Senator John McCain’s campaign should be experiencing a surge in this final week of the campaign, a narrowing of the gap between him and his opponent Senator Barack Obama. In almost every campaign since 1988, except for when Senator Bob Dole lost to President Bill Clinton in 1996, the eventual losers experienced a last minute burst of energy.
In losing campaigns such as Michael Dukakis’s 1988 effort and John Kerry’s 2004 race, a loser’s psychosis set in. Insulated from reality by sycophantic, encouraging aides, surrounded by adoring crowds wherever they went, both Dukakis and Kerry seemed convinced they were going to replicate Harry Truman’s come-from-behind win back in 1948. The result was an energetic, euphoric, sprint toward the finish line that while delusional limited the winner’s margin of victory.
Speaking to Tom Brokaw on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday morning, John McCain seemed to be channeling Dukakis and Kerry. He was not as petulant as Walter Mondale appeared when he lost in 1984. He was not as resigned as Bob Dole was as the 1996 campaign ended. Instead, McCain was confident and ready to fight. Characteristically, his campaign of many strategies introduced yet another approach in the penultimate weekend of the campaign, arguing about the danger of having Democrats dominating both Capitol Hill and the White House. On the campaign trail, McCain has been delighting in the prospect of defying the pundits by winning.
McCain’s confidence is not completely delusional. He knows that Ronald Reagan gained as many as ten points in most polls during the last days of the 1980 campaign, ultimately defeating Jimmy Carter. McCain knows that he has been counted out before, even during the 2008 campaign for the Republican nomination. And McCain sees that, for all the hoopla surrounding Barack Obama, Obama has not quite closed the sale with millions of Americans.
If there is any narrowing in the race between McCain and Obama in these last days or on Election Day, analysts will be quick to cry racism. Pundits will continue the incessant chatter about the “Bradley Effect,” recalling the African-American Mayor of Los Angeles Tom Bradley, who failed to be elected Governor of California despite a lead in the polls. The conventional wisdom attributed the drop to the racism of the voting booths, the fact that many voters told pollsters they would vote for a black but ultimately could not pull the lever for Bradley.
McCain, who has been careful to avoid playing the race card, is banking on other, more benign, factors. The truth is that Barack Obama has not closed the sale because his campaign has been so cautious. Since the convention, Obama has followed a conservative strategy that avoided mistakes but minimized the sparks he generated last spring. Especially since the economic meltdown, Obama has let McCain stumble. During the debates, most people were impressed by Obama’s cool. Still, displaying maturity is not the same thing as convincing the American people. If Obama loses in an upset, the Monday morning quarterbacking should lament his passive, seemingly defensive, campaign rather than Americans’ racism.
If – as the polls seem to suggest – Obama wins, he will have to recall what Ronald Reagan did in 1980. That year, Reagan basically won the election by default – it was an ABC vote, “Anybody But Carter,” the incumbent president. But from the moment Reagan won, he and his aides began speaking about Reagan’s Mandate. By the time Reagan was inaugurated, talk about Reagan’s Mandate had caught on, and Reagan entered office with more power than he deserved based on his Election Day performance.
Barack Obama and his advisers understand the need for his own final surge – and the need to start thinking about an Obama mandate. As the campaign winds down, Obama seems to be returning to the “Yes We Can” spirit of last spring. He has spoken to adoring crowds of as many as 100,000 voters. His campaign spent four million dollars purchasing 30 minutes on CBS, NBC and Fox Wednesday night, for the first prime time candidate’s extended infomercial since Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign. And with an eye on healing the day after, Obama has returned to the unity rhetoric that first catapulted him into the American political stratosphere with his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address.
“In one week, you can put an end to the politics that would divide a nation just to win an election, that tries to pit region against region, city against town and Republican against Democrat, that asks us to fear at a time when we need hope.,” Obama recently proclaimed. “In one week’s time, at this defining moment in history, you can give this country the change we need.”
Some applaud this final week because this seemingly endless campaign is almost over. But the last week of a campaign is often the best week of a campaign. As both candidates make their best efforts to win, we can remember what a privilege it is for citizens in a democracy to choose their leaders freely. Campaigns get passionate, messy, even ugly – as we have seen this fall in the United States and Canada.
But the one prediction we can make with assurance – and with a sense of tremendous satisfaction – is that on Election Day we will hear the sounds of democracy in action – reporters chattering, voters shuffling in line, the click and whir of voting machines. And we should all celebrate that the sounds are in contrast to the sounds of regime change in other parts of the world, which usually include the rumble of tanks and the rat-tat-tat of bullets.
by Gil Troy
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Visiting Scholar affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
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