The presidential race boils down to a fierce battle over one word: change.
For most of the campaign, Democrat Barack Obama has ridden his theme of “Change we can believe in” to victory over his primary opponents and to a fairly consistent lead in the national polls.
But since the Republican convention earlier this month, John McCain has tried to rip that mantle from Senator Obama, switching his own motto from being the candidate of “experience” to the “maverick who will bring change to Washington.”
The McCain camp has also changed tactics, unapologetically going negative with campaign ads that both Republicans and Democrats have criticized for being full of distortions. It appears to be working: The race is now neck and neck, with some polls showing Senator McCain ahead.
The Obama campaign, in turn, is beginning to hit back, attacking McCain as a tired Washington insider with close ties to lobbyists and deploying Bill and Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. The campaign has changed its motto to “For the change we need,” and it is being urged by worried Democrats to go as negative as the McCain camp has – in a way, playing by the rules of the negative playbook that Obama had said he wanted to rewrite.
The ferocity of the fight over who is the better champion of change is one more indication that 2008 could be one of those rare defining elections that ushers in a new era in American politics.
“This is a critical election and it could be a realigning one as far as the [nation’s] agenda and the nature of the electorate,” says Doug Muzzio, a political analyst at Baruch College of the City University of New York. “The election will ultimately turn on which electorate comes out to vote – the one that’s existed in the last two elections [of older conservatives] or a new generation, an electorate of younger voters, the Obama voters.”
Different definitions of ‘change’
Change is a simple word, but it has many different meanings. Each candidate is championing his own definition. McCain is casting himself as a reformer of the Washington status quo – a man who can clean up corruption and bring more competent leadership to what already exists inside the Beltway, according to Barbara True-Weber, a political analyst at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.
“McCain is appealing for greater competency in foreign affairs, in particular military policy, and that is certainly his strong suit,” says Professor True-Weber. “The idea is that Washington is fundamentally sound.... all it needs is some tinkering and reform and to get back to basic principles.”
Obama, on the other hand, is touting a “fundamentally different kind of change,” based on a transformation of the Washington status quo to a more global, high-tech, and efficient government, says True-Weber.
“Because of Obama’s youth and background,... he understands that the fundamental ways of communicating are changing and that the world is much more global and that there are different modes of decisionmaking. He appeals to young people because they see the world that way, too.”
But for the electorate, it can be difficult to sort out which kind of “change” each candidate represents – especially amid a hailstorm of negative campaigning. A Gallup Poll released Sept. 12 found that since the Republican convention, McCain has started to close the gap on voters’ perceptions as to which candidate “would be effective in changing the way government in Washington works.” Obama is still ahead, with 61 percent, but 54 percent of adults see McCain as an effective change agent, too. That has created some anxiety among Democrats.
“Some Democrats are apoplectic. They believe they’ve smelled the aroma of Michael Dukakis and John Kerry,” says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. “They believe Obama is making the same mistake, not fighting back hard enough and not going on the offensive.”
McCain had to usurp the change theme from Obama if he had any chance of winning, says Mr. Sabato, because more than 80 percent of people believe the United States is on the wrong track. That’s the same reason McCain has had to abandon a high-road campaign strategy and go negative, say he and other analysts.
“You can lose pretty or win ugly,” says Sabato. “Those are the choices today in American politics, and we know that the McCain campaign has chosen to win ugly.”
Negativity is a risk for McCain
But that, too, could backfire on McCain, because he has built his reputation as a “straight talker” by assailing the very style of smear tactics he’s now engaging in.
“He’s running a risk because, if anything, McCain is now probably worse than Bush [in terms of using negative tactics],” says David Bositis, a political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.
But a large question mark also surrounds what impact Obama’s Web-based campaign will have come Nov. 4. Back in 2004, Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean also relied on registering and inspiring young new voters. Prior to the New Hampshire and Iowa primaries, his strategists were dismissing polls showing him to be losing ground, noting that many young people have only cellphones and, thus, weren’t being picked up pollsters who rely on land-line numbers. Mr. Dean never made it past the primaries.
“Dean also didn’t really have much in the way of organization, but what has been one of the most remarkable things about Obama’s campaign has been that he’s been such an incredible organizer,” says Mr. Bositis. “He’s used the Web and texting and a whole series of new techniques, so it’s hard for us to know what’s really going on.”
After his loss, Dean took over the Democratic National Committee and implemented what was at the time a controversial 50-state strategy that has revived many moribund local Democratic operations. Many Democrats now credit that in part for their successes in the 2006 midterm congressional elections.
But it’s unclear whether that change will have an impact on the presidential level.
“To quote Buffalo Springfield, for what it’s worth, ‘Something’s going on here, but it ain’t exactly clear,’ ” says Professor Muzzio.
Other analysts are skeptical that anything has really changed.
“I’ve heard it too many times: We’re registering tons of new voters, we’re changing the calculus of American politics,” says Sabato. “I’ve lived too long and I’ve heard it too often – maybe in an extremely close election it will make a difference, but I still don’t think it will win the election.”
Sabato also notes that the race for the Electoral College, which Obama has dominated for months, now appears to be tightening. “It’s looking a lot like 2004 again,” he says. But he cautions that there are at least 50 more days to go in what’s proved to be a volatile and fast-moving campaign.