Obama has to convince the undecideds

June 29, 2008|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

YORK, Pa. - Barack Obama is on his way to a blowout victory this fall, if you believe recent polls that show him leading John McCain by 15 percentage points.

Big summertime leads in presidential contests have a way of fading, though. Comparisons are already being drawn to 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, who looked like a mortal lock after he bounced, in late July, to a 17-point advantage over George H.W. Bush.

Obama could fall back, too, unless he makes a convincing case to millions of undecided voters who still regard him as a stranger, despite the fact that his name and face are recognized around the world.

His campaign manager says as much, describing this summer as a rerun of 2007, when Obama was introducing himself to activists for the first time.

"In many ways, it feels like, let's say, last July or August in Iowa for us," says David Plouffe. "You look at these voters who are going to decide the election in these battleground states, and they know very little about him."

Obama has been aptly described as elusive. And while a candidate may want to fuzz his image - to gain the widest possible appeal and keep from alienating potential supporters - it is the news media's responsibility to sharpen the picture.

There are more than four months left to finish that job. But voters are complaining that they aren't getting the information they need and that too much time is being spent on trivia.

That criticism is hard to dispute. Many news organizations picked up the revelation, from a Rolling Stone interview, that Obama has about 30 Bob Dylan songs on his iPod, including the entire "Blood on the Tracks" album. His wife's clothing and hairstyle have been dissected at length.

Far less attention has been paid to the lack of new thinking behind his candidacy, which closely tracks liberal Democratic orthodoxy.

Gary Hart, the "new ideas" presidential candidate of the 1980s, recently wrote that Obama, as president, "would have a rare opportunity to define a new Democratic Party." He can either focus on winning the election "to the exclusion of all else" or "use his campaign as a platform for designing a new political cycle and achieve a mandate for starting it."

His advisers say Obama plans to deliver a series of policy speeches over the next few months. But whether he articulates a broad new agenda may depend on how confident he is that he will win.

Plouffe, a cool-headed operator who helped engineer Obama's nomination victory, says he doesn't put much stock in national polls, since a presidential election is a state-by-state battle. Laying out the public version of his campaign's strategy for a room full of reporters, he zeroed in on the most important target for both Obama and McCain.

"The people in the middle - in some cases we're only talking about 6 to 10 percent of the people in a state - they will decide the election," Plouffe says. "Some of these voters just haven't been consuming the political news. ... So we think we have some very, very important foundational work to do" in spreading Obama's message.

He plans to redeploy a large volunteer force, built during the primaries, on a door-to-door persuasion effort organized down to the precinct level.

That personal voter contact, he adds, is "even more important for a candidate like Barack Obama, who people don't have a decades-long relationship with. They're still thirsting for information. They may need reassurance."

In Pennsylvania, one of the most important battleground states, Obama's team might want to knock on the door of Janell Mader, 32, who left her teaching job to raise her young daughter in York. Like millions of Republicans, she has come unmoored from her party and is up for grabs this year.

"For most of my life, my decisions have been made based on morals and family values and that whole belief system that I've had instilled in me since birth," she says. "And now, all of a sudden, our country is turned upside down by all these economic issues that I haven't encountered in my lifetime."

She's considering Obama but wants more information about what he'll do to improve the living standard of families earning less than $100,000 a year.

"I just know 'vote for change.' I don't know what change," she says. "I know there has been a lot of media coverage, but I'm still waiting for the meat of it."

Mader was among a group of 12 voters, none of whom voted for either Obama or McCain in the primary, who met in York last week for a two-hour discussion sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. Their comments ran the gamut, including doubts about Obama's patriotism and whether his election would lead other nations to test the inexperienced president's mettle.

Kimberly Aldinger, 45, of Seven Valleys, a dialysis technician who voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary, is open to Obama but "until I see what he wants to change and how he's going to change it, I am totally undecided."

Sheryl Randol, 51, a single mother of three who works for a pharmaceutical company, wants to see the Iraq war ended but feels that she doesn't know enough about either candidate.

Obama "has to show me that he's got the intelligence and the people around him to make a difference globally," she says. "I want to see concrete plans, not just spin."

Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who moderated the discussion, says Obama needs to put "meat on the bones" for undecided voters like these - not only about who he is but "what he will do and what he stands for." Voters, he adds, have "figured out that they want change. Do they want the Obama change or do they want the McCain change?"

"We look at polls and we look at numbers and we think we've seen the end of this election," he says. But when voters talk, "you really get a sense of just how far from the finish line we are."

paul.west@baltsun.com

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