August 23, 2008

Can Joe Biden Help Obama Regain the Lead?

After the American Century

Obama has chosen Joe Biden, Senator from Delaware since 1972 as his running mate. Biden has long chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (when the Democrats had a majority in that chamber) and his extensive experience there shores up one of Obama's weak points. The choice underscores the historical fact that vice-presidents often are not selected based on their ability to deliver a particular state. Delaware is one of the smallest states in the nation, and with only three electoral votes is not an important prize in itself. More important is Biden's mix of experience, feisty energy, and extensive Washington connections that will make him an engaging contrast to Obama.

Biden can emphasize that he is a Catholic, born in the working-class town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. The over-riding question is whether he can inspire working-class voters who have been reluctant to support Obama. During the past month he has fallen in the polls against McCain, who might win a close election were it held today. The many polls tracked by RealClearPolitics collectively show that a month of negative campaigning led by Karl Rove trainees, has taken its toll on the Illinois senator. To some extent McCain has also risen in the polls, but a considerable number of voters, at least 15%, remain undecided. Negative campaigning has created some of that indecision.

In the last week Obama has begun to hit back, with his own negative advertisements. And so the downward spiral accelerates, propelling this campagin, like all others in recent memory, down the low road of attacking character rather than debating policies. McCain has accused Obama of being unpatriotic, inexperienced, and elitist, to make a short list. Obama is now replying that McCain is too wealthy and out of touch to understand the economy or the problems of ordinary Americans. The Arizona Senator provided grist for this mill when he could not tell a reporter how many houses he has. A man who is not certain how many houses he owns (seven) the argument goes, does not deserve to sit in the White House. Certainly, he is in a far different position than 99% of the public.

Obama has tried to keep to the high road in his national campaign advertisements, reserving the negative advertisements for particular state races. There is no need to parade negativity in places where he is comfortably ahead, like California or New York. If his strategy works, it will present him as an idealist who would rather not get down in the mud, but will fight there if that is the ground staked out by McCain's Rove-inspired campaign.

The danger with negative campaigning remains that in the end both candidates will only look bad to the voters. Perhaps the addition of Joe Biden will move Obama in another direction, quite familiar from previous races, where the vice-presidential nominee goes on the attack while the presidential candidate tries to stand above the fray.

Meanwhile, the press seems to agree that McCain has not yet decided on a running-mate, but that he is seriously considering three governors: Tom Pawlenty of Minnesota, Charlie Crist of Florida, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Many other names have been discussed, however, perhaps the most interesting being Condolezza Rice - who could suddenly give him traction with both Black and women voters.

With the race a statistical dead-heat, the coming two weeks of conventions may prove crucial to the public's perception of both candidates, and to the result on election day.