This is a revised and greatly expanded version of Sunday's newspaper column:
To help explain the likely demise of John McCain, I call on Marshall McLuhan.
The famed communications scholar, who coined the term "global village" and the phrase "the medium is the message," wrote 44 years ago that "hot" personalities are ill-suited for the "cool" medium of TV. Because the relationship between the viewer and the person on screen is "extremely intimate," McLuhan argued that "the success of any TV performer depends on his achieving a low-pressure style of presentation."
No wonder McCain lost all three presidential debates, and lessened his odds of launching a miracle comeback.
McCain was judged the clear loser in every poll conducted after every debate, and I suspect that many viewers (particularly the late-deciders who don't follow politics closely) were more bugged by his demeanor than by his policy positions. I know how superficial this sounds. But I'm talking about television, where the optics arguably matter a lot more than the substance.
Put it this way: A candidate teetering on the precipice of defeat is not likely to reverse his fortunes by appearing on TV as a twitchy, petulent, sneering, condescending, eye-rolling, cheek-pulsating personality. Especially when the other guy on screen is glacially calm and comfortable, a master of what McLuhan called the "low-pressure style of presentation."
Content is important, absolutely. But, as McLuhan observed about television back in 1964, "More and more, we turn from the content of messages to study total effect."
John McCain's content didn't win many converts among the uncommitted debate watchers (no surprise there, given the fact that is a bad year for the Republican brand). But it was his "total effect" that probably hurt him most. It is, perhaps, a testament to McCain's authenticity that he so glaringly manifested his true feelings on the air, but bitterness is not a telegenically attractive trait. Nor is it very presidential.
He couldn't hide his disdain for the upstart who dares to snatch the prize to which McCain feels entitled. His problem is that voters right now are not looking for a candidate who exhibits barely suppressed rage. In panicky times, voters would prefer somebody who exudes unflappable calm.
Especially at a time when viewers are worrying about their financial futures, the last thing that a candidate should do is stew on a stage, marinating in his own grievances. Americans will often abide a happy warrior; they are less likely to invite an angry warrior into their homes for an eight-year stint.
They made this quite clear last Wednesday night. Every poll reported that Obama was deemed the winner by double-digit percentages. And an Ohio focus group, comprised of 50 uncommitted female voters, made it clear that McCain's "total effect" was a turnoff. These voters were given wireless dials that allowed them to react to the candidates in real time; every time McCain went negative, they dialed him down. When the debate was over, 71 percent of the uncommitted voters said that Obama had won; only nine percent chose McCain. (The Ohio focus group was conducted jointly by a Democratic pollster and a Republican pollster. A separate focus group of uncommitted voters in Virginia, conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz, gave McCain a similar thumbs-down verdict.)
The McCain people are well aware that their candidate struck out during debate season, and that the final 15 days might well constitute a death march. They now talk openly about "a narrow-victory scenario," which is close to waving the white flag. They're stuck trying to defend all the red states that backed George W. Bush; the problem is, a number of those states – particularly Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, Nevada, and quite possibly Florida and Ohio – seem poised to defect to Obama.
The candidates' travel itineraries tell the tale. Virtually all the action right now is in the red states, including dead-even Missouri and North Carolina, where Obama is playing offense and McCain is trying to hold the line. Obama also has the money advantage ($150 million in private funds raised in September, courtesy of his decision to break his promise about taking only public financing), and that gives him the ability to flood the airwaves even in long-shot red states, such as West Virginia.
All told, the electoral math seems indisputable. Obama looks strong in all the blue states that backed John Kerry four years ago (including Pennsylvania, notwithstanding McCain's belief that he can win it), and that translates into 252 electoral votes; if Obama holds those and merely plucks Iowa, New Mexico, and Colorado, he clears the magic 270.
McCain will be dogged in the closing days by the YouTube compilations of his facial gyrations; he looks like a hard-boiled egg with the heat in the pot turned up high. But his visuals were only half the problem. Television also requires that candidates excel at verbal communication. Obama does. McCain does not.
Here was McCain last Wednesday night, during one of his paeans to Joe the Plumber. (Correction, Joe the Unlicensed Plumber With a Tax Lien.) This is verbatim, straight from the transcript: "Now, Joe, Sen. Obama's plan, if you're a small business and you are able – and your – the guy that sells to you will not have the capital gains tax increase, which Sen. Obama wants, if you're, if you're out there, my friend, and you've got employes, and you've got kids, if you don't get – adopt the health plan that Sen. Obama mandates, he's going to fine you."
After working my way through that Palinesque verbiage (with the aid of TiVo), I figured out what he was saying: that if prospective small-businessman Joe the Plumber refuses to get health insurance for his workers, Obama would fine him. I'd bet that a lot of viewers zoned out midway through McCain's meander – which is maybe fortunate for McCain, because his point was factually wrong, anyway: Obama's health plan specifically exempts small businesses from those fines.
Another telling moment occurred shortly thereafter, when Obama provided a clear, concise argument for why working women should be allowed to sue in court for equal pay ("if a woman is out there trying to raise a family, trying to support her family, and is being treated unfairly, then the court has to stand up, if nobody else will"). Here was McCain's entire response to the plight of women who suffer pay discrimination: "Obviously that law waved the statute of limitations, which you could have gone back 20 or 30 years. It was a trial lawyer's dream."
Any women currently on the fence between Obama and McCain would be hard pressed to understand what McCain was talking about, as he peremptorily dismissed the issue of equal pay. But his 'tude problem got worse during a discussion about abortion, when Obama stated that he supports a ban on late-term abortions "as long as there's an exception for the mother's health and life."
McCain responded by mocking Obama's mention of women's health. It's worth watching the video of this moment, to see how McCain used his fingers to put quotation marks around the word health, as if it was not a factor worthy of serious consideration. While tracing his quote marks, he said: "Just again, the eloquence of Senator Obama. He's 'health for the mother.' You know, that's been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, 'health.'"
McCain has been steadily losing support among women (four years ago, 54 percent of the electorate), and his semi-coherent Senate-speak won't bring them back. Nor is it likely that they were charmed by McCain's apparently dismissive attitude about the importance of their health. Setting aside McCain's greatest substantive burden – his 90 percent support for George W. Bush – it seems increasingly unlikely that the American people will vote for eight years of bad TV.