Should it be a referendum on Obama or on Bush/McCain?
In contrast to early expectations the 2008 Presidential election is proving a very tight race. This is a huge surprise given the political atmospherics. George Bush has approval ratings in the low 30s while 80% of Americans feel the country is on the wrong track. Polls show a generic Democrat beating a generic Republican by double digits. Why then is the race so close and what does this mean for the Obama campaign?
The personal nature of a vote for President helps provide an explanation. Americans vote for a head of state as well as a head of government. Issues of character can be as important as issues of policy. Barack Obama has had a problem connecting to Americans. His background, his academic demeanour and his skin colour all make him an unusual presidential nominee.
Furthermore the historic nature of his candidacy has focussed media and public attention onto him. Contrary to conventional wisdom this is a drawback. It has made the election a referendum on Barack Obama, a referendum the McCain campaign is winning through traditional Republican tactics of character assassination. The Obama strengths of flowing oratory are being converted into weaknesses.
The Barack Obama campaign therefore faces a strategic dilemma. Either maintain the current course and win the referendum on Obama or redefine the election as a referendum on Bush. Both options are seductive and dangerous.
The power of the Obama campaign has been in its central messages of change and unity. Not just a new party in the White House but a new way of doing politics which unites Americans; red states and blue states, black and white, rich and poor.
The case for this strategy is that Americans are sick of Republicans already. What they need is reassurance. Once Americans are comfortable and confident with Obama he will win going away. Here the parallel is Ronald Reagan in 1980. Tied with Carter for much of the summer his performance in the fall debates reassured Americans and he won comfortably.
Many Democrats feel though that a far more aggressive strategy is needed. They see discrediting McCain as the route to victory and demand more red meat and more attacks on McCainâ€™s character. Their argument is that the Democrats cannot unilaterally disarm and must match the Republicans blow-for-blow. Here the comparison would be with Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, both accused of not fighting back hard enough against the Republican smear machine. The danger though is that this sacrifices Obamaâ€™s central message about a new type of politics. A further fear is that the Republicans are just better at negative politics and that Obama has much more scope to be smeared than McCain.
The recent attack on McCain for not knowing how many homes he owns shows the danger. It portrayed McCain as elitist and out-of-touch but opened the door for the Republicans to link Obama to Tony Rezko, recently convicted of fraud and bribery. Every Obama attack on McCain focuses the campaign on fears rather than hopes. Yet can Obama win by merely walking the high road?
The McCain campaign has no strategic dilemma. In the political climate they have decided that only an aggressive, relentless strategy will succeed. Things are far trickier for Obama. The way that he and his campaign decide to approach this strategic dilemma will have a big impact on who becomes the 44th President of the United States.
Kieran is a regular contributor to the site