There is no question that John McCain's pick of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has changed the dynamic of the 2008 Presidential campaign, moved the current wave of polling to the GOP's favor, and altered the terrain the rest of the election will likely be fought on.
The Obama campaign's ability to recognize the shifting ground, understand that it is real, and adjust accordingly will determine the outcome. And the outcome, for the first time, is in doubt.
The Obama campaign went into the Democratic National Convention believing that the race would be fought out on Washington experience and "more of the same" vs. change. This was essentially the same frame of the race the Obama camp had sustained for the first 16 months or so of the nominating fight with New York Senator Hillary Clinton. It worked in the primaries until the Clinton campaign shifted from "35 years of experience" to a much more "woman for change" oriented message in the later stages of the fight and nearly came back to win the nomination.
But the McCain campaign learned something from watching the Democratic primary fight. Throughout the 2008 primary season no matter how many polls said that Hillary Clinton had more experience to be President, no matter how wide her margin over Obama on "ready to be President on day one" it did not matter. Obama and his message of change won.
The Clinton campaign kept seeing in their polling and research that Hillary's experience trumped change and could not understand why she was losing the nomination with her substantial experience advantage.
The hunger for change was that powerful. The hunger for a different kind of post-partisan politics that would shake up Washington was overpowering "experience" and "more of the same."
Now it seems so obvious. It is amazing that so few (including the Obama campaign) saw it coming.
John McCain and his team had to make a decision. Run as the more experienced ticket, and run smack into Barack Obama's trap of change vs. more of the same just as Clinton had. Or pick Sarah Palin and run as the original mavericks that really will shake up Washington.
If you are an advisor to McCain, faced with that choice, you urge McCain to pick Palin.
But now it's the Obama campaign's turn to learn the lesson of the Clinton campaign. The Obama campaign looks at all its polling data and research and in a race between change and four more years of George Bush, change wins big. So it keeps trying to frame the race as four more years of George Bush and more of the same vs. change and cannot understand why it isn't pulling away.
It's not just Palin.
The brilliance of the McCain strategy and messaging is that it includes a trap for Obama. To push back on the McCain claim of "country first" and "the original mavericks who will shake up Washington," the Obama campaign's attack of "four more years of George Bush" becomes a problem. In a country that yearns for post-partisan change the Obama campaign risks sounding too partisan and like more of the same.
It would not surprise me if in one of the debates Obama or Biden uses the "you voted with George Bush and supported him 93% of the time," and it's John McCain that retorts "that's the kind of partisan attack the American people are sick of….".
What worked for Obama is now working for McCain. The important lesson for the Obama campaign is that the Clinton campaign kept looking at its research, kept stressing experience and did not adjust until it was too late. The McCain campaign has not only adjusted to the Obama message, they have changed the terrain.
Now the Obama campaign and its allies need to understand that in arguing that John McCain represents a third term of George Bush and the GOP agenda it is the Obama campaign that risks sounding partisan in a country that yearns for the post-partisanship of "country first" and "shaking things up in Washington."
One last point: Hamilton Jordan, who passed away recently at the age of 63, was among a brilliant group of Democrats who plotted the strategy behind Jimmy Carter's campaign for the White House. Carter was the only true insurgent candidate on the Democratic side to make it to the Presidency in the modern era.
Carter was running against Gerald Ford in 1976. The Watergate babies, a large group of reform minded Democrats, had been swept into office in the change election of 1974. Carter who ran as an outsider throughout the primaries looked like he would beat President Ford, who had pardoned Nixon and was a joke machine for "Saturday Night Live," going away. But Carter won the campaign with just 50.1% of the vote to Ford's 48%.
I remember Hamilton Jordan saying something I will never forget. He said the mistake that had cost Carter his big lead, and nearly cost him the election was that after Carter won the nomination the campaign started to listen too much to Washington Democrats and lost much of its outsider thinking that made it different.
The Obama campaign needs to get back to the basics that got it here. Stop listening to the Democrats who are wringing their hands and fighting the last war.
Clinton adjusted too late. McCain may have adjusted in the nick of time. Will Obama's campaign make the right adjustment now?
Get back to being an outsider. And get there fast.
McCain is the one running against Washington now. Obama can't just run against Bush. That's my take.