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Democrats Losing the Character War

April 29, 2008

Two recent polls suggest that Democrats are winning minds but losing hearts in the war for the White House in 2008. Despite surveys showing that Americans consistently prefer Democratic positions over those of Republicans across virtually every issue, a new Rasmussen poll found voters trust John McCain more than either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. And last week, an AP/Yahoo poll revealed no difference in voters' candidate preferences even when it came to the election's most important issue, the economy. So as the 2008 election is being increasingly transformed into a battle of personalities, Democrats are losing the character war.
No doubt, the Rasmussen survey reflects both the toll of the bitter (and endless) Democratic race and the seeming imperviousness of the media's Maverick McCain myth. For example, on the economy, Americans prefer Democrats over Republicans by 48% to 40%. Yet in head-to-head matchups, voters say they trust John McCain over both Hillary Clinton (47% to 42%) and Barack Obama (46% to 39%). Despite John McCain's repeated admissions that "the issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should," right now Americans trust him more than his Democratic rivals on the issue they consider most important in 2008.
Those findings are consistent with the outcome of the recent AP/Yahoo survey. That poll found the economy far and away the most important issue; at 67%, it led gas prices (59%), health care (57%) and Iraq (48%) among Americans asked to rate each as "extremely important." Here, too, voters "divide about evenly between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, and between McCain and the other Democrat, Hillary Rodham Clinton."
On Iraq, too, McCain scored better in the Rasmussen research, despite the nation's overwhelming opposition to the war and his position on it. While over 60% of Americans want the troops brought home from a war a majority now views as a mistake, McCain is trusted over both Obama (by 48% to 39%) and Senator Clinton (50% to 40%). Again, McCain gets the nod despite voters' overall preference for the Democratic approach (45% to 43%).
And so it goes. On national security and taxes, McCain wins higher marks for trust. Only on government ethics and reform did he trail his Democratic counterparts.
All of which raises the question, why? When Americans routinely prefer Democratic policies to Republican ones, express record-setting disapproval for both President Bush and the direction of the country, and do not believe John McCain "has a clear plan for solving the country's problems," how is McCain even competitive in the 2008 election?
Because, as in 2000 and 2004, the Republican Party has succeeded both in portraying this race as being about character and in defining the accepted media narrative for all three of the remaining candidates.
In his 2007 book The Big Con, Jonathan Chait described how Republicans consistently win elections despite almost universal disdain for their policies among the American people. In a nutshell, Chait argues that Republicans must convert elections into contests of character because they simply can't win on issues. While their man, be it George W. Bush or John McCain, is the "authentic" guy you'd "like to have a beer with," the GOP drives the media conventional wisdom that paints the likes of Al Gore and John Kerry as effete, out-of-touch elitists whose positions change with the wind:

"Media outlets functionally affiliated with the Republican Party have been able to create news that makes its way into the nonpartisan media. It is a kind of machine that manufactures images of character.
The Republicans' seminal insight was that the random process by which small events come to wield great symbolic insight into the character of presidential candidates didn't have to be random. It was possible to prime the pump, in a way."

(Of course, the GOP "character" strategy and a compliant media are necessary but not sufficient conditions for Republican victory. That requires a media environment in which news, opinion and entertainment merge, an "infotainment" complex in which all political debates are presented as contests between good and evil, ideological struggles with two - and only two - sides. Which, as it turns out, is exactly what we now have. For more on the transformation of politics into just another form of entertainment, see the presentation "That's Entertainment: Politics as Theater in Campaign '08.")
And so far, the Republican strategy is working. Despite John McCain's myriad flip-flops on virtually every issue from tax cuts, overturning Roe v Wade, the role of the religious right, U.S. alliances, immigration and campaign finance, a Gallup survey echoed Rasmussen's emerging "trust gap." Gallup showed that 65% of Americans believe McCain is honest and trustworthy and 66% called him a "strong and decisive leader." Despite his wife's $100 million fortune, corporate jet, 8 homes and undisclosed tax returns, John McCain succeeds with the press in branding Barack Obama an "elitist." Meanwhile, the press stays focused on the incendiary rhetoric of Obama pastor Jeremiah Wright, while McCain's dangerously explosive temper (one documented by would-be running mate, Mitt Romney) is brushed aside. (To dispel any lingering doubts on the progress of the character issue, just look at the cover of this issue of Newsweek.)
Like it or not, Democrats must win both the battle of issues and the character war in order to retake the White House in 2008. To do that, they will have to attack John McCain's mythical persona directly where it is strongest. As the saying goes, you don't bring a knife to a gun fight.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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