Why Is Obama Not Pulling Ahead?

The latest Zogby Poll has some interesting shifts in the race. Now, to be fair, Zogby’s polls are not that reliable and it is early in the race, but the poll does fit with other polls showing a softening of the race between McCain and Obama. On average, Obama is ahead, but not nearly as far ahead as he should be.

The conventional narrative is that the GOP brand is in the toilet, McCain is not an attractive candidate, and voters are hungry for “change.” The Democratic base is energized and the Republican base is demoralized. By all accounts, Obama should be beating McCain like a rented mule.

David Brooks hazards an answer: voters don’t know who Obama really is. It’s an interesting theory: Obama has a personal narrative, but it’s a postmodern one. As Brooks mentions, it’s as though he’s been grooming himself for higher office, but not ever really doing the things that are truly necessary. His lack of real experience and his stratospheric rise are connected and prevent him from either gaining or losing too much.

The Huntington Post has a piece that also asks whether Obama’s lack of substance is his Achilles Heel:

Despite the McCain campaign’s effectiveness, however, the best campaign against Barack Obama is not being run by his opponent, but by Barack Obama. It is Obama’s campaign that presents their candidate as an ever-changing work-in-progress. It is his own campaign that occludes our ability to know this man, depicting him as authentic as a pair of designer jeans.

Both analyses hit on something important: Obama is an unknown quantity. During the primaries he ran to the left of Hillary Clinton. Now, understandably, he’s run to the right. With McCain, voters know what they’re getting: he’s shifted his views somewhat (as all politicians do), but he’s done nothing like Obama’s pivots on public financing, FISA, offshore drilling, etc. A careful politician knows how to pivot without flip-flopping. For all of Obama’s personal magnetism, he’s not an experienced candidate.

Surprisingly, I agree with the Huffington Post article. Obama’s campaign is the best packaged and marketed campaign in modern political history. That is also it’s major flaw. The Obama team is in the process of building hype, but pure hype can’t improve a product. The iPhone was hyped, but largely delivered. Snakes on a Plane was the coolest thing ever until it actually came out and people realized it was as horrid as the title made it sound. Right now, the Obama campaign is closer to Snakes on a Plane than the iPhone.

McCain is the anti-candidate. In the end, his model works. Obama will clean up with young voters, liberals, and minorities. But that isn’t enough to win an election, not in an increasingly older country with independent voters who are up for grabs.

Obama has run a fascinating campaign that is well worthy of study and analysis—yet it is definitely underperforming. It isn’t the hype machine, the organization, or the technology that is failing to deliver, but a lack of real substance. Obama can continue to run the campaign he has, but it is the candidate and not the campaign that is causing the problems.