The Winston Group is a strategy and research firm dedicated to making ideas matter.

McCain’s Campaign Picks up Big Win During Conventions

by David Winston

Who could blame Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) camp for thinking the Democratic convention would finally end its candidate’s consistent underperformance in the polls? After all, how can you go wrong with a stage right out of a Hollywood back lot and a “green” convention full of Hollywood types for the college crowd? How can you not get a big bounce with the Clintons finally bringing the party together?

Palin’s a Risky Pick, But Could Yield Big Dividends

by David Winston

The post-Palin coverage by many in the media has been a melange of confusion, cynicism, doubt and derision, even going so far as to characterize Sen. John McCain’s vice presidential choice as one of “desperation.”

Choosing to stay with his comrades in a North Vietnam prison and enduring five and a half years of torture, starvation and solitary confinement, the Arizona Republican understands desperate circumstances better than most. Selecting a running mate is a big decision but an act of “desperation” in McCain’s biography of life experiences? Not hardly.

Off-Track Democrats Need a Crucial Convention Boost

by David Winston

Last Saturday in Springfield was a picture-perfect day for the Obama campaign. The selection of Obama’s running mate had been squeezed for every possible drop of anticipation, drama and media frenzy.

All was going according to plan at the convention kickoff rally when presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) inexplicably bungled his introduction of running mate Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.), calling him “the next president.” Taking a cue from his leader, Biden proudly followed suit by referring to Obama as “the next president of the United States, Barack America.”

McCain Needs to Pick VP Nominee Sooner Rather Than Later

by David Winston

Over the weekend, there was public speculation that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) might announce his vice presidential selection on the same day as Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) acceptance speech.

That would be the political equivalent of putting C-SPAN up against the Super Bowl and expecting ratings.

Let’s face it. McCain could parachute into the Broncos’ stadium with his new running mate, and the media would relegate his announcement to “in other political news yesterday.” This trial balloon, if it is a trial balloon, is a nonstarter. (more…)

Obama’s Latest Change: Now It’s Refinement You Can Believe In

by David Winston

A new word entered Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) political vernacular last week. He no longer simply changes his positions when politically convenient or advantageous. No, the oratorical whiz of the 2008 election is now “refining” his policies.

Thanks to the guy who told us “words matter,” issue “refining” as political speak now enters the realm of such classics as “revenue enhancement” (tax increases) and “strategic redeployment” (retreat). If this were just another politician, this kind of behavior would hardly be surprising.

But for the past 18 months, Obama has marketed himself to his supporters, especially his youngest backers, as a new kind of candidate, wrapping himself in “change we can believe in.” (more…)

Without Proper Context, Polls Are Not Very Helpful

by David Winston

Here are a couple of gee whiz facts that, in this age of razor-thin presidential elections, most political observers and pundits seem to have forgotten. In the 1988 presidential contest, Vice President George H.W. Bush defeated former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis by just under 8 points, which produced a staggering 426 electoral votes for the winner.

Although the Democrat at one point led the sitting VP by 17 points, Bush rallied to beat Dukakis by 314 electoral votes. (Dukakis lost one when the Electoral College convened.)

In that election, Bush carried states such as Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Vermont and California. Yes, California. A short four years later, the tide had turned. Bill Clinton won by a margin of 5.6 points and got 370 electoral votes.

In the end, he trounced Bush by 202 votes in the Electoral College, carrying states such as Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana and West Virginia. (more…)

GOP Must Showcase More Ideas, Not More Pork and More Attacks

by David Winston

Once and for all, Congressional Republicans didn’t lose the 2006 elections because of scandal. They got fired because they forgot that the purpose of a political party is to govern, not simply to get re-elected. They forgot that ideas matter.

The “power, pork, and attack” strategy, devised and executed by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) over the course of seven years, did bring scandal with it. But to interpret the 2006 loss as the result of corruption is to miss the greater point.

Simply put, voters sacked the Republicans because they perceived the GOP had done nothing to address voter problems and fundamentally misunderstood their growing concerns with cost-of-living issues. Instead of offering new ideas, Republicans continued negative attacks and tried to “out-Tip” Tip O’Neill when it came to district-by-district pork.

The problem Republicans faced then —and still face today — stems from a lack of substance behind their brand, a reliance on dogmatic ideology to define themselves rather than focusing on finding solutions to larger voter concerns on health care, energy, jobs, housing and security.

The GOP “brand problem” has led voters to believe that Republicans do not care about people, in particular the middle class. House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), whose recent GOP energy proposal is a significant step toward addressing negative voter perception, often says that Republicans have to “earn” their way back to majority status.

What does that mean? It means defining a view of the future that is compelling and possible, not defining one’s opponent. It means defining a Republican Party concerned about people, not one that says problems can’t be solved or it isn’t Washington’s job.

It means applying conservative principles to problems with the kind of intellectual vibrancy that underpinned the Reagan and Gingrich revolutions. That is the challenge facing the party in this historic election. The Republican brand problem is all about defining the future for voters — what a Republican president and Congress can do to help them.

We need a clean break from the politics of the past. We have to break from the party’s image of power for power’s sake, its image of incompetence, of a lack of purpose or caring. To prove that we are the party best able to achieve the lofty goals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we have to create a modern GOP that embraces change.

That doesn’t mean abandoning conservative principles. It does mean, however, rejecting the thinking that got a right-of-center party on the wrong side of a right-of-center country. Data show the GOP label itself is a drag on the party and its candidates at all levels.

In a recent survey, we tested the Democratic message of unity and change to solve problems with a Republican message asserting that Washington is broken and needs fixing to ensure a safer, healthier, more prosperous future.

When the statements were read to voters without partisan attribution, the GOP message won by 12 points. When we attached partisan labels to the very same statements, it lost by 6 points. Clearly, the Republican Party brand is in serious trouble.

Given the products of a political party are its ideas on issues, years of running campaigns that relied on defining Democrats rather than Republican policies have weakened the GOP brand. Survey research over the past four years has shown Democrats with a huge issue-handling advantage on energy, education, health care and Social Security.

What should be even more alarming to Republicans is that research shows voters put more faith in Democrats to be more fiscally responsible and to better handle the economy, jobs and the Iraq War. Republicans hold an advantage on one issue, the war on terror, and they tie on taxes.

How did Republicans dig themselves into this hole? They simply forgot that the broader purpose behind Ronald Reagan’s and Newt Gingrich’s revolutions was to change America through ideas. When a party is more concerned about earmarks, hitting up K Street and attacking the opponent than finding conservative solutions for rising health care costs, falling home prices or high gas prices, voters will perceive its leaders as uncaring and insensitive to their needs.

Yet, despite the 2006 election debacle and despite three special election losses this year in Republican districts, a number of influential party operatives are arguing for more of the same. They advise, “Stick with the status quo; attack your opponent, bring home some bacon to brag about, spend more money. You’ll be fine.” Tell that to the three special election candidates who won’t be joining the House Republican Conference.

While Democrats face the same kind of voter discontent, they remain ahead in national polls because Republicans haven’t broken through as a viable alternative. Contrary to Democratic claims, however, voters haven’t embraced their party’s ideology over the past year. That gives Republicans an opening.

Whether the party can take advantage of the opportunity depends on whether it accepts the premise that ideas will win this election, not money or dogma, and shows that it is ready to govern. That will take a clean break from the past to modernize and create the Republican Party of the future.

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Obama’s Comment on Keating Five Scandal Is ‘Politics as Usual’

by David Winston

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has spent the past 16 months telling the American people that his candidacy and eventual ascension to the presidency will spell the end of the “old politics” of division and rancor. His is a different kind of politics, he says, one that eschews partisan or personal attacks in favor of transformational change and unity.

Yet, in the week that his campaign and its willing followers in the media all but declared Obama the Democratic presidential nominee, his first step toward the general election was to take the low road by raising one of the sorriest episodes in the history of the Democratic Party — the Keating Five scandal of more than 20 years ago.

Introducing Obama at an Oregon town meeting Friday, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) happily did the candidate’s dirty work by lobbing the first cheap shot of the general election campaign. Ridiculing Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) support for less regulation, DeFazio sneered, “I guess maybe for a guy who was up to his neck in the Keating Five and saving[s] and loan scandal, less regulation is better.”

If Obama were sincere in his calls for a new kind of politics, one might have expected him to denounce DeFazio. But when asked about DeFazio’s attack, Obama instead called the Keating Five scandal fair game, saying, “I don’t have any doubt that John McCain’s public record about issues that he’s apologized for and written about is germane to the presidency.” So much for the “new” politics of Barack Obama.

Clearly, DeFazio’s attack and Obama’s reinforcement signaled a calculated decision to use the savings and loan scandal as political ammunition to hit McCain hard as a conventional Washington politician — corrupt and beholden to special interests.

There is just one impediment to the nasty little narrative Obama and DeFazio are trying to peddle: longtime Democratic lawyer Bob Bennett. In November 1989, Bennett was appointed special counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee by then-Chairman Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) and Vice Chairman Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) to investigate the relationship between five Senators and Charles Keating, owner of the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan in California.

Bennett devotes an entire chapter in his new book, “In the Ring,” to the Keating Five scandal; his firsthand account not only clears McCain of wrongdoing, but to this observer, provides evidence of the grossest kind of political manipulation on the part of Senate Democratic leaders at the time.

After months of thorough investigating, Bennett recommended to the committee that no further action be taken against either McCain or then-Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), a result that didn’t go down well with Democrats on the committee. As Bennett puts it in his book, “My recommendation that the only Republican in the group, John McCain, be exonerated caused a big political problem, but my recommendations were based on evidence not politics.”

Bennett lost the fight when Senate Democratic leaders, fearing a political backlash if the bipartisan “Keating Five” became three Democrats, decided to ignore Bennett’s counsel and hold public hearings on all five Senators. Calling this decision “pure politics,” Bennett today says this was “perhaps the first time the recommendation of a special counsel not to charge a Senator was rejected.”

Simply put, Democrats on the Ethics Committee needed a Republican target to ensure the investigation did not become a one-party scandal even if it meant sacrificing John Glenn to do it. Apparently, Democrats were willing to ruin the reputations of two national heroes to protect the Democratic Party’s political fortunes.

The truth, which we can thank Bennett for revealing, is that neither McCain nor Glenn should have been included in the public hearings. This is an astonishing revelation that represents exactly the kind of morally bankrupt politics Barack Obama says he rejects. But his actions of last week call into question his rather insistent and constant claim to the moral high ground in this year’s election.

In choosing to use this issue, Obama made a conscious decision to ignore the Ethics Committee’s final report on the Keating affair in 1991, which concluded that “Senator McCain’s actions were not improper nor attended with gross negligence and did not reach the level of requiring institutional action against him.” Obama also chose to disregard later comments about McCain made by Fred Wertheimer, the head of Common Cause, which filed the original ethics complaint behind the Ethics Committee investigation.

Wertheimer was quoted in a 1999 New York Times article saying, “Senator McCain’s commitment on the issue [campaign finance reform] has been real and deep, and his leadership has been courageous in publicly challenging his own party and Senate colleagues.” Moreover, McCain himself has publicly and painfully accepted responsibility for his handling of the Keating situation.

Yet, Obama, the “new” politician, says this issue is fair game in the general election.

Last week, Mark McKinnon, the McCain campaign’s media strategist, suggested a series of debates and joint town-hall meetings between the two presumptive nominees beginning this summer. When asked about the McCain campaign proposal for these less structured joint appearances, Obama called it “a great idea,” telling reporters he would welcome the “opportunity to debate substantive issues before the voters with John McCain.”

Now we know what the Obama campaign considers a “substantive” issue, and it isn’t positive or “post-partisan.” What DeFazio and Obama did in raising the Keating Five scandal was no different than Senate Democrats’ willingness, almost two decades ago, to sacrifice the good names of two of the nation’s most devoted sons for pure political expediency.

There is nothing new or different in that, and it certainly isn’t what Barack Obama is selling. Instead, he has methodically created a self-serving self-portrait of a different kind of politician, one who will not stoop to the kind of raw campaign tactics that, too often, have marred our elections.

Obama’s actions last week make it increasingly clear his campaign is becoming all too familiar. It’s called politics as usual.

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Hispanic, Asian Vote: A ‘Game Changer’ in California?

by David Winston

(Correction Appended)

It’s been a rough week for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Instead of finally closing the deal on the Democratic presidential nomination, he was soundly defeated by New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Pennsylvania primary.

But more than just losing another major state, his failure to attract blue-collar Democrats has raised doubts about his ability to put together a winning coalition in key big states in November.

If that weren’t enough, Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, also re-emerged this week with defiant and impolitic appearances before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Press Club.

Still, I suspect, his campaign is comforting itself with the notion that at least things can’t get any worse. Except they can get worse — and much worse at that.

For the first time in nearly two decades, California may now be in play for both parties, the Democrats’ worst nightmare.

Unlike Pennsylvania, Ohio and other states where Obama’s weakness with “Reagan Democrats” has kept him from wrapping up the nomination, the Hispanic vote and, to a smaller degree, the Asian vote, could well be his Achilles’ heel in California this November.

Democrats will be quick to discount this notion, rejecting out of hand any possibility that this usually reliable Democratic mega state could end up in the Republican column. But even a basic analysis of primary election and exit poll results shows that Obama may have a Hispanic problem every bit as significant as his working-class disconnect that has been so apparent in recent primaries.

Looking at the overall outcome on Super Tuesday, Clinton won the Hispanic vote by a huge 63-35 percent margin. State by state, the numbers are equally remarkable. In New Mexico, her winning margin with Hispanic voters was 26 points; 38 points in New Jersey; 35 points in California; 47 points in New York; 20 points in Massachusetts; and 14 points in Arizona.

Even in his home state of Illinois, Obama only eked out a 1-point victory over Clinton with Hispanic voters, 50-49 percent. Post Super Tuesday, Clinton won the Hispanic vote in Texas, 66-32 percent and in Maryland, 55-45 percent.

While the Hispanic vote will play a key role in a number of states, none is more important or has more potential to change the outcome of the general election than California. Democrats must win California to win the presidency, and in recent presidential elections, Republicans have all but opted out of playing in the Golden State.

It takes an enormous amount of time and money to campaign in California, and for years, the odds didn’t favor Republicans. In 2000, Gore won the state with 53-42 percent. Kerry also carried California handily with 54-44 percent.

But Obama’s weakness with Hispanic voters could be a game changer in California.

In 2000, Hispanics accounted for 14 percent of the California electorate and 21 percent in 2004. One would expect that percentage to be even higher in 2008.

A more in-depth look into the numbers shows Obama’s usual strength with younger voters doesn’t hold true for young Hispanic voters.

In California, Obama won white voters ages 18-29 by a big margin, 63-32 percent. But Clinton won younger Hispanics, who voted more like Hispanics than young people, with 65-35 percent.

Obama is also at a disadvantage in California because the African-American vote, which now gives him more than 90 percent support in most states, makes up a much smaller part of the overall electorate. In 2006, it accounted for only 5 percent of the vote, 1 point less than the Asian community, which is also not good for Obama.

Clinton won Asian voters in the California primary by a staggering 71-25 percent. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also won the Asian vote easily by 62-37 percent.

Ideology may also be a factor in California. When asked to self-identify in the Democratic primary, white voters broke down 58 percent liberal, 32 percent moderate and 10 percent conservative. But among Hispanics, a much lower 43 percent identified themselves as liberal, 41 percent as moderate and 11 percent as conservative. Among Asians, the breakdown was even more favorable to the GOP, coming in as 34 percent liberal, 55 percent moderate and 11 percent conservative.

Arizona Sen. John McCain may have been at odds with a part of the GOP base on immigration and other issues. But as it turns out, he may be perfectly positioned to take advantage of Obama’s Hispanic problem, not just in California, but in blue states like New Jersey as well.

In 2004, Hispanic voters made up 10 percent of the New Jersey electorate. Kerry won the state with 53 percent, close enough to make New Jersey a target state for Republicans in 2008.

Clinton’s 38-point margin over Obama with Hispanic voters in the New Jersey primary, coupled with McCain’s moderate conservatism, could be a potent prescription for a tight race in November with even small movement in key groups like Hispanics or working-class swing voters.

The media are right to focus on the fissures in Obama’s electoral strategy that fail to address his problems with the kind of working-class voters who swung to Ronald Reagan in 1980. But they need to add Hispanic and even Asian voters to the list of Obama spoilers.

For the McCain campaign, they may have to add “California Here I Come” to music on the bus.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

Correction: April 29, 2008

The column originally misidentified the percentage of Hispanic votes for Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the Illinois primary. Obama had a 1-point victory over Clinton among Hispanic voters, 50 percent to Clinton’s 49 percent.

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Obama Seems to Set His Own Standards for Straight Talk

by David Winston

Last Tuesday, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) appeared on the “Today” show, looked straight into the camera and told Meredith Vieira and millions of viewers a real whopper. All that was missing was the wagging finger.

The morning show anchor raised the issue of New York Times columnist Frank Rich’s scolding of Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for their cynical assertions that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wants to fight the Iraq War for another 100 years. Vieira asked Obama, “Are you willing to admit that you’ve distorted his statements?”

Obama, in the finest “I dare ya” tradition of Gary Hart, responded, “No. That’s not accurate. We can pull up the quotes on YouTube.”

Let’s do that, Senator. In truth, the video of McCain’s comments on the potential for a long commitment of U.S. troops in Iraq is clear. Contrary to Obama’s claims, McCain never advocated for a “100-year war.”

Zachary Roth wrote of Obama’s “stepped up attacks on McCain’s ‘100 years’ notion” in the Columbia Journalism Review: “Obama is seriously misleading voters — if not outright lying to them — about exactly what McCain said.” Similar sentiments have been expressed across the ideological media spectrum from Fox News to the Washington Post to Slate magazine.

The videos on YouTube that ought to really matter to voters are those of Obama that show his willing mischaracterization of McCain’s remarks along with his apologists who, when called upon to explain the boss’s dishonest statements about McCain, simply denied they were ever uttered.

When you know a candidate’s every word is on the Web usually in minutes, that kind of denial takes real chutzpah, and David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign manager, apparently has plenty of it. Two days before Obama’s “Today” appearance, Axelrod told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, “He [Obama] isn’t saying that Sen. McCain has said we would be at war for 100 years.” Really?

Let’s pull up some of Obama’s actual quotes on the matter. “We’re now bogged down in a war that John McCain now suggests might go on for another 100 years,” Obama said during the presidential debate in Cleveland on April 5. “[Sen. McCain] says that he is willing to send our troops into another 100 years of war in Iraq,” he said at a rally in Houston on Feb. 19.

“And when it comes to foreign policy, John McCain says he wants to fight a 100-year war, a 100 years he says, as long as it takes,” Obama said at a rally in Bangor, Maine, on Feb. 9. Those are just three examples.

A similar denial strategy was attempted on the issue of Obama’s pledge last year to accept public financing in the general election. When Obama first publicly supported the notion, he was still an underfunded and underestimated candidate back in the presidential pack. His support of public financing was not only pragmatic, it also played into the image he was trying to create for himself as a “new” kind of politician, a post-partisan candidate unwilling to sell out to moneyed interests.

Last November, in response to a questionnaire from the Midwest Democracy Network asking whether he would agree to “forgo private funding in the general election campaign,” Obama responded with an unambiguous “yes.” He also pledged, “If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.”

Well, McCain agreed; but in February, when asked by The Associated Press about Obama’s stated intention to take public financing, his spokesman Bill Burton said, “There is no pledge.” I suppose it depends on what the meaning of “pledge” is. What really changed over those three months was the size of Obama’s bank account.

Both of these controversies — Obama’s distortion of McCain’s “100 years” statement and his decision to renege on his public financing promise — create a nagging suspicion that the man behind the curtain isn’t quite the wonderful wizard we’ve been led to believe.

Instead, Obama and his campaign are looking all too familiar these days –– typical politicians suffering from a sense of righteous entitlement that they believe gives them permission to depart, on occasion, from the usual political rules. Fudging the facts about what McCain says or doesn’t say is all right because this candidacy operates on a different moral plane.

Breaking a campaign promise is acceptable when the end — Obama’s ascension to the presidency — justifies the means. Until recently, it all seemed to be working for them.

But, as Obama’s stumbles and gaffes have finally begun to get media scrutiny, he and his spokesmen have been forced to take another approach, a kind of “thesaurus” strategy.

Instead of denial, they revise, explain, clarify and refine his statements while maintaining their inherent rightness. His remarks are misunderstood, distorted, misconstrued, mischaracterized, misrepresented or taken out of context by his political opponents or unfriendly media.

Obama certainly didn’t mean his white grandmother was a racist. He really didn’t like Ronald Reagan and those who said he did were just playing a “Washington trick.” Of course, Obama would have left his church had not his pastor retired and acknowledged that his statements “deeply offended people and were inappropriate.” Just for clarification, Jeremiah Wright has made no such public acknowledgement.

His remarks about bitter working-class voters in small towns turning to guns and religion were just a matter of poorly chosen words. He’s very sorry if anyone was offended, but the “underlying truth” of what he said remains.

All candidates say things in error. They misspeak. They get tired. A staffer makes a mistake. It happens, and explanations are sometimes necessary.

But when one sets himself apart as a new kind of leader, above the crass partisan politics of the past, he raises expectations. But instead of meeting them, Obama seems to believe he deserves a standard all his own.

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