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Atwater Understood What Farmers Already Know

July 22, 2008

One of the basic mistakes of many campaigns is the lack of patience. Managers and candidates don’t understand the importance of what needs to be done well before election day nor do they comprehend the time it takes for those campaign efforts to show up in the polls.

While everyone likes to be in the lead at all times – wire-to-wire if possible – it’s more important for a campaign to establish a rhythm and not worry about the polls months before election day. This rhythm takes time to develop and enables a campaign to peak at the right time – preferably a few days before the election.

My good friend the late Lee Atwater put it right when he said about campaigns, "You have to plant the field before anything can grow." Lee understood the concept that a farmer’s field must be prepared – plowed, sowed, fertilized, and watered before a crop can grow - and he applied this concept to campaigns.

This is why it’s a bit puzzling that so many Republicans are so insistent that something is drastically amiss in the McCain campaign. There’s an unreasonable concern that the campaign is already lost. Truth is the McCain campaign is busy preparing itself for the fall push - the critical time when voters will be making up their minds on whom to vote for.

Patience is really required in the 2008 Presidential campaign. Obama is a hot candidate. He is new and different; he comes from an important electoral state; he has had the immediate acceptance and support of the mainstream press; and he is a charismatic and gifted speaker. But he’s untested, and voters are wary of the positions he has taken.

The concerns voters have expressed about Obama have given McCain an opening, and he seems to be finding some messages that are resonating. His positions on the war, the economy, and high gasoline prices are helping to differentiate him from the front-running Obama. He has pledged to win the war in Iraq and reminds voters that he favored the successful troop surge when Obama did not. He’s also saying that he’ll cut taxes, cut spending, and is now supporting off-shore oil drilling and proposes to build more nuclear power plants.

Despite the fact that Obama is the center of attention from an adoring media, McCain continues to do well in every national poll. Voters know McCain to be his own man, and they admire his patriotism and long distinguished military service to the country. But Obama represents a potentially new and exciting political chapter in American politics and voters traditionally like change - especially after eight years of a Republican Administration.

That’s why it’s very important for McCain to keep within striking distance of Obama as the summer months conclude and the campaigns head into the home stretch this fall. McCain doesn’t have to do anything fancy - he just needs to maintain a clear message and remain acceptable and likeable.

Tiger Woods – arguably the greatest golfer to ever play the game – employs much the same strategy when playing in major golf tournaments. He wants to position himself right behind the early round leaders – to stay within striking distance as the tournament enters the final rounds. Woods knows it’s difficult to win a golf tournament "wire to wire" and besides, they don’t hand out trophies for being in the lead on days one or two.

The same can be said about the 2008 Presidential campaign. It’s not important what the polls say at this moment - McCain simply needs to stay within striking distance and be ready with a clear message when voters take a look at the candidates in earnest during the stretch run in late October and early November.

That’s why this is the time for Republicans to stay patient. Despite his overwhelming advantages – money, organization, a favorable media, and a united party – Obama continues to maintain only a narrow lead over McCain.

At this juncture of the campaign it’s well worth remembering the Atwater doctrine: you have to plant the field before anything can grow. The McCain campaign is looking for future growth - hopefully just before election day.