Why race is no runaway

Just looking at the fundamental indicators, you’d think there is no way Barack Obama could lose this election. President Bush’s numbers are in the tank. The GOP brand is broken. Democrats are gleefully optimistic about the seats they may gain in the Senate and the House, and it seems like another Republican incumbent gets into trouble almost every week.

The economy is — well, we all know about that. It has replaced Iraq as the No. 1 issue of the campaign and the party in power almost always loses the White House in a bad economy. (Remember: “It’s the economy, stupid.”) The Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index has dropped below 60 for only the third time since it first appeared in 1952. An index average of 72 has always meant the party in power lost the White House. In June the number was 59. Several polls show over 80 percent of voters think the country is on the wrong track.

We’re six years into an unpopular war, the public wants out, the Iraqis are talking timetables for withdrawal and even President Bush is warming to that idea. Not to mention $4-plus gasoline. Meanwhile, back on the bus, McCain seems intent on running against the tide of everyone’s opinion, even the leaders of his own party. Sounds like time to stick a fork in it.

But it isn’t over yet. Not by a long shot. Barack Obama just returned from one of the greatest message-framing events I’ve ever seen and got a mild eight- to nine-point bump in the polls. The trip was staged with such efficiency and Obama performed so brilliantly that even George H.W. Bush joked that he “was jealous” of the whole event. The kind of stagecraft pulled off by that campaign would make any administration jealous.

So, why not a bigger bump? The McCain campaign did its best to counter-program, but just couldn’t compete with Obama’s visuals, and McCain’s criticism of the Democrat’s actions and statements mostly seemed desperate. He may have got a little traction with the “he went to the gym but not to visit the troops” attack, but most of the mainstream media tired of that after a couple of days and pointed out that Obama got a lot of face-time with troops — including at the gym.

So given the economic, historic and campaign-execution fundamentals working for Obama, why is the race still close? Well, to start with, it may not be. Several analysts have recently pointed out that the leader in July almost always wins in November. Republican pollster Steve Lombardo, on the other hand, argues that GOP candidates tend to under-poll in the summer. He suggests that Obama may be at his peak, that Republicans have tended to gain about 15 points between mid-July and Election Day. That scenario would certainly make McCain the real “comeback kid” — the guy written off early in the primaries and the guy written off again when Obama cinched the Democratic nomination.

I suggest what is going on is that we’re in a very unusual year. People are just not sure what is going on in America and what they think about it. Voters know that America isn’t working very well — 80 percent saying we’re heading in the wrong direction is a very, very big number — but they are trying to sort out what message they want to hear.

Obama sounds great. He looks great. But he’s a riskier choice. Can he really do what he says he’s going to do? People are nervous, and that makes them anxious about change. One truism I’ve learned from two decades of ballot issue campaigns is that about two-thirds of all measures fail because “no” is a safe vote.

McCain is the “no” vote in this election. He may be old, and we may not agree with many of his ideas, but we know what we’re getting. Obama may have a grand vision and inspiring rhetoric, but we don’t really know him that well; he’s young and black and no one like him has ever run this country before.

If Barack Obama is going to prove Steve Lombardo wrong, he has to make a lot of white, middle-aged, middle-class voters believe they can trust him. Personally, I think his grand adventure abroad laid a good foundation for that. Now he needs to do the same thing with the economy. And he needs to make people comfortable with him to close the deal. Not to be too cute, but the message needs to be “Yes I can!”

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcsa.com.