain’s ability to persuade voters that they can reject incompetence without sacrificing their preferred ideology.
In the 2007 French elections, Nicolas Sarkozy faced a similar challenge. He was Interior Minister under the unpopular Jacques Chirac and yet was able to persuade voters that he could bring change without moving left. If McCain can replicate Sarkozy’s strategy of credibly offering a change in accountability while retaining center right ideology, he can win. It’s a difficult needle to thread, but it’s his only chance.