The Panic Room: What's With McCain's Pennsylvania Gambit?

By Al Giordano

John King at CNN reported yesterday afternoon that the McCain campaign has all but pulled out of Colorado.

Jonathan Martin at Politico then quoted the Republican presidential candidate's advisors insisting that it's not the case, that they're still on the airwaves to the tune of half-a-million dollars a week there.

(And, after all, wasn't that Governor Palin campaigning in Colorado Springs, Grand Junction and Loveland just yesterday?)

True or false, the McCain camp has to push back and deny it, or face a backlash - as it did when word leaked out it had abandoned Michigan - from local GOP leaders and voters, making defeat in that state a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Colorado, of late, has consistently been among the top three "tipping point" states listed by 538 based on the results of 10,000 scenarios being hashed by computers and analyzed by Nate Silver. So what's the deal?

First of all, any strategy leaked or pried from the McCain campaign is suspect because its strategy keeps changing. Suspending one's campaign in Colorado may just indicate another erratic mood swing - like last month's announced "suspension" of the entire campaign and the first debate, which never really came to pass - to be flirted with only to fickly go on to the next new "strategy" a couple days later. Strategic flailing seems to be the norm at this point (and it has poisoned the "maverick" message because people start to observe that, in this case, maverick equals an unsteady hand in the face of adversity, or, "maverick = flake").

But here's what I think is going on at McCain strategy central: They're getting tired of the daily drumbeat on cable TV news and by newspaper pundits that says things like, "here are the six or seven swing states, all of them voted for Bush in 2004, Obama is winning or tied in most of them, and for McCain to win he has to run the table, taking every single one of them or it's over."

That message - that there is only one narrow Electoral College path to victory for McCain, while there are multiple ones for Obama - has cast a deathly spell over the GOP base's enthusiasm, which is now being reflected in paltry early voting numbers by Republican voters, especially in Nevada and North Carolina. And so they're trying to offer the faithful a belief in the suggestion that McCain, too, has multiple paths to win.

The senior staff seems to think it has convinced McCain to drop his reluctance to play the race card, with trial balloons afloatin' that Obama's ex-reverend will get an encore in the coming days in negative ads and such.

And if they're really going to go there - to try to make the campaign about race and, specifically, some white people's fears of pigmentation - then it would make total sense for McCain to temporarily ignore Colorado, where that message ain't gonna hunt, and shift focus to Appalachia and the South: Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio and, yes, Pennsylvania and even Florida being the swing states where racially charged politics have sometimes, in the past, worked for the Republicans, or, in Appalachia, where they worked for the Clintons during the primaries.

Here's the McCain map that such a strategy would try to create:

That would give McCain 286 Electoral Votes to 252 for Obama... and the presidency.

And it the scenario includes some padding, in that it allows Obama to win one of the states in play without winning the Electoral College. For example, if Obama were to win Virginia's 13 Electoral Votes but McCain took the rest of the "red" states in play, that would bring Obama only to 265 - five EVs short of the 270 needed for victory.

However, those five votes are there for Obama, waiting for the end of Election Night when Nevada comes rolling in: because if McCain is really going to try to make the final stretch of this campaign an orgy of race-baiting and code-speak, that's just going to piss off enough voters in the West (and as we mentioned yesterday, new voter registration and early voting in Nevada makes it more likely an Obama state).

But let's say that happens, that McCain pulls off the upset in Pennsylvania but Obama takes Virginia and Nevada - it's then Obama 270 to 268 for McCain, right? Not so fast: What if McCain then wins Maine's Second Congressional District? I've argued all summer and fall that it's possible. Then you have a 269 to 269 tie in the Electoral College:

The US House - with each state's delegation having a single vote - would then pick the president and the new Senate would pick the veep: a scenario that invites chaos and would make it substantially more difficult for a President Obama to govern if he were to be chosen by the Congress instead of by the people. I can just imagine Schmidt and Davis and the rest of the wiseguys at Camp McCain sneering with delight at such a scenario: well, we couldn't win, but we sure did screw them for governing!

Of course, McCain would still have to win Pennsylvania (and Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Missouri and Indiana, each and every one) to accomplish that. (Or somehow pull off a victory in New Hampshire - a dangerous state for either side to take for granted, as we saw last January - which would provide a couple more "tie" scenarios in the Electoral College.)

But here's what the McCain campaign might be up to: It may be trying to create an undue focus on Pennsylvania, as if it is the most important state, more like a primary, putting the spotlight of the national media upon it. There, particularly in the western part of the state, you have those voters Jack Murtha called "racist" and "elderly" (a gaffe is often a gaffe because it suggests an uncomfortable or taboo truth), but also in places like Northern Philadelphia and Bensalem, where McCain was this morning.

Basically, McCain will try to relive the April 22 Democratic Primary in Pennsylvania: a reappearance by Rev. Wright and Obama's "bitter" comments in paid TV ads combined with a tightening of poll numbers (Obama is unlikely to remain at the 15.3 percent lead that he enjoys in the average, so it will tighten up even without a push by McCain.)

So here is the narrative that McCain will try to compose: His folks have leaked to the media that they're abandoning Colorado (while not abandoning it) and putting all the chips down on Pennsylvania. He and Palin will barnstorm the state while some 527 group puts a Rev. Wright "god damn America" ad on the air and the polling numbers will begin to close, if even just a little bit, providing the media with a red meat storyline that the descent into nasty is "working" in PA.

That scenario - while it still might not mean that McCain wins Pennsylvania - would galvanize morale among his troops nationwide, including in places like Colorado (and perhaps even Minnesota and Wisconsin).

It would be very similar to how McCain skipped the Iowa caucuses - letting Huckabee beat Romney up there - and focused on the New Hampshire primary five days later.

It's a risky strategy (to which Rudy Giuliani - who skipped Iowa and New Hampshire to put all his cards on Florida - can attest), because it relies on generating some buzz that McCain would be closing in on a possible victory in Pennsylvania. But there are enough gullible and insincere political reporters out there in need of a storyline, and Ron Fournier - McCain's pro-bono-almost "senior advisor" at Associated Press - could still be brought up from the bench to apply his signature racial arson to the circus.

On the other hand, such a scenario would invite an equal and opposite reaction from Obama supporters: If they became convinced that Pennsylvania was in danger of going "red," you'd see the "flake rate" lessen very quickly and busloads of supporters from NY, NJ and MD flock into the Keystone State to staff the trenches.

The other thing that I'm sure the McCain strategists are banking on is a repeat of what happened regarding polling in 2004, where, particularly East of and along the Mississippi, Bush overperformed polling results. Dkos diarist ystasino did a nice recap of this factor the other day:

The Republican ticket in 2004 overperformed the final two-week polling average by 3.68 percent in Florida, 2.25 percent in Virginia, 1.53 percent in Ohio, and two percent in Missouri, whereas Kerry, the Democrat, overperformed the polling average by 2.89 in Nevada, 0.7 in Colorado and 0.49 in New Mexico.

What power, if any, do you, as a rank and file person, have over this scenario? The answer is simple: That narrative depends on your panic and the reappearance of Chicken Little-ism on the Obama side of the barricades, and on his troops taking the election for granted and not redoubling efforts for the final push, particularly in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri, Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Indiana, and, yes, even in Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Maine's Second CD.

In other words, the gambit may get some media traction, but it can't work unless it instills panic and anger (over the heightened racial arson to be attempted) in Obama's supporters in a way that knocks the field organization off it's game. It can only work if you fall for it and become its unwitting dupe and participant.


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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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