James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Posts Tagged ‘negative campaigning’

On-the-mark election predictions, and why Obama won

Posted by James McPherson on November 5, 2008

Back in August, when the national polls had the presidential race as close as it got (Zogby gave John McCain the lead), I predicted that in spite of minor irritations offered by GOP mudslinging and PUMAs (who now are noteworthy only because they’re among the few people in America who have ended up on the wrong side in three consecutive presidential elections), Barack Obama would win by a substantial margin: “by the widest margin seen since at least Bill Clinton’s 379-159 victory over Bob Dole in 1996, and maybe since Ronald Reagan slaughtered Walter ‘I-won-my-home-state-of-Minnesota-and-the District-of Columbia’ Mondale 525-13 in 1984.”

With 26 electoral votes (Indiana and North Carolina) still undecided at this point, Obama now has 349 wrapped up, and as CNN notes, has “redrawn the electoral map.” The redrawing, by the way, is something I suggested would be important in my recent book (in which I also suggested that Obama might do well because of similarities to Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan): “The question also remains whether any Democrat from outside the South can win the White House. If so, the party’s next-best option might seem to be still in the Sunbelt region but farther west. A logical choice might be a governor from a state such as Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, California, or even Colorado.”

New Mexico and Colorado went Democratic in this election (as California long has), but I was somewhat surprised that a candidate from the Midwest–though one that managed to draw a heavy Hispanic vote–was the one who turned those states from red to blue. The Midwestern connection also helped Obama win the traditionally red state of Indiana.

More surprising to me was the popular vote margin, with Obama getting 52 percent of the tally at this point. Electoral votes are what count, of course, but a candidate who gets a majority  of the popular vote (something Bill Clinton didn’t do with either of his victories, nor did George W. Bush in 2000) can argue that he has more of a mandate for change. Combined with a heavily Democratic Congress and a nationwide eagerness for change, Obama might actually be able to accomplish some goals.

Perhaps. But I also recognize that Obama is a pragmatic politician, and that perhaps the Democrats have learned from the Republican excesses of 2000-2006. As a result, my fear is that Obama and Congressional Dems will govern so cautiously for the next two years that they keep a majority in 2010–and so cautiously that, because not enough progress will have been achieved, they lose that majority and perhaps the presidency in 2012.

As for the election, some people blame McCain’s margin of defeat on the failing economy, and there’s some truth to that. But Americans realized they had serious economic problems even before the “collapse” of a few weeks ago, and if the economy hadn’t taken center stage, I’m convinced that the fact that the Iraqis want us out of Iraq would have numbed the Iraq War surge argument that McCain kept trying to push.

Some blame the McCain campaign for being too negative, or not negative enough, but he was in a tough spot. Trailing candidates most need to bring down their opponents through negative ads, and Republicans have used those ads to help depress turnout in the past. But in times of trouble the voters like optimists–like Obama, and like Reagan and Clinton before him.

Some blame Sarah Palin, who was badly misused by her GOP handlers and who proved to be at least as big a hindrance as a help. But the fact is that she gave McCain a serious boost when he needed it most (why I and some others recommended her selection before most people had ever heard of her). She probably kept the race from getting away from McCain earlier than it did.

I suspect that we haven’t heard the last of Palin, though I’m not as optimistic as some about her future chances. For one thing, this election seemed to prove that negative campaigning–one of the major jobs of a vice presidential candidate–by a woman is viewed as less acceptable than the same language coming from a man. It’s an old story for strong women: Men are viewed as forceful, while women who do the same thing are viewed as bitchy. Ironically, a woman might have better luck at the top of the ticket than as the VP nominee.

In fact, however, the biggest reasons for the Obama landslide were the incredible 50-state campaign strategy put together by Obama and the oft-maligned Howard Dean, the campaign’s use of the Internet for organizing events and fundraising, and the fact that real problems–problems created and compounded largely by the Bush administration and its Congressional lackeys–made this a year in which Republicans were almost guaranteed to lose.

McCain might have been the only Republican with a chance to win this year, and conditions would have had to be nearly perfect for him to do so. On the plus side, McCain got his Bob Dole moment in the sun (let’s hope he spares us from commercials for erectile dysfunction and Pepsi). It is sad that McCain sunk so low in his negative campaigning, but he gave a gracious and moving concession speech. The national political scene being what it is, he will find his way back into the good graces of the Senate and the national media (unlike “Joe the Turncoat” Lieberman, perhaps–a two-time loser of an “ally” that I predict no presidential candidate from either party will want in the future).

All in all, thank God it’s over. Now Obama’s real work begins, and Iowa can start gearing up for visits by possible 2012 candidates. With any luck, PUMAs, Obama Girl, and Joe the Plumber will fade away. Regardless, the GOP will be back, even if we (and they) don’t yet know when or in what form.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics, Women, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Carbon paper offsets: drilling for logic in energy policy

Posted by James McPherson on September 14, 2008

The idea of more oil drilling has long been popular with oil companies and the lobbiests and members of Congress whom they fund. Lately those self-interested folks have been joined by a skittish populace and even more shaky members of Congress, and unless recent scandals manage to stop it, American’s shores are likely to see more offshore drilling.

Three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Friedman, talking today to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria about his new book, pointed out that calling for more drilling–while chanting “drill baby drill”–would be like calling for more IBM Selectric typewritters and chanting “carbon paper baby carbon paper” at the begining of the computer age. While other countries are going full-bore on new energy technology, Friedman said, the Bush/McCain/Palin folks give that research lip service while falling back on ideas guaranteed to help the United States slide further toward technological irrelevance.

I frequently disagree with Friedman, the author of The World is Flat. He favored the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and I think he sometimes glorifies international trade and the free market too much while downplaying their accompanying problems. He is better at identifying fairly obvious problems, though with well-turned phrases, than at coming up with meaningful solutions. Still, one quote from the new book should give both liberals and conservatives pause, whether they agree with him or not:

America is always at its most powerful and most influential when it is combining innovation and inspiration, wealth-building and dignity building, the quest for big profits and the tackling of big problems. When we do just one, we are less than the sum of our parts. When we do both, we are greater than the sum of our parts–much greater.

I do agree with Friedman later in that first chapter when he writes, “America has shifted from a country that always exported its hopes (and so imported the hopes of millions of others) to one that is seen exporting its fears.”

The book is drawing mixed reviews, and I haven’t read most of it. I probably won’t. For one thing, it appears that much of it has been both obvious and ignored for quite some time.

Besides, even if American leaders buy into Friedman’s premise in a meaningful way, it’s probably too late to make much difference, in terms of avoiding either worldwide catastophic climate change or a dramatic decline in American influence. The first of those is tragic but perhaps inevitable. The second probably wouldn’t be a bad thing at all, based on how we’ve managed that influence in recent years.

I would be more optimistic that we were still capable of greatness as a nation if we chose leaders based on their knowledge and abilities. In that case, the electorate would not now face a choice between an audacious optimist with little meaningful experience on one side and a May-December remix of Bush/Chaney on the other.

Further evidence of a lack of guts or integrity that would be necessary for meaningful change: Palin suddenly forgot to mention nuclear energy when campaigning in Nevada, where the nuclear waste might end up, while new McCain ads aimed at Hispanics lie about the difference between his position on immigration and Barack Obama’s position–and even about the flip-flop immigration position McCain himself “adopted” to appeal to conservatives.

Posted in History, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Straight Talk Express derailed, falls off “bridge” to become mired in mud

Posted by James McPherson on September 13, 2008

It’s an old story, of course: Politicians lie. But usually in presidential campaigns the candidates let their surrogates take on the most egregious fabrications, staying somewhat above the fray themselves. John McCain and Sarah Palin seem to be the exception, cheerily tramping through the mud on their way to a lead in national polls.

The lies range from tales of the infamous “bridge to nowhere” (see video below) to taxes to health care to immigration (bilingual lying!) to sexism to Alaskan oil production to pig lipstick to kindergarten sex education to Cindy McCain’s drug theft problems to even the findings of  FactCheck.org. In the words of the Associated Press’ Charles Babington, “The “Straight Talk Express” has detoured into doublespeak.”

Considering how much admiration I once had for McCain, I am troubled that he has become not just a typical campaigner but even worse than most. The campaign he has chosen to run is costing him other one-time fans, as well, while supporting the latest Obama camp claim that McCain “would rather lose his integrity than lose an election.”

The lying has become so bad that even the women of “The View,” a morning show watched mostly by stay-at-home wives, feel compelled to question McCain about it. His response: Lying, of course. Unfortunately Barbara Walters, long one of the most overrated journalists in America, helped McCain out by following up his lie with a trivial lipstick diversion rather than confronting him with the truth.

I don’t think McCain and Palin can lie their way to the White House. But a part of me fears that too many voters don’t care about the lying even if they recognize it. If those voters happen to help McCain win, they deserve what they get–four more years of Bush Administration nonsensical tough talk and bumbling policy. Unfortunately all of us may get an even more conservative and out-of-touch Supreme Court that will last for a generation.

Same-day update: Apparently the McCain/Palin camp also misrepresented her “world travels,” falsely claiming she has visited Iraq. And in a lengthy story about Palin today, the New York Times reports: “Interviews show that Ms. Palin runs an administration that puts a premium on loyalty and secrecy. The governor and her top officials sometimes use personal e-mail accounts for state business; dozens of e-mail messages obtained by The New York Times show that her staff members studied whether that could allow them to circumvent subpoenas seeking public records. ” She appears, as one of my colleagues noted recently, “Dick Cheney in a dress.”

Next day update: To John McCain–When you’re on the same side as Karl Rove and even he calls you a liar, maybe it’s time to dial it back.

Palin’s bridge to falsehood:

Posted in History, Journalism, Personal, Politics, Video, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Lipstick, pigs, pit bulls & Palin

Posted by James McPherson on September 9, 2008

“John McCain’s campaign mobilized its new ‘Palin Truth Squad’ Tuesday to accuse Barack Obama of comparing McCain’s running mate to a pig, and called on him to apologize.” That’s the first sentence of a ridiculous story that Fox News (surprise!) carried among its lead stories for much of yesterday.

The story is ridiculous because Obama of course never compared Palin to a pig. She has compared herself to a pit bull with lipstick, but let’s hope Obama never agrees with her–otherwise the “Palin Truth Squad” (as if that’s not an oxymoron) will be accusing him of calling her a bitch (you know, a pit bull could be female, and a female dog is …). A Wall Street Journal reporter also falsely asserted that Obama was referring to Palin with the “lipstick” comment.

Even the Fox story goes on to point out that Obama said: “John McCain says he’s about change, too, and so I guess his whole angle is, ‘Watch out George Bush.’ Except for economic policy, health care policy, tax policy, education policy, foreign policy and Karl Rove-style politics … That’s not change. That’s just calling something the same thing, something different … But you know … you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. You know, you can … wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change, it’s still going to stink after eight years.”

So if Obama was calling anyone a pig with lipstick, he was referring to McCain, but actually he was referring more specifically to the Bush policies that McCain supports. You may remember–even if McCain seems to have forgotten, and even if most of the GOP would like to forget–that John “I-was-a-POW” McCain is the one at the head of the Republican ticket. Even Mike Huckabee agrees, much to Sean Hannity’s dismay. (See second video below.)

As the Fox story also points out, the “pig with lipstick” phrase “is common in Washington, D.C.” How common? Well, it turns out that John McCain used exactly the same phrase last October when talking about a health plan proposed by–you guessed it, Hillary Clinton. So should we assume that the McCain camp thinks Obama was referring to Palin because that’s what McCain meant about Clinton?

Furthermore, the term is the title of a book written MORE THAN TWO YEARS AGO by Torie Clarke, one of McCain’s former advisors and a Pentagon communications director–another of those Bush-McCain connections the campaign would now like you to forget. Politicians and others have used the phrase–which also appears overseas–for years. As Politico’s Ben Smith points out, Obama has used it since before 90 percent of Americans ever heard of Palin. Back in April Elizabeth Edwards used the same phrase to criticize McCain’s health care plan.

Fox and other McCainiacs making the charge are making fools of themselves with this issue for a couple of reasons. First, as demonstrated, the phrase is so common as to be a cliche’. Second, isn’t it conservatives who are always whining that liberals are “too sensitive” about language and prone to take things out of context?

With how the selection of Palin has energized the Republican base, it appears that McCain may have managed to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But he obviously still is not very confident, since when it comes to sad and desperate negative campaigning, his campaign is going whole hog. When will the McCain folks start focusing on issues? All together now: When pigs fly.

Below is the video of what Obama actually said, so you can judge it for yourself. And below that is Huckabee’s comment.

Posted in History, Journalism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

McCain camp desperate, silly and sad

Posted by James McPherson on August 24, 2008

Affirming my observations of recent weeks that the John McCain campaign steadily becomes increasingly silly, increasingly desperate, and–despite recent polls–decreasingly likely to win the upcoming presidential election, the campaign is doing what it feels it must to have a prayer of victory.

Previously noted by many is how McCain now panders to the Religious Right figures whom he once termed “agents of intolerance.” At the same time that he engages in increasingly unchristian behavior, even to the point of adding to his own lies by refusing to criticize obvious lies from a man who has been one of McCain’s harshest critics. Nonetheless, his most recent ad must make “straight talk express” fans cringe when they hear the candidate intone, “I’m John McCain and I approved this message.”

This ad (the first clip below) asks why Hillary Clinton isn’t Barack Obama’s choice as running mate, and states that she was kept off the ticket “for telling the truth.” While that message might work with a few PUMAs, it seems likely that even many of them might be turned off by such blatantly pandering on the part of a man who consistently has done little on behalf of women–even if they believe that anyone in the McCain campaign knows the inner workings of their opponent’s operation.

McCain himself, it seems, once would have been embarrassed by such a commercial. Doesn’t he have some other means of attack other than to put his own face and voice in an ad that not only doesn’t say anything about himself or his candidacy but which actually promotes a losing candidate from the opposition party? Of course he obviously likes those folks, since he pals around with two-time loser Joe Lieberman. But isn’t McCain’s new language more befitting of Jon Stewart or bloggers than of a candidate for president? And does his new ad suggest that McCain like to replace sidekick Joe Lieberman with Clinton (a good idea if she’d go for it, but she’s far too smart for that).

One problem, I suppose, is that McCain has relatively few positive options because his own campaign message to voters might be boiled down to: “I was tortured before most of you were born (though if we do the same things now to scary Muslims I would no longer call it torture), I hate war but think we ought to engage in a lot more of it, I’m old, I’m cranky, and I disagree with almost everything else I said a year ago, back when I was still voting in the Senate–so elect me president before I die or before my rich wife leaves me for one of my lobbyist friends.”

Another somewhat silly McCain ad came out on the same day that Barack Obama announced what most followers had considered inevitable for days if not weeks, that Joe Biden would be the Democratic nominee for vice president. That commercial (the second clip below) shows Biden criticizing Obama and complimenting McCain. The only problem with the ad is that it merely reflects the kind of rhetoric that happens in political races all the time–in fact, the third clip below is a version that might be used against McCain if he chooses Mitt Romney to be his running mate. Biden’s rhetoric also reflects the give-and-take nature of the Senate, reflecting why I was somewhat surprised when two Senators won their party’s nominations.

Obviously a current senator will become our next president, while another will go back to serving with Clinton in the Senate. Perhaps that’s why McCain is being so complimentary to her now–he figures she can remind him where things are in the Capitol once he gets back there. 

Posted in Politics, Video, Women | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments »

Out-on-a-limb prediction: Obama will win handily

Posted by James McPherson on August 20, 2008

Is Barack Obama on the ropes? Tonight CNN is running back-to-back programs to “reveal” the candidates, and though I obviously don’t know the entire content of either portrayal, last night’s promos by the network focused heavily on the positive aspects of John McCain (war hero cheating death) and the more negative aspects of Barack Obama (hard-knuckled Chicago pol). The online materials also offer more  (and more positive) portrayals of McCain–perhaps no surprise, since, despite right-wing claims, coverage of Obama has been consistently more negative than that of Obama.

Another minor distraction for the Democrats comes from PUMAs who continue to gain some media attention by attacking Obama and saying they’ll vote for McCain, even though their supposed favored candidate will endorse Obama–again. (One perhaps-interesting side note: PUMA Web sites seem to be far more likely than even hardcore conservative or liberal sites to delete the comments of those who disagree with them, regardless of how polite the disagreement. I suppose that lets them keep things warm and fuzzy inside their bubble as they continue to persuade a few others to fund their merry adventures. My suggested name for the PUMA motorhome: Rocinante).

Now, to the glee of Obama opponents, Zogby reports that for the first time McCain is leading Obama in its national tracking poll. That comes on the heels of some other national tracking polls that indicated the race was getting closer. In short, the Democratic candidate seems to be in a downward slide.

So, which all those factors considered, this seems like a perfect time for me to predict that in November Obama will win the general election by the widest margin seen since at least Bill Clinton’s 379-159 victory over Bob Dole in 1996, and maybe since Ronald Reagan slaughtered Walter “I-won-my-home-state-of-Minnesota-and-the District-of Columbia” Mondale 525-13 in 1984.

At least no one can accuse me of jumping on a bandwagon. And lest you think my prediction is mere wishful thinking, let me explain.

Aside from the fact that Zogby disagrees with virtually every other poll (though others have tightened), and despite what Fox News would have you believe, national polls are meaningless in an environment in which key states, through the Electoral College, will determine the outcome. And even Zogby’s electoral map has Obama leading by a significant margin in electoral votes (273-146, with 119 “too close to call), though John Zogby puts it this way: “For the time being, Obama maintains the edge and has the strength of a majority of electoral votes. … But too many of these states are close and a sizable number are undecided or choosing a third party candidate. So there is a lot of fluidity.”

Ah, fluidity–so perhaps things really are falling apart for Obama? “For the first time since mid-May, Obama is now below the 270 electoral votes needed to win,” VoteFromAbroad.org reports today, while offering its own electoral map. “He is behind in almost all the swing states (Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, and Nevada) and tied in Virginia. He is ahead in Iowa and New Mexico, but these are seem to be fairly solid for him and may not be seen as swing states any more.”

Well, yeah, but… If you look at the map, you’ll see that while Obama is short of the 270 electoral votes needed to win, he still leads 264-261, with a tie in the 13-vote state of Virginia. That’s razor-thin on its face, but look a bit closer and things look even better for Obama. The map breaks states down between strong, weak and “barely” Democratic or Republican states. If we go with just the strong states for each, Obama still only has a three-vote lead, 134-131.

Listed among the VoteFromAbroad “weak” states for Obama are New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Oregon, New Mexico and Iowa, all of which Zogby has more firmly in Obama’s camp. I would be surprised if McCain rebounds enough to win more than one of those. On the other hand, VoteFromAbroad lists only four states as weakly for McCain, and Zogby puts only two of those (West Virginia and Georgia) in McCain’s camp with Missouri and Indiana “too close to call.”

Even if McCain somehow manages to win all four of those and Michigan, Iowa and New Mexico (which I consider extremely unlikely), he gains a total of 66 more electoral votes, compared to 84 more for Obama. The generous-to-McCain running tally: Obama 218, McCain 197.

Turn now to the “barely” Democratic or Republican. VoteFromAbroad lists only New Hampshire and Minnesota (both of which Zogby now has Democratic) as barely for Obama, a total of 14 of “his” votes to lose. On the other hand, McCain’s “barely” numbers total 85, including Colorado (which Zogby has Obama leading) and the big states of Florida and Ohio. In short, of the very close states, with a total of 112 electoral votes, McCain has a lot more to lose–and even with the extremely generous running total above, would have to win 73 more, or almost two-thirds of what’s left.

Incidentally, the polls may have a misleading built-in advantage for McCain. Many surveys rely heavily on phone interviews, which tend to underrepresent college students and techno-savvy people who rely on cell phones and/or computer phone services instead of traditional landlines. Yet those people are the ones who seem to be among Obama’s most enthusiastic supporters. I would not be surprised in this election to see Obama’s numbers underrepresented by 5 percent or more in many polls.

Aside from the polls, which despite my lengthy discussion are fairly meaningless this early in the race, there are other reasons I believe Obama will win by a significant electoral margin. One is the news media. Having been called on their bias, perhaps they’ll start to look more critically at McCain. They’ll also lose interest in PUMAs within days of the Democratic Convention, though who knows what distractions the networks might find next.

Keep in mind that news organizations benefit from a tight battle, and you probably won’t hear any on-air pundits predict anything other than a close election. People watching television up until election day in 1996 probably thought Dole had a chance of winning, even though no close observers would have thought so.

McCain has benefitted in recent days from a flurry of negative campaigning, Russia’s invasion of Georgia, and the fact that Obama has been on vacation. But eventually McCain will have to say something about the economy–supposedly the top priority for voters this year. McCain has been spending more money than Obama during the past couple of weeks, but that will change about a week from now when Obama’s spending will increase dramatically just as McCain is forced to rely on far more limited federal funding. Obama also has been building operations in more states than McCain, putting more states in play. Ask Hillary Clinton if that organization matters.

McCain will keep hitting his supposed strong suit, international affairs, though at some point folks may begin to realize that foreign policy experience matters less when you’ve been wrong about most things and don’t seem to have learned from that experience. In fact, the Iraq War may help Obama. After all, Democrats swept into office two years ago largely because people were tired of the war. Though they may feel betrayed by Congress, they’re no less tired of the war today, and Obama has been a consistent opponent. Voters also are tired of Congressional corruption, and most of that (in recent months) has come from Republicans.

Wedge issues that have brought out large numbers of conservatives in recent presidential elections–especially abortion and gay marriage–will be on far fewer state ballots this year. Besides, it remains to be seen if McCain’s Saddleback Church appearance or his recent coziness with evangelicals has inspired conservatives. Many Republican voters may just stay home, especially since it seems clear that Democrats will gain even more seats in Congress. Someone who knows his or her favorite Congressional candidate is destined to lose may not bother to turn out for McCain.

The conventions and vice presidential choices to come in the next couple of weeks may make some difference, though probably not much (though if McCain chooses Joe Lieberman, that will signify some desperation). If VP choices matter, McCain might have more potential pitfalls, trying to choose someone who won’t offend abortion opponents or the women who make up much of the moderate middle.

So there you have it, my prediction that Obama will win fairly easily. Of course some unforseen October surprise could conceivable swing the election, or perhaps Obama’s masses will fail to show, but I doubt it. And if I’m wrong, you’ll be able to rub it in less than three months from now.

Posted in History, Journalism, Media literacy, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »