McCain Strategy Unveiled: Another New Map

The plan is not as innovative as its designers suggest. Obama will be played up as beyond the mainstream and California as seriously in play, both ideas unlikely to rattle the Obama campaign.
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Showcasing its general election strategy, the McCain campaign released data, slides and maps from a recent briefing. The strategy plan now runs basically as a PowerPoint presentation given by Campaign Manager Rick Davis at the McCain website. In addition to basically indicting the Bush Administration ("Today's political environment is among the worst in modern history for Republicans. Voters are frustrated with the current administration. The wrong track numbers for our country are at a historic highpoint."), the material confirms that McCain will portray Obama as "outside the mainstream" and will seek to use his opponent's clear problems in Appalachia (which include Southeastern Ohio and Southwestern Pennsylvania) to take control of the states Democrats have been hoping to contest. The campaign released the following electoral map of the states it believes McCain will be able to strongly contest:

The extent to which both parties believe they will be able to "change the map" this cycle is remarkable, especially when we consider that this was one of Obama's main electability arguments against the more traditional approach of the Clinton campaign. McCain's map is most remarkable in terms of what is left out and the two surprising states that are included. First, notice the exclusion of:

Red states that the Obama campaign is planning on contesting, starting with Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina, in what is an attempt to downplay Obama's competitiveness in traditionally Republican areas. Note how confident McCain sounded today when asked about Virginia's new status as a swing state. "We will win," he insisted.

Florida and West Virginia, traditional swing states which the GOP is a bit more confident of carrying with Obama bearing the Democratic mantle.

Washington and Oregon, traditional swing states which McCain is said to want to compete but which Obama will have an easier time defending than Clinton would have.

New Jersey, Iowa and Minnesota, states in which polls find a tight race and which the GOP is committed to contesting (particularly if McCain chooses Gov. Pawlenty), so I am puzzled as to their exclusion.

The exclusion of Minnesota and Iowa when Michigan is included confirms that MI will be at the center of McCain's campaign and should be considered as one of the most important battles of the campaign, along with PA and OH. Obama could conceivably lose the latter two but get to the White House through a less conventional route, but the loss of all three states would surely be fatal to Democratic hopes.

Furthermore, the exclusion of those two states and of New Jersey's is striking considering the campaign's choice to list California and Connecticut, two states which conventional wisdom (and polls) rate as more safely anchored in the Democratic camp. While the map-changing potential of McCain's appeal to independents is undeniable, it is hard to envision that it could lead the Republican to an upset in the Golden State without first putting him on top in a state like Oregon.

In fact, California's inclusion can be best described as an effort by Republicans to get Democrats worried about the state, forcing them to spend resources defending this must-win state instead of setting their sights in more interesting contests. The GOP sets a similar trap every 4 years, though Democrats rarely fall for the trick; in 2000, Al Gore did not revisit his campaign plans to defend California and it is George Bush who wasted the most time pretending like the contest there was competitive. Expect the McCain campaign to continue making a similar case in the coming months.

Yet, it is most likely that Republicans will have no money to actually contest the state and actually move numbers. This is why McCain has to settle for the minimal strategy of convincing the press that California could swing and thus propagate a narrative that will (the GOP hopes) lead Democrats to panic and play defense. Indeed, Republicans are at a major financial disadvantage this year, and given Obama's financial advantage it would not be that much of an inconvenience for him to drop a few millions in the Golden State to make sure its 55 electoral votes are safely in his column.

In fact, Obama's financial advantage should allow Democrats to play the same trick on Republicans in McCain's must-win states. And since Obama will have plenty of money, he will be able to spend some of it in places like Texas and Arizona to test McCain's vulnerabilities (while the GOP can do little else than leak strategy briefings). If Democrats are successful in moving these races within single-digits, they would tie McCain down to playing defense in states he cannot afford to lose.

Read more at Daniel Nichanian's blog, Campaign Diaries.

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