Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Obama is on holiday – but his campaign continues to make progress

It’s silly season in Washington as it is in the UK. Congress, like Parliament, is in recess; without Suffolk as an option, Barack Obama has gone to Hawaii on holiday to spend time with his family; and the newspapers are full of stories about pets and properties. But the election coverage continues and the big story, or rather question, is why Obama has not yet opened a significant lead over John McCain.

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It’s silly season in Washington as it is in the UK. Congress, like Parliament, is in recess; without Suffolk as an option, Barack Obama has gone to Hawaii on holiday to spend time with his family; and the newspapers are full of stories about pets and properties. But the election coverage continues and the big story, or rather question, is why Obama has not yet opened a significant lead over John McCain.

The omens are in Obama’s favour. George Bush and Condoleezza Rice are embracing his approach to troop withdrawal in Iraq and negotiations with Iran. Meanwhile the tanking economy should favour the candidate from the challenging party. Yet although the Democrats outstrip the Republicans by 10-15 points in a series of generic opinion polls about congressional candidates, Obama and McCain are still in a statistical dead heat.

There are three explanations. Since making his seminar speech in March, race has largely stayed out of the mainstream news cycle but there is a growing sense that a number of swing voters and Democrats who did not support Obama in the primaries are struggling to back a black man. The man himself hinted at his own frustration when suggesting that McCain was trying to scare voters because ‘he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills’.

A second theory is that the tight race is not because Obama is doing badly but because McCain is doing well. Even though he voted with President Bush 95 per cent of the time and now supports the Bush tax cuts that he once said, ‘I cannot in good conscience support,’ McCain is seen by many as a ‘maverick’. But according to a recent poll of 1,800 voters, that word did not feature in the top 10 associated with McCain while ‘Bush’ came in fourth after ‘old’, ‘military service’ and ‘record/qualifications.’

A third, and arguably more sophisticated, argument is that Obama is failing to make his ‘narrative’ resonate with the American public. Drew Westen, a professor of psychology who has written about political campaigns, says that like Kerry and Gore before him, Obama is allowing his opponent to frame the current debate. While Obama’s story of hope and change reverberated during the primaries, McCain has dominated recent weeks by presenting Obama as a self-promoting celebrity. David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, endorses this view and suggests that because Obama’s personal story is so unique (born in Kansas; raised in Hawaii and Indonesia), voters find it hard to relate to him. Perhaps in response to this analysis, Obama is hitting back this week with some hard-hitting adverts of his own.

In August, as in any other month, newspapers need to be sold and blogs have to be hit so little wonder the plethora of scare stories. The facts are that Obama is doing better than either Kerry or Gore were at this stage. He is up in 41 states compared to 2004. And is also ahead of McCain in Montana, Missouri, and Virginia not to mention a creeping and almost robust lead in the crucial state of Ohio. Another factor is the turnout which remains a significant unknown. Obama’s campaign is focusing aggressively on registering new voters – with a target of 300,000 in Virginia alone – while some of the more evangelical Republicans may stay at home. Make no mistake: it’s a tight race. But the doom and gloom since Obama’s return from Europe is as out of place now as the premature euphoria which greeted many earlier moments in this extraordinary race.

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Will Straw

Will Straw is an associate director at IPPR

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