Western, maverick assets

There are myriad ways to contrast the two tickets — Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden vs. Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin. While some comparisons work to the Democrats’ advantage, two contrasts decidedly favor McCain and Palin. I’m speaking of the mavericks vs. the insiders, and the regional split between Old America and the New West.

One of my favorite focus group exercises is to give discussants one or two pieces of information about a hypothetical candidate and then have them tell me other candidate attributes and policy positions that they would expect that candidate to possess. For example, I might say the candidate is pro-life and from Kansas and then leave the group to use their imaginations to describe everything else about that candidate, from his positions on national security to the color of his tie.

Voters do this sort of exercise so easily and so skillfully that you come to understand and even appreciate how tribal American politicians have become. Most of our politicians know the script and stick to it. Extemporaneous ad-libbing is for comedians, not for political leaders. So most officials deliver the focus group-approved stock speech in the standard blue suit and red power tie.

But every so often, someone different comes along, a politician who diverges from the stock speech, chooses a brown suit, and even ditches the tie altogether. We sometimes call this deviant politician a maverick. In difficult times, voters who normally line up behind standard politicians turn instead to mavericks in hopes of shaking things up. 2008 should be a time for mavericks. With “wrong track” sentiment running high, people are looking for something different.

Both Sens. Obama (Ill.) and McCain (Ariz.) have posed as wannabe mavericks throughout this cycle, but the ticket selection process finally confirmed their true identities. Obama revealed his conventional soul by choosing to run with an old-school insider, Sen. Biden of the “First State,” Delaware. In stark contrast, McCain selected a novice governor from a state that most Americans know or care little about. These two choices help voters anticipate answers to questions like, “Which candidate is most likely to take a new or different approach to meeting America’s energy needs?” From now on, the McCain-Palin ticket owns words like “new,” “innovative,” “different” or “fresh.” The Democrats trying to sell a McCain administration as a third Bush term just saw their chances for success plunge.

McCain’s selection of Palin also sharpened a regional advantage for the Republicans. The West (minus the far-Left Coast) is now most assuredly coming back to the GOP. An Arizona-Alaska axis beckons westerners in a big way. In some east-of-the-Mississippi circles, Chicago may have a Midwestern image that emphasizes “West.” But in the Mountain West, Chicago might as well be a western borough of New York City. In an East-West showdown, Chicago looks eastward. By picking an Alaska governor, McCain sent a strong signal to Westerners who usually feel ignored by the Washington establishment. McCain affirmed that his office may be in Washington but his heart is out West and his administration won’t treat the smaller, less politically powerful Western states like dispossessed orphans.

I often say that the American West has low self-esteem. By this I am not suggesting that Westerners are self-loathing. To the contrary, they have a healthy sense of their own worth. But their self-esteem sags when it comes to perceptions of how the Eastern establishment treats them. Westerners suspect that Easterners look at them as a colony to exploit for natural resources and picturesque vacations. But beyond that, they expect little from Eastern politicos.

By picking a decidedly Western running mate, McCain has sent the message to Mountain states that have been voting for more Democrats lately that it’s time to come home.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.