What caused McCain’s poll numbers to fall?

Today’s question: What has been the most important development of the campaign thus far? What has been the biggest factor in the last week of campaigning? All week, Dan Schnur and Bruce E. Cain discuss the presidential and local elections.

Wall Street collapsed right on top of McCain
Point: Dan Schnur

The most decisive event in this campaign wasn’t anything either of the candidates said at their respective conventions or in any of the debates. It wasn’t a sound bite from a speech or interview, or a memorable assertion in a television commercial or e-mail attachment. The turning point in this election didn’t happen on the campaign trail but rather on Wall Street. In the last week of September, the race was essentially tied. Then Wall Street collapsed -- and it collapsed right on top of John McCain.

In the first week or two after the extent of the economic meltdown became apparent earlier this fall, what had been a closely contested election broke significantly in Barack Obama’s direction. The worst month for the Dow Jones industrial average in more than a decade made McCain’s national security credentials almost irrelevant to voters frightened about their economic futures. Just as the success of the troop increase in Iraq and the rise in gasoline prices earlier this year represented real-world events that boosted McCain’s support, the political ramifications of the rapidly spreading economic crisis have been of immense assistance to Obama’s efforts to convince voters as to the necessity of a change of course in Washington.

That’s not to say that the cataclysmic events in the financial markets have given this election to Obama. Over the last couple of weeks, McCain has made some progress in public opinion polls as he largely ditched references to Obama’s past political associations and focused his message more specifically on economic events. Under more conventional circumstances, an argument could be made about the relevance of William Ayers and Tony Rezko to the election. But for voters fixated on their economic insecurities, every moment spent on Obama’s relationships with these men was a unnecessary impediment to the conversation they needed to hear.

While the impact of the economic turmoil has been felt throughout the electorate, no voter group has reacted more strongly than the working-class and blue-collar voters who have historically decided presidential elections in this country. By definition, these voters live in the most economically precarious circumstances and therefore are most endangered by a deep recession. Neither candidate had been particularly successful with these voters in the spring. Through most of the summer and early fall, McCain and Obama fought fiercely for their support, both selecting running mates at least in part for their ability to reach out to them.

The alienation these voters felt toward the current administration was carrying over into their feelings about McCain, but they were still wary as to whether Obama’s promises of change were sufficiently reliable. Coming out of the Republican convention, between one quarter and one third of Hillary Clinton’s supporters -- largely concentrated in this demographic group -- were still undecided as to their preferred candidate. But a real-world economic crisis fundamentally remade the campaign, and two candidates who originally sought the presidency for other reasons have been scrambling to catch up ever since.

Dan Schnur, national communications director for John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid and a veteran of four presidential and three California gubernatorial GOP campaigns, is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

Is this the real John McCain?
Counterpoint: Bruce E. Cain

I agree with you, Dan, that the most decisive event of this campaign was the financial market collapse, but some events you dismiss as non-decisive -- such as the debates and the Sarah Palin pick -- were important because they made a bad situation worse. When we appeared together last spring in a lecture hosted by UC Berkeley, we had an uncommon meeting of minds: You and I both thought that the playing field was tilted in a Democratic direction (by the war, the weakness of the economy and the Republican brand and President Bush’s unpopularity). But we both felt that the Republicans had almost by accident picked the best candidate for the circumstances. We predicted that the race would be tight.

I clearly overestimated McCain as a candidate. To be sure, the market collapse and the Wall Street rescue drama tilted the playing field even more heavily in a Democratic direction, but a better response by the Republican candidate would have helped. The unnecessary flap over McCain’s statement about the strong “fundamentals of the economy,” the puzzling attempt to make the economic crisis all about corruption and earmarking and, above all, the disastrous White House meeting proved to be big errors made at the worst possible time. And, as you say, trying to change the discussion to Ayers and Rezko was a futile waste of time and resources. Let’s also give credit to Obama for doing what I have heard you so often preach to students: He had a consistent message that McCain would continue the Bush administration’s economic policies. Running against a nonincumbent with a credible record of party dissent, it was essential for Obama to stick to this one central message, as you prescribe.

As I reflect on why McCain was a weaker candidate than you or I predicted, I think the contradictions of the man compounded the contradictions of the party. As you know, I have said that there are two types of politicians that lay claim to centrism: the consistently moderate types like Rep. Christopher Shays or Sen. Susan Collins, and centrists by virtue of policy schizophrenia like McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger. McCain is an orthodox conservative on many issues but has broken with his party on some very important and salient issues, such as torture, immigration and campaign finance reform.

The problem with this kind of posture is that it can translate into strategic incoherence; take the following examples.

On Wednesday night of the GOP convention, Republicans devoted the evening to bashing Democrats and their causes; on Thursday night, the GOP welcomed their votes. The GOP nominated a female for vice president to appeal to disaffected PUMAs, but that nominee is a Christian conservative with little connection to moderate and liberal women. McCain and Palin supported the $700-billion bailout bill but accused Obama of socialism. They embrace populist economic rhetoric but support tax cuts for wealthy individuals. In the end, McCain’s campaign aimed for tactical cleverness over strategic coherence. Sometimes that worked (suspending the convention for the hurricane), sometimes it worked for a short while (Palin’s acceptance speech), but mostly it did not (suspending the campaign for the economic crisis).

In the end, I do not think we saw the real John McCain. In his heart, I doubt that he likes bashing business executives, accepting the support of racial conservatives, sitting up front in the plane away from the media and employing the robocalls and negative campaigning tactics once used against him. There are reports that he did not vote for George W. Bush in 2000. I wonder if he is also troubled in 2008 about voting for the new version of himself.

Bruce E. Cain is a political science professor at UC Berkeley and executive director of the University of California Washington Center.