Election Day is three weeks away and most polls show Barack Obama with a comfortable lead over John McCain. State polls are also suggesting that Obama could amass more than 350 electoral votes in a Democratic rout. He is saturating the airwaves with advertisements and sending his wife, the Clintons, and the Bidens off on the campaign trail to campaign solo, thus allowing the Obama campaign to cover more ground in less time. The economy has pushed every other political issue to the side and caused states that were once wishful thinking to real possibilities (e.g., North Carolina, Florida, Indiana, and Missouri). While the Obama campaign certainly wishes today were November 3 instead of October 13, they have to be feeling pretty good about their political fortunes.
Optimistically, John McCain claims that despite all this, "we've got them just where we want them." It is unclear if "them" refers to the media, Obama, Democrats, or his Republican skeptics, but it is clear that having been written off before, McCain relishes being the underdog and is bullish about his chances.
However, what McCain doesn't realize is that to an extent larger than he realizes, the economy, the Obama campaign, and the media are not what is hamstringing his candidacy. It's his own campaign. For all the high paid consultants, spokespeople, press secretaries, surrogates, and ad designers, McCain has consistently bungled one of the most basic tenets of effective communication: message consistency.
Message consistency has three components: 1) speaking with one voice, 2) not putting out messages that conflict with each other, and 3) sticking to a single message long enough so that your audience comes to automatically associate the message with your campaign. These three basic tenets comprise not just the foundation of effective political communication, but effective communication in general. Any college journalism student should understand this, which is what makes the McCain campaign's violations of these rules all the more difficult to understand.
Let's examine these three components one at a time.
1. Speak with one voice. Before dispatching any surrogates to engage in battle before the cameras or on the nightly news shows, McCain and his senior staff need to ensure that they know what the message of the day is and that everyone sticks to this message. Unfortunately for McCain, some of his surrogates seem to have a penchant for shooting from the hip and creating new news. While these surrogates may indeed be McCain supporters, they don't seem to be well integrated with his campaign.
The most obvious example of a supporter gone awry is Carly Fiorina. McCain was incensed after Fiorina claimed last month that neither he nor running mate Sarah Palin were qualified to run a corporation. Fiorina was trying to make the point that competence in politics does not necessarily translate into competence in economics:
"It is a fallacy to suggest that the country is like a company. So, of course, to run a business, you have to have a lifetime of experience in business, but that's not what Sarah Palin, John McCain, Joe Biden or Barack Obama are doing."But that didn't matter. Rather than reporting on Fiorina defending McCain's economic policies, the media had a field day with the idea of McCain being trashed by his own campaign staff.
A more recent example of not speaking with one voice concerns the recent McCain campaign leak that they had to "change the subject" from the economy to Obama's character. Who was this McCain official, and why was he or she giving this information to the press? This unauthorized leak only fed into the narrative that McCain had no economic solutions and was out of touch. And if McCain had indeed been planning to pivot from the economy to Obama's character, what good would it do them to give Obama and everyone else advance notice by talking to the press beforehand? This unauthorized disclosure to the press had the whiff of "Okay, I'm going to attack you now! Get ready!" That most definitely was not the message McCain wanted to get out.
2. Don't put out messages that conflict with each other. John McCain himself is guilty of breaking this rule. Who is John McCain? Is he the candidate who wants his supporters to "be respectful" to Obama, or is he the candidate who is going to whip" Obama's "you know what?" Is McCain the candidate who believes Obama is a "decent family man," or is he the candidate whom his running mate says "pals around with terrorists?" Is John McCain the candidate who wants government to "reduce spending" and "get out of the way," or is he the candidate who voted for the recent $700 billion economic relief bill? Is John McCain the candidate who rails against all earmarks, or is he the candidate who voted for $2 million in tax breaks for wooden arrow manufacturers? It seems that McCain is trying to have things both ways.
3. Stick to a single message long enough so that your audience comes to automatically associate the message with your campaign. Barack Obama has done a stellar job of following this rule. Notice that with his campaign, rarely does an interview go by without a mention of the words "change," "judgment," or "Bush." People know that when they are voting for Obama, they are voting for "change." They are voting against McCain because they know he represents "a third Bush term." Now the Obama campaign is pushing the word "erratic," though it is unsure how well that will stick. But the repetition of "change" and the constant linking of McCain to Bush have really helped brand the Obama campaign.
What is McCain's message? What is the McCain "brand?" He has tried several messages, but he keeps minimizing their effectiveness by not repeating them enough or by changing them before voters have a chance to internalize them. To describe himself, McCain has used the following terms: maverick, experience, reform, strength, and country first. Obama simply uses one word: change. To attack Obama, McCain has used the following terms: celebrity, risky, liberal, tax-hiker, naive, and radical. Again, Obama simply uses one word: Bush.
There is simply too much clutter in McCain's message. As a result, it's difficult to pin down exactly how McCain is trying to portray himself. McCain needs to choose a message, any message, and stick with it. If he gives voters an easily digestible encapsulation of his campaign, it will help them better focus on what he has to offer. And in the meantime, he needs to exercise greater control over his campaign and ensure that everyone associated with it, be they surrogates, campaign staff, or even Sarah Palin herself, understand what the message of the day is and stop making news that distracts the media from covering what this message is.
The economy and the Obama campaign may be working against the McCain campaign, and one could argue that the media are working against them as well because of their interest in having the first person of color winning the presidency. But that's no excuse for the McCain campaign to be working against itself.