McCain vs. McCain Supporters

For those injected with the 2008 presidential madness, the pressure is beginning to rise and the End of Days is approaching. With each passing day, you probably look at the polls to see how your candidate is doing. Polls are a crap-shoot, especially a few weeks before the election. It is not difficult to see that, taking into account Reagan’s surge in the few days of 1980, or George W. Bush’s final push in 2004. Nevertheless, when your candidate’s down in the polls, its hard not to chew off your lower lip. For the time being, McCain is down in the polls and his supporters are getting quite upset– while neo-conservatives are getting irate.

On October 7 in New Mexico, a man screamed “Terrorist!” in reference to Barack Obama at a a McCain rally. On October 9 in a Republican rally in Pennsylvania, a woman yelled, “He’s a damn liar! Get him. He’s bad for our country.” On October 9 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, people shouted “Nobama” and “Socialist” at the mention of the Democratic presidential nominee.

McCain has been trailing Obama in the polls since the economic meltdown began (characterized by a cry for a $700 billion dollar rescue mission for Wall Street and one of the largest bank failures since the Great Depression with Washington Mutual). Real Clear Politics has Obama with a 7.2% lead in national polls, a margin that has widened in the last two weeks. Candidates cannot control their surrogates, and they most certainly cannot control their supporters. Unfortunately, McCain’s most recent energies have been spent trying to minimize the blowback of his ill-tempered supporters, many of whom have turned to character attacks and old slogans of defamation in order to express themselves.

If you don’t want to take my word at it, take McCain’s at a town hall in Lakeville, Minnesota. According to Philip Elliott and Beth Fouhy of the Associated Press, October 10, 2008:

The anger is getting raw at Republican rallies and John McCain is acting to tamp it down. McCain was booed by his own supporters Friday when, in an abrupt switch from raising questions about Barack Obama’s character, he described the Democrat as a “decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States.”

A sense of grievance spilling into rage has gripped some GOP events this week as McCain supporters see his presidential campaign lag against Obama. Some in the audience are making it personal, against the Democrat. Shouts of “traitor,” “terrorist,” “treason,” “liar,” and even “off with his head” have rung from the crowd at McCain and Sarah Palin rallies, and gone unchallenged by them.

McCain changed his tone Friday when supporters at a town hall pressed him to be rougher on Obama. A voter said, “The people here in Minnesota want to see a real fight.” Another said Obama would lead the U.S. into socialism. Another said he did not want his unborn child raised in a country led by Obama.

“If you want a fight, we will fight,” McCain said. “But we will be respectful. I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments.” When people booed, he cut them off.

“I don’t mean that has to reduce your ferocity,” he said. “I just mean to say you have to be respectful.”

Both McCain and Obama have been judged by politicians across the spectrum as decent, respectful choices for their respective Parties. While Obama and McCain have pledged to keep their contest about policies and issues, McCain supporters are pushing McCain to join them in ad hominen attacks.

“I don’t trust Obama,” a woman said. “I have read about him. He’s an Arab.”

McCain shook his head in disagreement, and said:

“No, ma’am. He’s a decent, family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with (him) on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign is all about.”

McCain’s refusal to defame Obama has also put him at odds with his running mate, Sarah Palin. According to the Sunday Times, he has become alarmed at Palin’s furious attacks against Barack Obama, in which cries of “terrorist” and “kill him” have accompanied the tirades by the governor of Alaska against the Democratic nominee at Republican rallies.

Bill Bishop of Slate.com chalks up the anger and mounting irrationalism as typical psychological behavior.

Social psychologists have conducted scores of these “group polarization” experiments since the ’60s, and they all come to the same finding: Like-minded people in a group grow more extreme in the way they are like-minded.

Homogeneity creates extremity—or, in the news of the day, a McCain rally.

Bishop’s answer is to have mixed rallies- a heterogenous crowd of liberals and conservatives. While this might work in a lab, or a line for ice cream, it is a far cry from feasible in the political rally circuit.

According to the Sunday Times, McCain’s long-serving chief of staff Mark Salter has told campaign insiders that he would prefer his boss, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, to suffer an “honourable defeat” rather than conduct a campaign that would be out of character – and likely to lose him the election. This might be the case.

As the days inch closer to election time, McCain will either have to step up his rhetoric for defending Obama against character attacks, or step down and join the defamation train. Either way, it spells trouble for his campaign– and unfortunately, he has only his supporters to blame.