Can McCain Remain Competitive?

If money is the mother's milk of politics, then Senator John McCain seems intent on going on a hunger strike. 

Barack Obama has proved to be the most effective fund-raiser in the history of American politics, at a time when McCain seems to be doing all he can to make sure that he cannot raise enough in campaign contributions to stay competitive.

If Senator McCain fails in his bid for the presidency, more than any other candidate in recent memory he will well and truly have been hoist on his own petard.  His McCain-Feingold law deprives him of the resources he might raise from well-heeled individual donors -- including his remarkably wealthy wife, Cindy, who is as incapable today as Theresa Heinz Kerry had been four years ago of financially supporting her candidate husband.  However, it's not too late for Senator McCain to recognize what he's done to himself, as well as how he can turn this around.

Because of restrictions placed on fundraising by the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform bill became law, big donors are dramatically limited.  This, in turn, puts a premium on the quantity of donors, rather than the size of  each donation, and elevates the importance for each candidate of continuing to court their ideological core, who are the most likely donors.  Senator Obama has done an exceptional job of capturing the zeitgeist of the Democratic Party's left and many youths, and millions have opened their wallets. Small donors outweigh  those who max out.

About 45% of the $265 million Mr. Obama has raised came from donations of $200 or less, but a third came from contributions of $2,300 or more.

The Hill reports that Senator Obama may raise as much as $100 million in June alone. The sheer volume of those donations has created a tidal-wave of political mother's milk, with spillage onto other Democratic Party candidates.  Small donors can make multiple contributions, and with 4 and half months to the election, this motivated group will continue to give.

On the other hand, with the sole exception of his stirring and persuasive CPAC speech in early February, Senator McCain has adopted a strategy of running away from his conservative base in an effort to attract moderate and independent voters.  While that strategy may work in attracting voters, it has so far proved to be a dismal failure as a foundation for successful fund-raising.

Since his speech at CPAC in early February, where McCain made a seemingly effective effort to paint himself as a conservative, he has done nothing to reach out to his Conservative base, and many things to alienate it.  While McCain may be right that it will be independent voters who will put him over the top in November, few Independents will donate to his campaign.  Donations are the realm of the motivated true-believers, and McCain has intentionally alienated those of the GOP (figuring that, in November, they'll have nowhere else to go). 

That could be his fatal mistake.  That may explain why, a non-profit campaign financing watchdog group, reports that while Senator Obama has raised more than $272 million as of June 9, 2008, Senator McCain has raised just $106 million dollars -- barely 39% of the amount raised by his opponent.

Traditionally (i.e., in the campaigns since Reagan defeated Carter in 1980) Republicans have always out-fund-raised the Democrats. They did this primarily because they were able to motivate their passionate Conservative base, people ready to put their money where their mouth is.  But this base has been largely turned off by maverick McCain's consistent Bush-bashing, along with his crossing the aisle support of issues dear to the hearts of Liberals. At a time when he desperately needs the passionate support of the Conservative base, Senator McCain has been so busy proving that he's not running for "Bush's Third Term" that he's starving his campaign of donations -- the money he needs to stay competitive.

McCain must turn this situation around, remaining competitive among moderate and independent voters, while appealing directly to his Conservative base. He needs to give Conservatives solid and affirmative reasons to contribute to his campaign., volunteer, and turn out to vote, while not alienating centrists. He needs to campaign on issues that put the left on the defensive. Three examples:

Judges: McCain could campaign on his pledge to appoint Supreme Court and Appellate justices who will interpret the Constitution, rather than rewriting it and publicly provide Conservatives a short-list of the kinds of people he'd appoint. Enforcing the law as written has gut level appeal to the base, and it makes sense to most people not on the left. He could supply  a list of about a dozen rock-solid judges who are not partisan and not prone to legislating from the bench.

Missile Defense: McCain could campaign on expanding and energizing the development of the missile defense shield.  With Korea having  operational medium-range nuclear missiles, and with Iran developing medium-range missiles and nukes and proclaiming Israel a goner, Senator McCain could commit to implementing a missile defense shield that will protect the US, our European allies and Israel from premeditated covert nuclear attack. 

Small Government: McCain sells himself as a fiscal conservative, and is positioned to appeal to centrists sick of taxes and stories of wasteful spending. But he rarely sells himself as an advocate of small government. This is a core value with crossover appeal.

Ned Barnett is a political strategist and the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications in Las Vegas, Nevada, and writes a regular column on crisis PR for the International Association of Business Communicators.