Thursday, April 24, 2008

John McCain’s Transformational Campaign

It’s old news that John McCain is changing the nature of the Republican Party. As their presidential nominee – and this will be even truer if he does indeed become President – he is shifting their message away from their recent hot-topic social priorities (abortion, homosexuality, etc.) and back towards their more traditional economic focus (cutting spending, balancing the budget, limiting regulation, etc.). This is a man who has always followed the sound of his own drum. He’s no moderate, but my party is downright laughable when it claims he’s also no maverick: just remember where he stands on campaign finance reform, climate change, torture, ethanol, immigration, amending the Constitution to ban gay marriage, and originally, Rumsfeld, televangelists, and the Bush tax cuts.

Now that he is the Republican nominee for president, it’s not just his drum; it’s the whole party’s. But while the transformational nature of McCain’s policy is well known, less discussed is the transformational nature of his campaign style. His town hall meetings and 50-state-style strategy are healthy for our nation’s political discourse, and his localized campaign tactics may help give local grassroots efforts an even more central role in future campaigns.

We’ve certainly heard about the campaign revolutions on the Democratic side. In the current edition of the National Journal, Ronald Brownstein calls the Obama-Clinton race “the first true 21st-century campaign,” citing “new heights in raising money, recruiting volunteers, hiring staff, buying television ads, contacting voters, and generating turnout.” Most of this comes from YouTube, MySpace, blogs, and other new online resources, as well as successful efforts at tapping into the electorate’s pent-up frustration and the previously dormant youth vote. Just as important is Obama’s message of hope and change the prospect of a black or female president. Brownstein goes on to say that McCain is struggling to keep up on these fronts, especially fundraising.

All this about the Democratic primary is well and good, but the fact is that McCain HAS been as dramatic, just in a more low key way. What impress me even more than Obama’s effective use of technology is McCain’s 50-state strategy. “50-state strategy” is a Howard Dean phrase. As Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Dean gave money to all 50 states in 2006, not just the competitive ones. His logic was that Democrats can’t win by playing in 20 states. While giving money to the Wyoming state party in 2006 might not help right away, it will help a cycle or two later – a long view to make sure Democrats aren’t permanently limited to states that went “blue” in 2000 or 2004. He pushed a similar idea during his 2004 presidential campaign, but alas, John Kerry stuck to the same swing states we always see – Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida, and how far did that get us? But come 2006, partly because Dean was in charge, we won races no one ever expected us to win, like Carol Shea-Porter in NH-01.

The real genius of a 50-state strategy, however, isn’t in its effects on long-term electoral strategy, but its effects on post-election governing. If you ignore voters of this state or that state when you’re seeking campaign support, why shouldn’t they ignore you when you’re seeking legislative support? But if you visit their state during the campaign, if you listen to their concerns and positions, you may not win their vote but at least you’ll have a shot at their respect.

That’s exactly what John McCain is doing. Partly out of his character and partly out of financial necessity, his campaign is relying more on unstructured town hall meetings than on traditional advertising. The events, unlike the President’s Q&A sessions, are not pre-screened, so anything can happen and anyone, including critics, can speak up. What’s more, these events are being held in definitively non-Republican areas, like the decidedly black Selma, Alabama.

The town hall meetings are meant to showcase McCain’s “straight talk” rather than to win him votes, but a side-effect, I think, will be to make him a much more respected leader in the unlikely event that he wins the White House. The public will be more receptive to his requests, and building a public consensus is the best way to lead – case in point, the accomplished FDR and Reagan vs. the ineffective Carter and Dubya. I believe Obama, who puts states like Virginia, Colorado, and even Mississippi in play, can have a similar effect, and it’s about time we had another non-divisive consensus-builder in the White House. I didn’t vote for McCain in the New Hampshire primary and I probably won’t vote for him in November, but I am exceedingly grateful the Republicans nominated him.

Another new campaign tactic from the McCain folks, per Jonathan Martin at Politico, is a strategy of diffusing authority through ten autonomous regional campaign managers rather than centralizing power at campaign headquarters. The last time McCain tried a top-heavy campaign, early in this primary cycle, he collapsed in the polls and at the bank and was given up for dead. Now, again because of money woes, he’s taking thinks in a decidedly different direction, one that some worry lacks discipline or accountability. I don’t think this localized campaign method is quite as revolutionary as the Democrats’ technological advances or McCain’s campaigning everywhere, nor do I think it will have the same effect on the national discourse as will his town hall meetings, but I do think it helps to augment the nation’s newly found grassroots-mentality developed by the liberal blogs.

For all the squabbles of this primary season, democracy may well still come out ahead in the 2008 presidential campaign.


Jordan said...

I wouldn't call it unlikely for him to win the white house.

Nathan Empsall said...

I think it's highly unlikely. It's a very Democratic year, the American public disagree with him on both Iraq and the economy, Obama has the potential to appeal and Clinton has the campaign skill, and he will be drastically outspent. That said, he certainly has a chance, and even to have a chance against those odds is a remarkable achivement that most Republicans couldn't make.