Although I loathe sports analogies in politics, this one seems irresistible: For John McCain, the presidential season has four quarters. He will lose the first three. Will he be able to make it up in the fourth?
The first quarter began when the Republican race became a fait accompli and the Democratic battle between Clinton and Obama got more interesting. This started in earnest soon after New Hampshire. Obama took it simply because he has been involved in a more exciting race that garnered constant media attention while McCain and the Republicans became predictable and tedious. With Obama now certain to be the Democratic nominee, the second quarter has begun. Obama has more money, a new gust of wind in his sails, and a cheerleading press corps that will boost him up all summer. Without a real issue or a heavy ad buy, McCain will find it very difficult to penetrate voters consciousness over the summer. He will lose the second quarter.
The third quarter will begin and end with the two conventions, the Democrats in late August and the Republicans in early September. The Democratic convention will be a Hollywood studio boss’s dream, what with Obama’s gorgeous family, the spectacular videos, the unity theme that has been presaged since January, the lineup of celebrities walking the convention floor, Oprah’s opening night speech. Held in Denver — the New West — it will be young, full of Camelot references, and more racially and ethnically diverse than a Benetton commercial.
The Republican Convention, by contrast, will be held in Minneapolis, during the week that the entire country is focused on what time they can leave work Thursday to start Labor Day weekend. The third quarter goes to Obama in a walk.
The fourth quarter, after the conventions, and during the fall debates, is McCain’s only chance. This will be the first time that country really sees the two candidates directly going after one another. It will be the first time McCain will feel he is on a level playing field. The narrative of the first three quarters is the young and new vs. the old and tired. McCain has to reframe the debate around ideas–on Iraq, the economy, bipartisanship, taxes, and experience. No one looks or sounds better in victory than Obama. He is a lot less attractive, as we have now seen, when he is confronted or put on defense. When the country is paying attention in October, McCain will have his chance to knock Obama on his heels.
The meaning of all this: Republicans need to gird themselves for a long summer of horrendous polls and deepening despair. Obama will keep putting points on the board through early September. It will look hopeless. Until the fourth quarter.