DICK MORRIS’ ’08 PLAY-BY-PLAY
Volume 1, #32
August 18, 2008
OBAMA TEACHES US: HOW TO LOSE A CONVENTION
For the first time in recent memory, the Democratic and Republican conventions will be held on consecutive weeks. The Democratic gathering, in Denver, will begin on Monday, August 25 and run through Thursday, August 29. The Republican conclave, in Minneapolis-St. Paul, will start three days later on Monday, September 1 and run through Thursday, September 4.
Obama is certain to have a big bounce in the polls after his acceptance speech outdoors to 75,000 spectators Thursday, August 29th. But how will the bump stand up during the Republican convention? It is unexplored territory.
Will the Obama spell linger over the Republican convention, impeding any real gain for McCain? Or will his magic dissipate under the pounding he is sure to receive, day and night, during the Republican convention?
To bring about the quick-dissipation scenario, the McCain campaign has done a good job of laying the groundwork for a dismissal of the Obama acceptance speech. While the night of the speech, it is likely to stoke all the passion that he generated during his campaign in the primaries – and more so – McCain has laid the basis for asking during the Republican convention the classic question Mondale asked of the charismatic Gary Hart in 1984: “where’s the beef?”
By running ads which highlight Obama’s celebrity and charisma, the McCain campaign can dismiss the speech as all sizzle and no steak. They can make Obama’s rock star popularity work against him, much as it did against Bobby Kennedy in 1968. The Senator’s campaign, brilliantly captured in the new book The Last Campaign by Thurston Clarke, was haunted by the kids who engulfed him morning, noon, and night. He had to replace his tie clip and cufflinks several times a day because they were ripped off. Once somebody even took off his shoes! Voters put down his campaign as a youth crusade, unworthy of serious consideration. McCain is trying to marginalize Obama in the same way.
McCain’s polling likely shows that voters distrust the puppy love with which young people greet the Obama20candidacy and worry that he has not been properly vetted. They will probably use the very enthusiasm he arouses against him, portraying him as unsafe and risky.
The days when a political convention actually meant anything are, of course, long over. But the four day and night extravaganza still means a huge amount in our presidential contests. A bad convention (like Bush in 1992) can be fatal. A good convention (like Bush in 2004 or Clinton in 1996) can be decisive.
The average convention gives its candidate a bounce of ten points in the polls — the standard by which conventions are measured.
But Obama is showing, nonetheless, an almost historic inability to control his own convention. He has allowed the Clintons to invade his time and hog the spotlight. The effect will be to reduce his convention to a one night stand. A great convention acceptance speech might give him 8-10 points, but its unlikely to generate more and it is not likely to stand up to the Republican onslaught the following week.
The most likely scenario is a tied race after both conventions and there is even some possibility of a McCain lead.
WHO WATCHES CONVENTIONS?
Network commentators delight in highlighting how few people watch conventions, but they are focused on ratings, which measure what all people watch. Political surveys, which ask what likely voters watch, indicate a tremendous interest in following the conventions.
In 1996, when there was much less interest than there is in this race, about 20% of the electorate followed the gavel to gavel coverage on CSPAN and PBS. Another 30% watched most of the prime time coverage and a total of 75% watched the acceptance speeches. Conventions are the decisive media event of the early campaign, outshone only by the three televised debates.
But to capitalize on a convention, one has to treat each night on its own, projecting a game plan=2 0for that night’s viewers and monitoring how much of a bounce each evening generates. That’s why the Clintons’ expropriation of two of the four nights is so damaging to Obama’s campaign. It assures that Hillary’s candidacy, not his, will be front and center for the bulk of the convention. Obama’s backers and handlers may assume that all anyone watches is the final acceptance speech, but that would be a misjudgment. The fact is that viewership on each of the four nights is very high.
For every ten people who watch the acceptance speech on Thursday, eight watch on Wednesday, seven watch on Tuesday, and six watch on Monday (an average of the Neilson ratings over the past few conventions). So most of the electorate will get a total emersion in what-might-have-been when Hillary and Bill speak, not exactly the warm up Obama needs for his acceptance speech.
CAN EVENTS DERAIL OBAMA?
Asked what could get in the way of his political plans, former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan answered “events, dear boy, events.”
The Russian invasion of Georgia shows how quickly events, particularly abroad, can change domestic political calculations. While American voters are determined to cast their ballots based on domestic issues like the economy, energy, and health care, events may blow them off course and lead to an election based on international problems.
The more attention focuses on foreign and national security issues, of course, the more likely is a McCain victory. Voters would not have trusted the ingénue Bill Clinton in 1992 over the veteran George H. W. Bush had not the international scene been quiescent. It was possible to take a chance on Clinton because no pressing national security issues seemed to be at hand.
But foreign affairs may not be so docile in 2008. With the United States fighting a two-front war in Iraq and Afghanistan and with Russia bent on a program of imperial expansionism in Eastern Europe, events may force Americans to elect the more experienced and seasoned of the candidates.
But the most serious threat to international peace, and to a cakewalk for Obama, may come from the issues triggered by Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the threat it poses for Israel.
AS ISRAEL GOES, SO GOES THE UNITED STATES?
Facing a potential existential threat in Iran’s nuclear program, Israeli politicians are hotly debating the nature of the Jewish State’s response. Overshadowing the dialogue is the Kadima Party primary to be held in mid-September. The top two contenders are Tizipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz. Livni, the current foreign minister in the Olmert government, has been Condi Rice’s point person in the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and Syria. An advocate of diplomacy, she generally throws cold water on the need for immediate military action against Iran. Her opponent, Shaul Mofaz, the current Transportation Minister, is the former Chief of Staff of the Army and has said publicly that he believes an air strike against Iran is necessary.
Currently, Livni is ahead of Mofaz, but Olmert, the still serving prime minister, is openly opposed to her candidacy. Olmert has indicated that he will not step aside as prime minister until a new prime minister can be named. That not only means that Livni would have to win the Kadima Primary, but that she would need to cobble together a majority of the Knesset to serve as prime minister. That won’t be easy. Barak, the leader of the Labor Party is highly critical of Livni and Shas, the religious party, may refuse to serve in a government with her (or under any woman). Shas and Labor are key element s of Olmert’s coalition and, if they leave, it is hard to see how Livni would put together a government.
If Livni can’t put together a coalition, then Olmert will stay in power and will be able to exact vengeance on party members who voted for Livni. With such a prospect, Kadima members may vote for Mofaz.
If Mofaz wins, then an attack on Iran is very likely. But when would it happen?
Clearly Israel would want to attack while Bush is in office since he will certainly do all he can to help the attack, while Obama might not. But could Israel wait until after the election? What would happen if President-elect Obama told Mofaz not to attack Iran? Israel could no more ignore the request of the president-elect than it could if the request came from a sitting president. But it matters less what the Democratic candidate says before the election.
So Israel may attack Iran and it may do so before the US election. If that helps elect McCain, so be it.
All this goes to show how fragile Obama’s support is. A deep foreign crisis would drain his candidacy of its glitter and invest it with fears of his inexperience, and naiveté.
AND FOR VICE PRESIDENT?
Obama’s goal in choosing a vice president seems to be to avoid controversy. Picking an Evan Bayh or a Tim Kaine would be a safe choice. (Although some will worry about Bayh’s close ties to Mark Penn and others will be concerned about Kaine’s lack of experience and the absence of any national security credentials).
But he would be better advised to choose Joe Biden or somebody with good national security credentials. If a foreign crisis heats up during the campaign, a vice president who has been through it all would be a reassuring sight to anxious voters.
Kaine has even less experience than Obama. A city councilman, a mayor of Richmond, and now a governor of Virginia, he has hardly set foot in Washington DC. Apart from some time as a young volunteer in Honduras he appears to be without any foreign policy experience at all. While he would emphasize that the Obama/Kaine ticket would be the non-Washington slate, choosing a vice president whose lacks so closely parallel his own could be going too far.
I still wonder why Obama does not give more serious consideration to Bill Richardson. The Hispanic vote is in play this year and Obama has little popularity among Latinos, as his loss of their votes in the primaries makes clear. Richardson’s extensive foreign experience and his service in the cabinet both make him an attractive candidate.
McCain is trying to choose between Joe Lieberman and Mitt Romney. He is worried about either choice. The conservatives, led by the talk show hosts, have vowed to leave the ticket if Lieberman is the vice presidential nominee. But choosing him would so clearly help McCain win swing voters and would send a message of bipartisanship all could hear. Romney would trigger disapproval from evangelicals who are suspicious both of his flip flops on abortion and gays and his Mormon faith. Either choice has its drawbacks.
My guess is that McCain may play it safe and choose Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, a safe choice, although not one that will do much to attract votes.
But there is also some possibility that McCain could score a winning ticket by putting Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison on as vice president. With Obama showing weakness among women over 40, nominating a woman could be a master stroke. Electing a woman vice president has long been a goal of the feminist community and women all over America would be attracted to such a ticket.
A good Senator with a fine record, Hutchison might bring real strength to the ticket and give McCain’s candidacy an historical aspect to compete with Obama’s.
***COPYRIGHT EILEEN MCGANN AND DICK MORRIS 2008. REPRINTS WITH PERMISSION ONLY***