McCain, Obama & the Pollsters

All this week, we have been looking at the various ways politics has been corrupted by the rise of a professional class of campaign consultants. They view candidates as puppets, the electorate as a market, and politics as an exercise in manipulation. They induce a state of mind in candidates that requires no reflective thought: when faced with a quandary, take a poll or convene a focus group. The good news is that the electorate is smarter than the consultants think they are. The Democrats and Republicans have largely concluded their nominating process. Sometimes, it seemed that the two parties’ candidates were running to lead separate countries: In GOP debates, the focus was on abortion, cutting taxes, and winning the war on terror while in the Democratic debates, health care, the economy, and withdrawing from Iraq topped the agenda. The GOP race featured many winner-take-all primaries that allowed John McCain to wrap up the nomination quickly. The Democrats’ penchant for proportional representation has kept the race going longer, although it is clear now that Obama has won. So, for all these differences, how to explain that both parties have ended up rejecting the more polished, focus group-tested politicians (Clinton and Romney) to embrace the candidates who are known for straight-talk and authenticity? John McCain runs as a war hero, of course. He also runs as a persistent critic of George Bush strategy in Iraq for the first five years and an author of the "surge" that changed the military dynamic on the ground in the past year but, as we saw this week when Gen. Petraeus testified before Congress, has yet to change the political dynamics. McCain also runs as the opponent of earmarks, which is another way of saying an opponent of special interests, even those of his home state. But, more than anything else, McCain runs as a straight-shooter. In fact, the best thing that happened to his once consultant-heavy campaign was its near-death experience last summer. Short of money, most of McCain consultants fled and he re-built his campaign on his own, returning to the straight-talk approach, inviting reporters onto his campaign bus without restrictions, even sometimes being abrasive with a questioner. Voters responded. During debates, Barack Obama tends to pause before answering the question. His brow knits, or he looks into the near-distance. And, then he does something few debaters do: He answers the question he was asked. Sometimes his answers are a bit heady. Indeed, the most critical moment of his campaign – his speech on race after the inflammatory remarks of his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, threatened to derail his campaign – was a study in reasoned, intellectual discourse, the emotional palpable but not highlighted, the invitation delivered to the voter to really think through these issues. "It was amazing," one friend said to me. "He didn’t talk down to the American people." He said we were up to the task of thinking through, and getting past, the racial issues that have divided Americans in the past. The speech was his own, not his speechwriters, too personal to be the work of a twenty-something from Harvard. And, voters responded. Both McCain and Obama employ pollsters. They may or may not use focus groups to try out themes. But, both candidates are also comfortable in their own skin. You can easily imagine both candidates saying to their pollster, "I know the polls favor ’x’ but I still think it is wrong and I can’t go out there and pretend otherwise." In the whirlwind of a campaign, the endless series of holding rooms, recycled air on airplanes and buses, half-eaten meals from the local fast food joint, the myriad of debasing moments alongside the exhilaration of being adored, it is difficult for the human soul to keep itself rooted. In their different ways and with their different biographies, both McCain and Obama are rooted. And, they don’t need a pollster to tell them about their own roots. And, that is good news for America’s democracy. Michael Sean Winters
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10 years 6 months ago
Mr. Winters imagines what McCain and Obama would say to pollsters and he doesn't know whether they use focus groups. Puleese!! Neither man is a straight talker. Both will embrace whatever cause or group will get them what they want. We don't need to imagine that. We know it. Obama didn't walk out of Rev. Wright's church because he didn't have enough guts to do it and McCain is kissing up to all the right wing nuts he scorned 4 years ago, after his defeat! Wake up Mr. Winters. No candidate for the American presidency can be a straight talker. They must be what unthinking Americans want.
10 years 6 months ago
Although I doubt Brack Obama has automaically aleady won nomination by the Democratic party, I think the cogent commentary here on his brilliantly honest and thoughtful response to the Rev. Wright controversy is absolutely right. In my nearly sixty years as a voter, I have never heard an American politician deal so directly, honestly, and without rancor on a situation that was an odds-on possibility for dealing death to his chances. (I've been alive long enough to know it still might). I will vote for him as a Democrat, but also as a Catholic, on the ground of his displayed depth of humanity and wisdom. What else, finally, can we verify as valuable in the man or woman in the White House?
10 years ago
It is commonly noticed that Obama is willing to give voters more details than McCain. The better speech giver in the end is the one that gives us the most information to work with and consider.


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