Give John McCain one of those word association tests that Carl Jung dreamed up in the middle of the last century and it will pretty much go like this. Cat: “Experience!” Life: “Experience!” Tragedy: “Experience!” Safety pin: “Experience!”
For a guy so bent on assuring us of his corner on the market of experience, McCain doesn’t seem to be making much use of it with his ad campaign. If you run the same word association test on the subject of McCain’s media buys? “Negative!”
But what has this strategy gotten him so far?
A number of pundits this week have made note of a University of Wisconsin study showing that during the week of September 28 through October 4, nearly 100 percent of the McCain campaign’s advertisements were negative, while only 34 percent of Obama’s ads contained a negative tinge. By comparison, in all of 2004 only 64 percent of the Bush campaign’s ads were negative, compared to 34 percent for John Kerry. While it worked for Bush, it is not working at all for McCain.
And while the recent study only tracks ads up until October 4, this week we see a continuation of McCain’s surge in the negative ad war with the “Who Is Barack Obama?” series — the most recent entitled simply “Dangerous.”
Following the bump he got from bringing Sarah Palin to the ticket a few weeks prior, McCain has seen the gap between himself and Barack Obama widen in some polls to as much as nine percent — a number that even prominent Republicans are starting to admit just might be insurmountable. So, why does he keep running the negative ads? Considering Einstein’s definition of insanity as someone trying the same thing again and again and expecting different results, we are left to wonder whether McCain is committing political suicide.
Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from his opponent. Until McCain’s recent surge only 73 percent of his ads were negative, much more in line with Barack Obama, who until of late was running 61 percent negative ads. Given the downward shift in McCain’s polling correlated with the upswing of negative ads, it would seem that voters, exhausted from endless news cycles about the bad economy, have decided they want a little more of the high road as the election enters its final stages.
On a more fundamental basis, McCain’s negative ad blitz makes even less sense when considering whom the candidates are hoping to sway. There is little Obama can do to swing committed McCainites over to his side of the ballot. Likewise, McCain has little chance to win over dyed-in-the-wool Democrats. The target market is the “undecideds,” who at last count make up about 10 percent of the pot.
While their slow migration over to Obama can be attributed to several factors, including the down economy being implicitly tied to Bush and thus McCain, dissatisfaction with Sarah Palin, and McCain’s lackluster performance in the debates, there is good evidence that McCain’s increase in negative ads is, ironically, having a negative effect.
As Obama widens his lead in the polls, the need for the McCain team to put together a solid pitch becomes all the more crucial — especially considering that Obama is spending an average of $6 million more a week on TV advertising than McCain. And word is that the Democrats plan to increase their ad buys by 20 percent a week leading up to the election.
So, the question becomes: Will John McCain put his heralded experience to work, read the writing on the wall, and turn his ad campaign in another direction? Or will all this mud he is slinging in Obama’s direction turn into quicksand — swallowing up any chance he has at the presidency?