Posted by Brad @ 3:46 pm on April 18th 2008

McCain Strategy

Two interesting bits this week coming from McCain’s camp, by way of signaling and quietly aligning their strategy for the general election.

The first is how his camp plans to handle the massive money disadvantage they’ll face. As noted before, part of that plan entails crying uncle from the get-go, and opting into public financing. But, news to me, it also involves integrating their campaign into the RNC itself. The RNC, it’s worth noting, is the cash cow of the Republican party (when donors want to give generically to “The Republican Party”, that’s where that money goes), and is the only Republican organization still doing fine on the money front. But, of course, a lot of that money is traditionally channeled down-ticket, identifying races that are suddenly competitive or suddenly under threat and riding in to the rescue. So, leaning on it heavily to finance McCain’s general election campaign is not unproblematic, for two reasons. One, it will come at the direct cost of the Republican party (literally) and soak up resources that might otherwise go to the party itself or down-ticket races, but also, it puts McCain in a very weird situation for him, where his campaign will, in very significant ways, literally in hoc to the Republican party establishment. I suspect how that tension works in practice depends almost entirely on how well McCain is perceived as doing. If he’s doing well, he’ll have an opportunity to make the party come along. If he’s not, they have a leash they can tug anytime they want.

But also weird is the third, and what the campaign admits is a key part, of it’s money-disadvantage-insulating attempt.

McCain will lean heavily on the well-funded Republican National Committee. He will merge key functions of his campaign hierarchy with the RNC while also relying on an unconventional structure of 10 regional campaign mangers.

And finally and perhaps most importantly McCain will rely on free media to an unprecedented degree to get out his message in a fashion that aims to not only minimize his financial disadvantage but also drive a triangulated contrast among himself, the Democratic nominee and President Bush.

McCain, of course, DOES have a fantastic relationship with the press—in some ways even better than Obama’s (who is just outsider and non-traditional enough that I don’t think he engenders the same kind of comfort with the beltway crowd that McCain does). But relying on free media for a significant portion of your advertising—as an explicit part of your budget (or non budget) and official operations—is also amazingly risky. It’s sort of like being in a race against a 70-foot yacht and dumping your sputtering motor and raising the sails instead. Could work fine, and will at least work passably well, so long as the wind stays in your direction. But it shouldn’t be lost on McCain that, for as much as the media kind of like him, it wasn’t very long ago that, in the face of sexier aspects of the primary race, he was essentially left in the dark for the entirety of last summer, in sailing parlance, bobbing uselessly in the middle of the ocean under a sky of dead air.

However, there is an upside to this, from where I’m sitting. If you read the rest of that article, the way in which McCain plans to run against Bush is as much in type as kind. A lot of that free media, he hopes, will come from essentially just throwing the man himself in front of voters and seeing what happens, giving him, again hopefully, the look of a candidate who is not afraid to mingle and even take heat to his face (in stark contrast to, for instance, Bush). But again, the risks inherent in that—particularly given that the RNC may have different ideas as to how “unscripted” or “open” those things are going to be—are apparent.

The second bit of news is also both positive (from where I’m sitting), but not unproblematic. McCain is launching a “Forgotten Parts of America” tour.

WASHINGTON John McCain plans to spend next week reaching out to African-Americans, displaced factory workers and people living in poverty voters not usually associated with the Republican Party.

Starting Monday, the presumptive GOP nominee for president will stop in Alabama’s “Black Belt,” then move on to the struggling steel town of Youngstown, Ohio, and the Appalachian region of Kentucky. The Arizona senator is also trying to make it to New Orleans, which is still recovering from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

“I want to tell people living there that there must not be any forgotten parts of America, any forgotten Americans,” McCain told newspaper editors this week.

What’s weird about that is how explicit they’re being that “forgotten” means “black, poor, unionized”. And, with that, how explicit they’re being that Republicans haven’t given a sh** about those types up until now. But, it’s not like they’re not right on that score.

But it also touches off the age-old debate as to whether it’s better to reach out to new voters, or shore up old ones. This may well just be a marginal trapping meant to give the impression he’s reaching out to new voters (for that free media), or just trying to at least making an attempt at dampening even a little the deficit he’s going to face there, but if it becomes a major thrust of his campaign, that’s an interesting strategy coming off the Rove-Bush years (and style) of doing it.

And, of course, all these things theoretically work in concert (trying new things = free media = less need for institutionalized moneyed expenses), but the tension between them all is such that it could also spin wildly out of control or be effectively grounded before it begins. Reaching out to new voters runs the considerable risk of being smacked down by new voters, which earns negative media, which will get the RNC, co-President of your campaign, the skitters and cause them to reel you in and make you do more anti-abortion fundraisers in Kansas and make more pro-Presidency noises in Washington. Etc. And, what MAKES a lot of that eyebrow-raising to me, is also what would make it seem very risky and even threatening to the institutional Republicans, so if McCain is relying on both bucking conventional Republican ways of doing things, while plopping his campaign on the foundation of the conventional Republican party, that’s a pretty shaky structure.

But there is a positive spin to all this too. McCain will, not being moneyed in the same way, much more able to free-wheel it, which suits him, and perhaps suits us in that he won’t be focus-grouped and Rovianed to death before he gets out of the gate. Focusing on traditionally ignored electorates frees him to both redefine what traditional Republicans can do, as well as gets him past the inherent polarization that only focusing on natural constituencies (and pitting them against the “forgotten” kind) usually entails. By putting himself out there in this way, it also indicates that McCain is not just willing for the tough slog and baptism of fire (rather than just “rah rah” insular rallies and yes-men institutional advice), but he welcomes it.

Of course, if he does all that and fails miserably, or if it goes wildly off the tracks, that could be a redefinition of another kind for the party and future Republicans.

All of this could go a lot of ways—or nowhere—but I’ll give this up; I’m intrigued to see.


  1. So this is where the Project for the New American Century has left Republicans – a party of beggars.

    Perhaps McCaincan bring enlistment forms to these forgotten parts of America so that he may sign people up for service in Iraq, they only “jobs program” he approves of.

    They can only hope they won’t come back in a box.

    And he will be remembering these forgotten regions by promising to bring in new workers to reduce the already low wages they are paid and consume what few public resources are available to them.

    Comment by daveg — 4/18/2008 @ 4:19 pm

  2. It seems to me that, in reaching out to the so called “forgotten Americans”, McCain is not only looking for new voters but reassuring his true base.

    McCain did not get to be the presumptive GOP nominee by relying on the uber conservatives and evangelicals of the Republican party which is one of the reasons that his blatant pandering to said groups these days is so nauseating. McCain gets the Moderates, half the Independents and has even picked off some Conservative Democrats, the people disenchanted by party politics. In showing that he is willing to go out of his way to visit voters traditionally ignored by campaigning Republicans, it sends the message that he is still the John McCain that people voted for. That he’s willing to talk to everyone and anyone, even knowing that he’s not going to be receiving a lot of votes for his efforts reminds his primary voters that he is a different kind of candidate. This is especially important assuming that he’ll be running against Obama, who gets the same kind of disenfranchised voter support.

    In terms of media coverage and advertising, risky, but I think it kind of suits him. I don’t think he’s in any danger of not being covered, although he certainly won’t be able to control the tone of that coverage like he would be able to control the tone of an advertisement. Obama, presumably, will continue to bombard us with ads and the press, again presumably, will turn to McCain for comments on the ads. . . it could work.

    As for the money situation; well, it does have the appearance of making him more beholden to the RNC and, by extension, the GOP. That’s going to be an interesting power struggle to watch. I don’t see where he has a choice because the money is simply not there for him. His support from the Republican stalwarts is grudging. For them, voting for McCain is akin to voting for the lesser of two evils rather than from any sense of loyalty to the man himself. They’ll have a much harder time saying no to their RNC buddies when they come looking for money then they do saying no to John McCain.

    Comment by Liz — 4/18/2008 @ 7:04 pm

  3. McCain has spent years chatting to journalists and making himself available to answer their questions, etc. Seems like an even better strategy now that he’s getting battered by the Dem fundraising (and he has already used free media really well this campaign).

    As for ‘crying uncle’, did he not always say he would take matching funds from way back when?

    Comment by Adam — 4/18/2008 @ 7:43 pm

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