Analysis: Still Obama

I have said many times since Obama wrapped up the nomination, the narrative of this campaign is big, scary change (Obama) vs. small, cautious change (McCain). But I've never really explained what I mean, so I'll try to do so now in the context of the current state of the race.

Voters want big change right now, but change is risky. They have to measure the extra change they think they'll get from Obama (compared to McCain), and the additional risk that they think they take with Obama (compared with McCain), and decide whether to take the plunge.

There are four factors in that calculation: 1) how much change does Obama represent; 2) how much change does McCain represent; 3) how much risk does Obama represent; and 4) how much risk does McCain represent. The difference between #1 and #2 is the "change gap," to Obama's advantage, and the difference between #3 and #4 is the "risk gap," to McCain's advantage. Obama wants to widen the change gap and narrow the risk gap; McCain wants to do the opposite.

To a great extent, both sides seem to have conceded that factors #1 and #4 are essentially immobile. The perceptions of the vast majority of swing voters is that Obama represents the potential for large, positive change; and the perceptions of the vast majority of those same voters is that they can count on McCain's experience and judgment. Whether either of those assessments is correct, or reasonable based on the evidence, is debatable -- but the perceptions are solidified to the extent that it doesn't much matter.

This means that the size of the "change gap" depends on voters' perception of McCain as a change agent; and the size of the "risk gap" depends on voters' perception of how comfortable they feel with Obama at the helm.

Obama's camp figured that the "change gap" is their easier task -- just hammer away at McCain being four more years of Bush/Republican rule. So, they devoted most of their convention to addressing the "risk gap." They did this by humanizing and normalizing Obama (he's really a regular middle-class family, with cute kids and student loans!), and by getting a long stream of respected, credentialled people to vouch for him.

It worked fairly well. But then, McCain surprised the Dems by taking a huge risk: he put the "risk gap" on the back burner, and bet heavily that he could instead shrink the "change gap."

Oh, sure, they attacked and belittled Obama here and there, but the overwhelming, single takeaway of the week was "McCain=change." McCain's a renegade, a maverick, a restless reformer, a bipartisan. He was vouched for in prime time not by the sober, experienced political/military veterans who could look down upon Obama's naivete, but by Washington outsiders (Governors, Mayors, Hollywood actors), many with little or no foreign policy experience, and by Democrat/Independent Joe Lieberman. And, of course, there was the selection of Sarah Palin.

It was effectively done, and the reams of polling data now flooding us show that McCain has, at least for now, pumped up the public perception of him as a reformer and change agent. Voters now perceive only a slim "change gap" between him and Obama. But the trade-off is that the Republicans didn't build back up the perception of Obama as risky. So, the "risk gap" between the two is also slim. The result: a tie in the polls.

Clearly, McCain has no chance to actually pass Obama on the "change" scale -- voters still see Obama as representing greater change, and change more closely aligned to their own priorities and values. So presumably, McCain's strategy is to eventually segue back to beating up Obama's riskiness, and drive the risk gap back up.

That's going to be hard to do. For one thing, obviously Palin takes some of the inexperience attack off the table. The upcoming debates figure to make Obama seem less risky and more capable, rather than the opposite. Plus, people have already shaken off most of what was supposed to scare them about Obama: they all know about his inexperience, about Rev. Wright, and about his liberal ranking; they've all been warned that he's an out-of-touch elitist snob, a cold-blooded player in dirty Chicago machine politics, and not a patriotic American; they've even been made well aware, despite evidence to the contrary, that he wants to surrender to terrorists, that he's a Muslim, and that he intends to raise everybody's taxes. And pretty much all of them know by now that he's black. And still he's got favorability ratings in the mid- to high-50s, and is in a dead heat immediately on the heels of his opponent's convention. (In a recent North Carolina poll, Obama was within three percentage points even though a large majority believed he would raise their taxes, and well below half could identify his religion as Christian.)

But it seems to me that McCain is definitely vulnerable to attack on the change front. It's a tough sell for him to claim, after a quarter-century in Washington's halls of power, that you are the one to clean up the mess -- even Mitt Romney (when he decided after losing Iowa to suddenly become a change agent) was able to beat McCain in Michigan by saying that you don't get change by sending the same people back to Washington in different seats.

If anyone can pull it off, it's McCain. But ultimately, McCain's economic policies are in fact the same ones that Bush and the Republicans have become well known for. People are going to be endlessly reminded of that over the coming two months.

Meanwhile, the "change" boost McCain is getting from Palin is likely to subside, as the novelty wears off and people get back to focusing on the top of the ticket. And of course it's still very possible that she won't wear well on the national stage -- potentially even driving up McCain's "risk" perception if people start to worry about her becoming President.

On the other hand, it's certainly possible that McCain will shore up his reputation as a change/reform maverick, and build a lead. But I believe it is much more likely that this dead heat is his post-convention bounce, reflecting the temporary narrowing of the "change gap." I expect that gap to widen, and the polls to reflect that -- particularly after the first debate later this month, assuming Obama handles himself well.

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