In thinking about the semi-panicked reaction of many Dems this morning, I thought back to the Maryland basketball team. This analogy won’t work well for non-college basketball fans, but bear with me.
When I was in law school (circa 2003), the Maryland squad got beaten regularly by Duke. It wasn’t just that Duke beat them – Duke snatched victory from defeat in the most heartbreaking and crushing of ways. Maryland, for instance, was up 20 in the first half in the Final Four, but got beat. In another game, they got up 10 in the last minute and got beat in overtime in one of the craziest finishes I’ve ever seen.
It got to the point that Maryland had simply internalized defeat. It didn’t matter if the game was going well. It didn’t matter if they were up 20 with 2 minutes left. In the heart of every Terrapin fan, they saw a Duke comeback. Any foul, any travel – these were not merely routine events, but terrifying omens of the inevitable defeat to come.
I think that, in the wake of 2000 and 2004, the Democrats have developed a bit of the Terrapin Syndrome. In the nightmarish recesses of their minds, Palin’s speech is a foreshadowing of yet another defeat. I understand these fears, but I think everyone should calm down.
Specifically, everyone needs to take an Obama/Axelrod long-term Zen view of these things. The greatest strategic error of the McCain campaign has been its decision to run a “rally the base” 2004-style campaign. That works well in a 49/49 race like 2004. But McCain has been polling in the low 40s pretty much forever. That, coupled with fundamentals, means that McCain has to expand the pie or he will lose. That’s why Schmidt’s obsessive focus on the daily tactical news cycles is misplaced – McCain needed to reclaim the middle ground, but he hasn’t really even tried.
Palin is just another example of the same ol’ problem. News cycle won – check. Palin bounce? – quite probable. But even if it comes, it’s likely to be fleeting. That’s because Palin’s speech was designed to win over the already-persuaded. It was a rally the base speech. And it seems to have been quite effective in achieving that objective.
But – here’s the key – the objective is flawed. To win, McCain needs to expand the pie – the Dems win a “base versus base” election (at least this year they do). It’s hard to see how Palin’s speech convinced a single undecided voter given its nastiness, inaccuracies, and lack of substance.
The next reason to calm down has been provided by Nate Silver. You should just go read the whole thing, but the nickel version is that Palin hasn’t established the credibility to drastically change people’s minds about Obama yet. He writes:
[B]ut the fact remains that Barack Obama is extremely well known and Palin is largely unknown, and when that is the case, your perception of the known commodity is more likely to influence your perception of the unknown commodity than the other way around. If there's a certain Italian restaurant that you've been going to for years, and some stranger stops you on the street and tells you that they don't know how to cook their pasta, you're going to think that the stranger is a kook -- not that the restaurant is poor.
And not only is Barack Obama exceptionally well known, but perceptions of him are exceptionally well entrenched.
So relax people – even Maryland finally got their NCAA championship.