So why go after Obama on his experience as a community organizer? Why go against what, on its face, is your best interest? Yes, it fires up the Republican partisans, but it also fired Democrats up as well. But the question is, "How did it play among the independents and undecideds?" Here's where we start to answer the why of this particular line of argument. If both Palin and Giuliani look petty in making the argument, this likely backfires with those independents and undecideds. As one of our loyal readers, Rob, pointed out time and again during primary season -- at least in our discussion group meetings here at UGA -- the candidate or candidates perceived as negative lose. It happened to Romney in Iowa against Huckabee and in later primaries against McCain. And it happened to Hillary Clinton in her battle against Barack Obama. If that logic extends to the general election, then Palin, Giuliani and the McCain campaign have fundamentally misread the mood among the electorate. But does that logic extend in this case? During the primaries, the crowd was made up mostly of partisans. The general election brings in a completely new swath of voters or potential voters. I would argue that yes, this segment of the electorate would be turned off by an attack perceived as petty. Partisans already dislike the other side and expect the attacks. But independents and undecideds, while likely expecting the attacks, don't particularly like them. The point is that they may be turned off and have their mind changed. Whereas, with partisans, they'll be turned off but will have already made up their minds anyway.
But the question remains: Why attack Obama's past as a community organizer, especially when that could come back to haunt you and your party among the most crucial portion of the electorate in this election? Well, I think it all depends on this perception of pettiness. And that is affected by who this message was intended for. Yes, there was a lot of "red meat" in both Palin's and Giuliani's speeches last night. That played to the base of the Republican Party. But if we focus on Sarah Palin and the context of not only her but the speech as well, we can begin to see where the GOP was headed last night.
Fire up the base?
Appeal to independents and undecideds?
Huh? Why did you just write all that only to come to that conclusion? Good question. Palin's speech was about her background, her small town background. It was about life as a regular American. Fine, that appeals to independents and undecideds, but how is this attack in any way appealing to those folks? Well, it likely wasn't appealing to all independents and undecideds, but it was targeted at as many of them as the GOP could get to. And much of that is dependent upon how the concept of "community organizer" is defined in people's heads. If you tuned in to the Democratic convention a week ago, you learned about this aspect of Obama's life. In fact, I'm sure that most people could easily parrot the line, "He could have written his ticket to Wall Street but chose to be a community organizer instead," with relative ease -- with as much ease as they could tell you that John McCain voted with George Bush 90% of the time or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, put country first. But even if someone could tell you exactly what a community organizer is based on what they heard last week, I doubt that in most cases it is something most voters can relate to. Folks from urban environs can relate to it, but folks who have a background similar to Sarah Palin's may find it a stretch. So Palin can "get away with it" because she spent the first third of her time last night explaining what her background was and getting people to relate to her and her vantage point. To people in her corner, at least background-wise, community organizer is something of a foreign concept, nevermind the service aspect of it. [Incidentally, coming from Rudy Giuliani, this line of attack is somewhat disingenuous, given his experiences in New York. He likely knows very well what a community organizer is. But he was the keynote speaker. He can fire up the crowd and the base without it being overinterpreted. That's the role of a keynote address...or can be.] Soldier, people get. That's a concept that people can grasp. But community organizer is a concept that is as unknown to people as Sarah Palin was just a week ago.
Now, does that make it okay to attack that experience? I don't know. But does a pretty good job of drawing "community organizer" out as a foreign concept. And once you've accomplished that, mocking becomes a much more palatable enterprise. Granted this interpretation is vulnerable to the "politics of division" rebuttal from the Obama campaign since it cuts across an urban and not urban (I won't say rural because the suburbs and exurbs fall in between and may or may not gravitate toward the argument.) divide. And of course that brings with it some racial undertones that I won't get into here. At the same time, though, it is worth bringing up.
Among persuadables, did this work? Again, I can't say for sure, but it is a clever way to potentially peel off some of them at the margins.
*For the record, I thought Palin was fantastic last night. The bar was lowered due to the firestorm surrounding her because of and since her selection, and that helped, but she did a great job for someone who was thrust into the spotlight only five days earlier. She passed the first test, but she will still have to withstand direct questioning from the media and/or in the debates. For that, stay tuned.
The Electoral College Map (9/3/08)
A Follow Up on the 50% Mark: The View from 2004
Obama Cracks 50% in the Daily Trackers. What Does It Mean?