McCain's Big Invisible Advantage

John McCain stands to benefit as a little-noted but significant change takes place in the way the American public forms its political preferences. Quite simply put, every four years, sometime between Labor Day and the end of the World Series, most of the American public starts paying attention to politics.

Politicians, activists, political junkies and journalists hate to admit it, but most people pay very little attention to politics, except for a month or so every four years. The political bickering among the cognoscenti is of no concern to the vast bulk of American humanity. What little they do know about politics is the product of headlines, photographs, TV news clips half-heard, and other fragmentary data, amounting to nothing more than background noise in their lives.

The overwhelmingly liberal media exercise their power in both blatant and subtle ways to convey a warm and fuzzy impression of Democrats. Photo editors at daily newspapers play a key role, selecting scowling pictures of Republicans and smiling pictures of Democrats, for instance. All of the television news outlets except Fox look for sound bites and visuals to reinforce a positive impression of Democrats whenever possible, and portray Republicans as mean, bigoted, white, male, awkward and stupid.

Only talk radio, among all media, favors conservatism. With its long form interactive discussions, talk radio allows ideas to be tested, illustrated, and critiqued. Thus, Democrats have not had much success with it and have, in fact, mostly invested their hope in demonizing talk radio to those who don't listen to it.

The Democrats know very well that their strength lies in voters' feelings rather than analysis, and so they choose slogans and labels aimed at creating fear of 'mean-spirited' Republicans or 'domestic spying' on ordinary Americans, and avoid directly addressing specifics of policies. They create positive images of the government "taking care of people,"  and, above all, reject close examination of the outcomes which could be expected given the realities of human nature. The very format of most television, with no room for rational back-and-forth discussion or critical analysis, enables the flinging of labels.

Republican conservatives have generally been far less sophisticated at this game. By its very nature, conservatism is based on reflection and a due regard for the complexities of change and the flawed nature of the human creature.

As a result, Democrats and their allies have paid close attention to image management, and with the help of their friends in the entertainment industry, they have become extraordinarily skilled at it. In many ways, Barack Obama's candidacy, built mostly on image, and employing more expensive and large scale theatrics (a political rally with a location shoot in Berlin and 200,000 extras would make Cecil B. DeMille green with envy), is the apotheosis of this image strategy of political persuasion.

So, for conservatives and Republicans, forcing people to pay attention has become the key factor for political success. It is not easy, though. Most people regard politicians with suspicion, and would much rather follow the playoffs in college or professional sports, the love lives of celebrities, or the doings of friends and relatives than political discourse. "Leave us alone" is a familiar feeling, even for conservatives confronting politics.

However, when American politics enters what I earlier called attention season, Americans un-obsessed with politics begin to pay attention to actual arguments made by the candidates. When there is an atmosphere of crisis, and voters have reason to believe their personal welfare and safety may be at risk, they ponder whom to believe, and talk about politics with others.

This radically different and comparatively infrequent mode of mass opinion formulation tends to favor Republicans in general, and John McCain in particular, this election season. His choice of plain-speaking Sarah Palin plays directly into the requirement of reaching people who haven't already made up their minds, who are bored with politics normally, and who decide that they had better make up their mind who is telling the truth and who is blowing smoke, whose policies make sense, and whose don't.

Obama's theatricality has already damaged his credibility with voters, starting with the failure of the expensive overseas tour culminating with the Berlin rally to help him in the polls. The Styrofoam Greek pillars of Invesco Field have now entered the realm of political legend, the butt of a joke at the most remarkable political speech in recent memory, one that sparked the massive turnaround in the fortunes of the two campaigns.

The emergence of an economic crisis only amplifies the quadrennial change in the public's mode of attention. If McCain/Palin are able to grab the initiative and convince the public that Clinton-era regulatory changes, including "anti-redlining" measures, are at the root of the current economic trouble, it can be turned to their advantage, despite the conventional wisdom  about economic conditions and the incumbent party. The involvement of leading Democrats and Obama advisors in Fannie and Freddie helps McCain enormously, if he takes what has been set on his plate and makes a feast of it.

For their part, the Democrats are already arguing that unbridled capitalism is at fault, and besides everyone knows the Republicans are the party of Big Business, and that Bush = McCain. This is an image strategy, which often works when people aren't paying close attention, and also when the other side's argument cannot be heard.

Finally, the media's accelerating loss of credibility, exacerbated by the treatment accorded Sarah Palin, has engendered a level of public skepticism toward the media in even those paying little attention to politics. This factor also diminishes what is normally a slam dunk advantage for the Democrats.

If both Obama and McCain play to their strengths, as should be anticipated, McCain will do even better than expected in the remaining 7 weeks of the campaign.

Note: my thanks to
Bookworm, who suggested that I revisit ideas in this earlier article, from which parts of this essay have been taken.

Thomas Lifson is editor and publisher of American Thinker.
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