John McCain’s awkward campaign strategy has undermined even his chances to win his home state Arizona by a large margin. For local Democrats, the polls are too good to be true.
Also read France24.com reporter Leela Jacinto's notebook from Chicago.
Less than 36 hours before Election Day, the mood at Barack Obama’s Phoenix headquarters is ebullient. The house, located near the university campus, is too small to hold the dozens of supporters of all ages and colours that volunteer day after day. Newcomers are invited to work the phones sitting on the front lawn. Boxes of fresh tamales and pizzas are passed around while a DJ mixes Obama sound bites with soul and funk music.
Over at the Republicans’ headquarters, on the ground floor of the austere brick office building Senator John McCain uses as his state base, volunteers are showing up too. But despite the kids’ drawings and the handmade motivational posters on the wall, there’s an underlying severity to the place that’s in sharp contrast to the Democrats.
“That’s how we like it to be!” smirks Dave Cieslak, Arizona head of communication for Barack Obama.
McCain-Obama in a toss-up?
Democrats have every reason to smile while Republicans sulk. According to recent local polls, McCain is still ahead in the state that has been his home since he was first elected here to the US House of Representatives in 1982. But his lead is tightening, unlike in previous elections, where he always won with a comfortable margin. One Oct 23-26 Cronkite/Eight poll found that McCain led Obama by two points (46% to 44%), down from the 10-point lead he enjoyed over the summer.
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“At this point, it’s a toss-up,” says Bruce Merrill, the Arizona State University political scientist who conducted the poll. “But it is telling that Obama is 25 points ahead of McCain in his home state of Illinois.” At stake are ten seats at the Electoral College and the political makeup of the Arizona legislature.
The polls keep the media busy, but they have little relevance for the Republicans, says Wes Gullett, a top McCain organiser and close friend of the candidate. “We don’t need to break the trend line. We just have to get the vote out,” he adds. “If we win by one vote, we get the ten electors.”
Unlike neighbouring New Mexico, Arizona was not supposed to be a battle state. If it’s any indication, Obama came only once to Arizona in the whole campaign and this was before the primaries. But buoyed by the polls, the Obama Arizona staff have launched a major last-minute offensive on Arizona’s undecided voters.
Meanwhile, over at McCain’s office, volunteers have been instructed to stick to reaching out to fellow Republicans in New Mexico. The official line: Arizona’s got nothing to fear. Obama’s advantage there is financial rather than numerical.
“The Democrats have overspent us 6 to 1 in Arizona,” says Gullett. “We have raised $10 million to the national campaign. They’ve raised only one million. They’re importing their money to Arizona, we’re exporting ours, we’re even exporting volunteers!”
Not everybody in the Republican ranks seems to subscribe to that strategy. “McCain was forecast to take Arizona by 20%,” says Ron Haney, party chairman in one of Phoenix's key Republican districts who has disagreed on many issues with McCain in the past, primarily on immigration. “Now they probably wish they’d spent more time and resources in Arizona,” he says, adding that it would have paid for the signs and bumper stickers that Haney says are missing in the local campaign.
Economic difficulties and erratic campaigning
The economic crisis significantly altered the dynamic of the campaign in Arizona. Its impact has been particularly devastating in a state whose economy is highly dependent on the real estate market. According to various local and national polls, the crisis gave Obama an edge over McCain. But it may not be enough to explain the Republican’s poor performance in his home state.
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Unlike Obama’s campaign, which has remained steady and focused, McCain’s strategy took a U-turn at the Republican Convention. Picking Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as vice-presidential candidate shifted the campaign target from the Independent and Conservative Democrats to the religious Right. Palin energised the party's rank and file, but she cut him off from the centrist voters that had so far supported him, in Arizona in particular.
“The McCain of 2000 [when McCain lost the Republican primary to George W. Bush], I would have voted for him back then, when he was still the maverick,” says Neil Cannon, now an Obama volunteer. “But these days, he seems to have compromised over almost everything.”
The lesson in the Arizona polls, says Prof. Merrill, could be that American voting behaviours are becoming increasingly homogenous, in spite of each particular state’s political history. “What we see here is Arizonans following the same trend as the rest of the country.” A trend that for now points to Obama.
“So how does it feel to be part of the political process?” a father volunteering for Obama was asking his son after an afternoon of sticking labels on Democratic campaign literature. “All right,” the young boy said. For Democrats, Arizona is back in the game. At least until Tuesday.
Date created : 2008-11-03