The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Some of the people, some of the time

August 3, 2008


Sixty-nine percent (69%) of voters have seen or heard news coverage of McCain’s ad including Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Just 22% believe the ad was racist. But, most say Obama’s comment about not looking like other Presidents on the dollar bill was racist.

If I understand this correctly–and Rasmussen does not produce numbers, nor the wording of the question, for the second finding–then a majority of the American public is right about McCain’s ad, and wrong about Obama’s comment.

What all of this suggests is that the McCain’s embrace of Rove’s (brilliant) tactics creates real dangers for Obama. They got their behinds handed to them last week: they took the bait, and let the McCain campaign dictate the narrative. Its pretty clear that McCain’s people are going to drive “celebrity” and “messiah/arrogance” narrative relentlessly. The second narrative, I should add, is pretty clever: it simultaneously involves a legitimate attack on Obama’s national-level experience while also involving an implicit (and utterly deniable) attack on Obama’s race. It is a clever bit of code similar to gender-loaded criticisms of Clinton in the media and among some Democrats during the nomination fight.

But Obama obviously can’t complain about any racism, because then he’s “playing the race card” and feeding into stereotypes about angry black men–stereotypes that lie at the heart of some white voters’ uneasiness about him.

And the more Obama tries to rebut these criticisms, the more he reinforces the narrative.

The interesting question, of course, is whether the Obama campaign can go on the attack and ignore the Republican push back when he does so. The Republicans long ago figured out how to ignore the Democrats push back–and even to use it to their advantage. If the Obama campaign thinks they can win without driving up McCain’s negatives–particularly when the McCain campaign is driving up Obama’s negatives–then they’re playing a very risky game indeed.

Caveat: virtually all of the movement we’ve seen across the polls in the last few weeks is within the margin of error. My guess: Obama probably has something along the lines of 44-47% support, while McCain probably has something along the lines of 41-44% right now. For that the matter, the “2% decline” Rasmussen’s found in Democratic affiliation within the last month is indistinguishable from statistical noise.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.