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John McCain’s Fatal Error

by @ 4:26 pm on October 31, 2008. Filed under 2008 Election, Barack Obama, John McCain, Politics

Today’s Washington Post reports that the McCain campaign is putting money into an advertising blitz over the next four days, but it’s unclear if the cost will be worth it:

Sen. John McCain and the Republican National Committee will unleash a barrage of spending on television advertising that will allow him to keep pace with Sen. Barack Obama’s ad blitz during the campaign’s final days, but the expenditures will impact McCain’s get-out-the-vote efforts, according to Republican strategists.

McCain has faced a severe spending imbalance during most of the fall, but the Republican nominee squirreled away enough funds to pay for a raft of television ads in critical battleground states over the next four days, said Evan Tracey, a political analyst who monitors television spending.

The decision to finance a final advertising push is forcing McCain to curtail spending on Election Day ground forces to help usher his supporters to the polls, according to Republican consultants familiar with McCain’s strategy.

The vaunted, 72-hour plan that President Bush used to mobilize voters in 2000 and 2004 has been scaled back for McCain. He has spent half as much as Obama on staffing and has opened far fewer field offices. This week, a number of veteran GOP operatives who orchestrate door-to-door efforts to get voters to the polls were told they should not expect to receive plane tickets, rental cars or hotel rooms from the campaign.

“The desire for parity on television comes at the expense of investment in paid boots on the ground,” said one top Republican strategist who has been privy to McCain’s plans. “The folks who will oversee the volunteer operation have been told to get out into the field on their own nickel.”

Patrick Ruffini is one McCain supporter who doesn’t think this is such a great idea:

The strategy is a Hail Mary ripped right from an old-school playbook. A good field operation counts for 2-3 points, and this is not a 2-3 point race. But the notion that TV counts for 6 points in the modern era is crackpipe. If you have a 3-to-1 advertising lead, it counts for maybe a point. And we are not talking about outspending Obama, but matching him.

Sean Quinn at FiveThirtyEight.com, meanwhile, says that this news isn’t surprising given his own observations of the McCain/Palin ground operation around the country:

These ground campaigns do not bear any relationship to one another. One side has something in the neighborhood of five million volunteers all assigned to very clear and specific pieces of the operation, and the other seems to have something like a thousand volunteers scattered throughout the country. Jon Tester’s 2006 Senate race in Montana had more volunteers — by a mile — than John McCain’s 2006 presidential campaign.

When Republican volunteers talk to us about how much enthusiasm and participation they notice in fellow volunteers, they mention how many people have come to pick up yard signs or bumper stickers. We haven’t yet seen a single Republican canvasser. (The one in Cortez, CO was staged; she said canvassing is the kind of thing she would do, and we made a decision to do the picture because we were concerned with not presenting “balance.” There is no balance in the facts.)

When we attempted to visit the Republican HQ in Maryland Heights, Missouri, we saw a couple volunteers populating the office, and we were subsequently denied the opportunity to even speak to volunteers specifically selected so as to be “on message.” By contrast, Obama’s volunteers own such a piece of the campaign (Respect-Empower-Include) that the problem is they often have too much information, and when the campaign allows me to talk with them on the record I can ask a too-precise series of questions that result in publishing details the campaign later realizes it didn’t want published.

We read the published comments from McCain spokespeople that argue the dialing/canvassing numbers are ahead of where they were at the same time four years ago. Well, either the Bush ground game of 2004 was the Big Myth, or those spokespeople are flat lying to reporters, who have no context to challenge those claims because they haven’t seen the empty offices the way we have.

With little more than seventy-two hours left to go before voting begins on Election Day, McCain’s choice to focus on big-bucks television buys and appearances on Saturday Night Live rather than following the Rove strategy in 2000 and 2004 of putting most of his remaining resources into get-out-the-vote efforts and finalizing a formidable ground operation (one that should have been in place weeks ago) seems to be unwise to say the least.

Ruffini sums up the likely outcome of what seems like the final bad decision of a badly-run campaign perfectly:

The most likely scenario — absent a blockbuster revelation — is McCain’s ad splurge falls flat, and Obama, virtually uncontested in the field, is if anything able to expand his current lead by getting more of his voters to the polls.

At this point, only an October Surprise or voters finally getting cold feet about Obama in the final 72 hours will move the polls 6 points. TV ads alone are actually a remarkably inefficient way to move the polls at the national level with interest in the race this high — especially if this is what McCain is putting up.

Since I doubt that there will be an October Surprise of sufficient magnitude to change the game between now and Tuesday, and given that the debates seem to have put to rest most of the concerns voters in the middle had about Barack Obama, I can’t help but think that this seems like a train wreck in the making.

One Response to “John McCain’s Fatal Error”

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