Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Round One a Draw, Two Rematches to Follow

By Shawn Healy
Senator John McCain did indeed show up for Friday's first presidential debate with Senator Barack Obama at the University of Mississippi, and the two combined to produce a substantive discussion of both foreign policy and the pending federal bailout of Wall Street.

Both seemingly struggled at the outset to illustrate their own plans for the looming credit crisis, but this is to be expected given that they have spent the better part of the last two years on the campaign trail and away from their responsibilities in Washington. An apparent deal between the Bush Administration and Congress was struck early yesterday morning, with the House poised to pass the legislation as early as today, followed tomorrow by the Senate. Both candidates have voiced lukewarm support for a compromise they played little role in precipitating.

Without doubt the state of the economy will play a pivotal role in this election, and we'll continue to watch from afar as the candidates circle the country in search of a narrative than resonates with voters in swing states. Thus far, echoing my post on Friday, such a course has been elusive for McCain and Obama, and the first debate did nothing to quell these concerns, placing an even higher premium on their second and third square offs. The second debate is structured in a town hall format with questions emanating directly from the audience, and the third is more traditional, with a direct focus on the economy and domestic issues. To date, Friday's performance included, the candidates' grade on what CNN calls "Issue #1" is largely incomplete.

Friday's debate centered largely on foreign policy issues, and by my account, McCain offered a more compelling vision of how he would act as commander-in-chief than Obama. This is not to suggest that the junior Illinois senator suffered a dismal performance, for in many ways he exceeded expectations, but he was on the defensive for most of the evening and failed to deliver a knock out punch to his vulnerable opponent. Indeed, outside of their clear differences on Iraq and whether or not the U.S. should engage in face-to-face diplomacy with rogue nations, Obama often seconded McCain's offerings, offering minute qualifiers.

McCain at times lectured Obama for his "naivete," and Obama was clearly knocked off stride at several instances. While McCain kept his cool and smiled even when attacked, Obama appeared angry at moments and often attempted to interrupt his opponent in mid-sentence. Obama's attempts to tie McCain to President Bush opened the door for McCain to highlight their differences over the years. While discussing the Russian-Georgian conflict, however, McCain left Obama's blunder at the time on the table, failing to point out his call for UN Security Council action when Russia holds a spot and veto power.

As a whole, many experts judged the debate a draw, though some, like the Des Moines Register's David Yepsen, agreed with me that McCain was the decisive winner. On the other hand, among viewers who watched the debate, Obama was the apparent winner, although CNN's poll oversampled Democrats. This taken into account, perhaps viewers also scored it a draw. I am also skeptical that Friday's audience was as large as those we will likely see in the ensuing contests given that it landed on a weekend. The final three contests, beginning with the vice presidential debate on Thursday, all land on weeknights. My guess is that committed partisans and politicos tuned in on Friday, and larger numbers of independents and undecided voters will watch in the next two weeks, offering the candidates better chances to change minds.

It may be too early to tell whether or not Friday's performance translates into bump in the polls for either candidate, but Obama is surging according to most recent national surveys. Thursday's match-up between Delaware Senator Joe Biden and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is laden with intrigue and could stand as the so-called "game changer" that Friday clearly wasn't. Next week's presidential town hall will be equally important, followed by the farewell debate the following Wednesday. With 36 days and counting, each public impression that candidates offer assumes a greater degree of importance. The stakes could not be higher for what is truly "must-see TV."


Bright Lights, Big Stakes

By Shawn Healy
Tonight's preliminary presidential debate between Senators McCain and Obama may or may not go on as scheduled (UPDATE: Senator McCain has confirmed his intention to participate and the debate will go on as scheduled), but a preview of the series of standoffs over the next three weeks is in order, especially in a close contest without an incumbent president or vice president seeking office for the first time since 1952. I'll begin with a bit of history before setting the scene for this evening and the three presidential and vice presidential debates to follow.

Presidential debates are a relatively recent phenomenon. Senator John Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon were the guinea pigs on this date in 1960, and history has judged Kennedy's performance favorably, and Nixon's quite harshly. Much of this was attributed to their respective visual appearances, not the content of their responses to the moderator's questions. Kennedy would of course go on to win the White House in a nail biter, and his initial debate performance at CBS-2 in Chicago may have vaulted him over the top.

Although Kennedy and Nixon participated in 3 more debates prior to Election Day in 1960, it was not until 1976 when presidential debates resumed. President Ford squared off three times with former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, and vice presidential candidates Senators Bob Dole and Walter Mondale represented the first under card performance which has since been replicated in nearly every contest to date.

In the interim, Ronald Reagan used the single 1980 debate in the closing days of the campaign to make a close contest a blowout, dismissing Carter's attempt to portray him as a right-wing extremist with the simple line, "There you go again." The image of a telegenic Reagan simply didn't fit Carter's descriptions. In 1984, when Reagan's age raised concerns for some voters, he promised not to make age an issue for his younger opponent, Mondale, to the laughter and delight of the audience. The incumbent president would go on to clobber his Democratic opponent in 49 states.

Perhaps the most memorable vice presidential debate line occurred in 1988 in another standoff between two senators, the senior Lloyd Bentson and the junior Dan Quayle, who had a tendency of comparing himself to former President Kennedy. Bentson replied, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy." Although Quayle's running mate, then Vice President Bush, would go on to win the election, Quayle's reputation as an unqualified upstart was cemented in the eyes of voters.

In 1992, Governor Bill Clinton's comfort in a town hall setting contrasted with that of his Republican opponent, George H. Bush, who famously checked his watch at one point during the debate. Clinton's "I feel your pain" message resonated during the tail end of a recessionary period, and he glided to two terms in Washington.

The 1992 debates were also notable because they featured a third party candidate, the independent Ross Perot and his running mate Admiral James Stockdale. In the intervening elections including this one, third party candidates have been locked out of the presidential debates because of low poll numbers and a system run in concert with the two major parties.

Governor George W. Bush has never been known as a prolific public speaker, but he has often exceeded low expectations, and this was certainly true in his 2000 standoffs against Vice President Al Gore. Gore's verbal gasps of frustration seemed unpresidential and opened the door for a Bush victory in the Electoral College. In 2004, Bush's uneven performances and relatively strong showings by his Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry, resulted in a close shave for the incumbent president.

This brings us full circle 48 years later to this season's cycle of debates. It kicks off this evening with a presidential debate in Oxford, MS, at the University of Mississippi where McCain and Obama are to address foreign policy-related questions from PBS's Jim Lehrer, who will serve as moderator. Next Thursday, Oct. 2, Senator Joe Biden squares off with Governor Sarah Palin in the lone vice presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. McCain and Obama meet for a second time, this one in a town hall setting with open-ended questions coming from the audience and online participants, on Tuesday Oct. 2 at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. The final presidential debate will be staged eight days later on Wednesday Oct. 15 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. The candidates are to address the economy and other domestic issues.

The drama of the past 48 hours centers on a federal bailout package under negotiation between the Bush White House and select members of Congress. McCain attempted to insert himself in the process on Wednesday of this week, promising to suspend his campaign until a deal is struck, and asking that tonight's debate be postponed. Obama refused to bite, traveling to Washington himself to take part in the negotiations, but promising to be in Mississippi tonight with or without McCain sharing the spotlight. As of now, a bailout deal remains elusive, and McCain's appearance tonight a wild card.

Regardless of if, when, and how these debates transpire, the stakes could not be higher. Yesterday's Gallup three-day tracking poll has the contest in a dead heat, with both candidates registering at 46 percent in the poll. McCain would appear to hold the upper hand this evening on a debate concerning foreign policy, especially because he has made this the hallmark of his campaign. Obama's campaign negotiated to have this topic addressed in the first debate in order to minimize any potential damage in the contests that follow and the long slog until Election Day.

In a larger context, Obama needs to prove that he is prepared to serve as Commander-in-Chief. Given the turmoil in our nation's financial markets, both candidates must present their plans to stabilize the economy and restore us on a path to prosperity. Obama has arguably found more traction on this issue than McCain in recent days, and this probably promoted McCain's dramatic moves on Wednesday. McCain has the added burden of divorcing himself from the wildly unpopular Bush Administration, while still holding true to some of the economic policies traditionally favored by his party, including low taxes, reduced government spending, and free trade.

The debates offer a contrast in styles. McCain is the master of the one-liner, while Obama is more reserved and professorial in his responses. In this era of sound bytes, McCain holds the edge on this mark. Obama doesn't seem to sweat under the bright lights, while McCain is known to flash his temper during moments of distress. Calm, cool, and collected usually carries the day, so Obama scores on this point.

While McCain positions himself as a foreign policy guru, he is admittedly less interested in economic issues. They have emerged front and center in this campaign, and Obama seemingly has a more elaborate plan to sell to undecided voters. That said, Obama's campaign was never premised on the economy either, but instead broader notions of changing our nation's political culture, plus his early opposition to the Iraq War. As mentioned earlier, both candidates are desperately seeking traction on this issue, and their final two debate performances may turn the tide one direction or the other as Americans flail for a steady hand.

Hearkening back to the initial Kennedy-Nixon debates, one cannot discount the theatrics of these debates. A live television audience of as many as 100 million Americans will tune in, and McCain and Obama must both look the part of president. There are significant contrasts between these two candidates' age, height, and mannerisms. In sharing the same stage and spotlight, each of these will be visible to the naked eye and may just tip the scales in this epic battle.

I'll return on Monday with a recap of tonight's debate, then address next Thursday's vice presidential debate with a preview on Wednesday and a critique on Friday. Until then, grab a comfortable seat at home in front of the TV and hold on for the final 39 days of this thrilling presidential contest.


Perspectives on the 2008 Elections

By Shawn Healy
I had the great pleasure of waxing nostalgic last evening as I attended a program sponsored by the University of Wisconsin Foundation titled "Perspectives on the 2008 Election." The program featured two distinguished UW-Madison political science professors, Department Chairman John Coleman, and Charles Franklin, co-creator of my favorite web site of this election cycle,

The event was held at the Blackstone, known as the "Hotel of Presidents" as 12 have spent an evening there. One in particular, Warren G. Harding, was selected by party leaders who were attending the Republican National Convention at the Chicago Coliseum. These backroom dealings at the Blackstone gave birth to the term "smoke-filled room."

Franklin based the bulk of his presentation on the recent release of the Big Ten Battleground Poll, a project initiated by the UW, but with partners at seven other Big Ten institutions. They interviewed nearly 5,800 individuals in the eight battleground states that represent the conference, and concluded that the Midwestern region is "incredibly competitive" in the context of the presidential race. Most state races are currently within the margin of error, Senator Barack Obama's Illinois excepted. This poll will be repeated in October and again after the election, providing a rich database of information to propel future studies.

From a national scope, Franklin spoke of the McCain-Palin bounce after the Republican National Convention, qualifying it as real, but short-lived. He estimates that Obama currently leads the national race by a 3-4% margin, and suggested the 5-6% swings in tracking polls characterized the 2000 and 2004 races, too. McCain's post-convention bounce played out in both red and battleground states, but both have trended toward Obama in the past two weeks.

On a micro level, Republicans regularly carry the white vote, even when Democratic candidates win the presidency. Obama was barely behind Senator John McCain until after the Democratic National Convention and McCain's surprise pick of Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. White women shifted by more than 12 points to the Republican ticket, but, along with white men, have since retreated part of the way back to Obama during the past two weeks.

Franklin identified 19 battleground states based upon recent polling data. Obama is ahead in 8, while McCain leads in 11. In order from largest to smallest lead, Obama is ahead in Oregon, New Mexico, Washington, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. McCain's biggest lead lies in Louisiana, followed by Missouri, West Virginia, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, New Hampshire, Montana, North Carolina, Nevada, and Virginia. With the exception of New Hampshire, Bush won each of these states in 2004, along with New Mexico and Colorado in the Obama column, and Iowa, which is considered safe for Obama at this point.

If each of these trends hold, the two candidates would split their electoral votes evenly, 269-269, meaning the House of Representatives would determine the outright winner. Given the fact that Democrats currently control the House of Representatives, Obama would probably emerge victorious. Both candidates will attempt to hold their existing portfolio while stealing one or two states from the other. Given that many battleground contests are within the margin of error with only 41 days remaining until the election, the outcome could truly break either way.

John Coleman provided a broader view of the presidential race, acknowledging the length of this campaign and the difficulty in predicting the ultimate outcome. He reminded us that Obama clinched the nomination by cleaning up in caucus states while Senator Hillary Clinton won a majority of the delegates in primaries. McCain was counted out several times throughout the second half of 2007 only to prove his resilience and capture the Republican nomination.

Coleman noted that both candidates did an end-around of their parties to become the nominees, as both relied upon independents to place them over the top, and McCain used the support of moderates to trump the conservative base of the party. Insurgent candidates like McCain and Obama win their party nominations once in a while, but it is rare for two to claim victory in the same year. Both then faced unique tests upon clinching their respective nominations as they were forced to rally their bases and heal old wounds.

Age is also a unique factor in this election, as Obama has inspired those under 30, while McCain holds a decisive edge among older voters. Obama's campaign tapped into the sensibilities of this younger demographic. Coleman compared him to an iPod, a smooth brand with minimal turmoil. By comparison, he labeled McCain as a cassette, maybe even an eight-track player.

Both candidacies charted their courses away from the central issue of this election as it stands today: the economy. Obama based his campaign on change, while McCain made placed his foreign policy credentials front and center. Both campaigns have since pivoted toward this issue, but have yet to find traction and have appeared out of their element at times.

On a macro level, the Democratic Party is better-positioned in this election cycle. The underlying fundamentals of an ailing economy, an unpopular war, and an Republican administration with few friends beyond blood relatives and paid staffers give a decisive edge to the Democrats, along with the fact that their party is relatively unified. Republicans, on the other hand, are divided over the central tenets of conservatism, and a victorious McCain would likely preside over divided government given the strong likelihood that Democrats will hold Congress, probably even strengthening their majorities.

One caveat is in order, however. Coleman highlighted the fact that Democrats have struggled to eclipse 50% in presidential elections for much of the last half century. Only Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Jimmy Cater in 1976 won with majorities, while Republicans have attained this mark seven times over the same period. Coleman also argued that McCain is the one Republican candidate who can win in this difficult year for his party, while Obama is the only one who could lose given the strong tailwind at his party's back.

Last evening's program brought back fond memories for me of my years as an undergraduate sitting in lecture halls with these nationally-esteemed professors imparting their knowledge upon impressionable minds. This crowd of fellow alums was significantly longer in the tooth, but in returning to our roots for a couple of hours on a warm fall evening, we emerged once more with the wisdom to weather this election season for the ages.


Echo Chamber

By Shawn Healy
In Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph Cappella study the triumvirate of conservative media sources that in many ways constitutes a reinforcing echo chamber. This three-pronged establishment consists of Rush Limbaugh’s talk radio program, the Wall Street Journal’s (WSJ) editorial page, and the late-emerging Fox News Channel (FNC). Although the audiences for each of these entities do not overlap perfectly, there is a great deal of reinforcement within this circle. For instance, Limbaugh occasionally pens pieces for the WSJ and often cites their articles on his show. Most recently, Rupert Murdoch, owner of FNC, also purchased the WSJ. What follows is a review of this work, then a critique of its methodology and assumptions.

The book’s basic premise is that “…conservative media create a self-protective enclave hospitable to conservative beliefs.” One of the overarching narratives perpetuated by the channels is that the mainstream media is biased against conservatives and liberal in orientation, and thus not trustworthy. The authors cite research that suggests such a bias does not exist, but that consumers are sensitive to reporting that conflicts with their basic ideology, the so-called “hostile media phenomenon."

This media triumvirate also reinforces the basic tenets of Reagan conservatism. While Limbaugh and the FNC cater to the middle-class, church-going, and southern base of the Republican Party, the WSJ reaches its business elites. The authors suggest that the conservative media establishment play a role formerly assumed by party leaders. They also serve to make ideas and policies perpetuated by the Democratic Party “alien and impalpable.” In the end, consumers of conservative media still access mainstream sources, but are shielded from information incompatible with their conservative worldview.

In focusing on Fox News, the authors suggest that it differs from network news in the way it frames strategy and conflict in the context of politics. FNC, along with the WSJ and Limbaugh, also argue that the “liberal” media invoke a double-standard when reporting about conservative issues and Republican candidates. The authors lay out the 2002 controversy surrounding former Senator Trent Lott’s racially-tinged comments at a reception honoring former Senator Strom Thurmond as an example, simultaneously providing examples of racism exercised by Democrats while distancing themselves from Lott. This the authors label a “conservative knowledge enclave."

Jamieson and Cappella then dive into descriptions of the primary conservative media players. The aptly describe political talk radio as “a newspaper filled with editorials." On Fox News, conservative assumptions are less likely to be challenged than liberal ones, and the authors admit the opposite is true on CNN. They write, “An audience that gravitates primarily to conservative sources whose message is consistent and repetitive is more susceptible to reinforcement and persuasion than an audience exposed to alternative points of view in approximately equal amounts."

The authors turn next to the Reagan narrative, namely, “The conservative opinion media are custodians of Reagan conservatism and of a specific account of the Reagan legacy that vindicates that philosophy. Their archived memory of the Reagan years provides conservatives with a standard to which aspire, a touchstone against which to assess Republican leaders, and a way to cast conservatism as a philosophy vindicated in practice." By defending a conservative legacy and critiquing that of their liberal opponents, the conservative media establishment helps hold together a coalition of voters who have elected Republican candidates at the national level.

The conservative media’s players and message identified, Jamieson and Cappella next define what they mean by an echo chamber. Specifically, an echo chamber is s “…bounded, enclosed media space that has the potential to both magnify the messages delivered within it and insulate them from rebuttal.” This may manifest itself via “direct citation” or through media sources legitimizing one another (an article written by Limbaugh article in the WSJ, for example).

The three prongs of the conservative media establishment were selected on the basis of their wide availability, different means of dissemination, and the fact that Limbaugh, FNC, and the WSJ are all “consequential” outlets. While direct media effects are difficult to quantify, the authors posit, “…when an audience self-selects its media content to be like-minded, the typical media effects---changing attitudes, opinions, beliefs, and behaviors---will not be readily detected. Instead, effects may manifest themselves in more subtle processes."

This leads to questions about why a given media source is selected to begin with. It also works with an assumption that people come to conservative media outlets predisposed to agree with the content disseminated. Together, these two variables produce “spirals of effects.” A fourth variable considers whether consumers are open to alternative sources outside of conservative outlets. A fifth and related variable predicts one with prior ideological commitments will select media sources that reinforce them. The sixth point relates to the reinforcement that occurs via this process, a cycle often neglected in media studies.

The Republican Party base is more likely to be male, white, upper-class, church-going, and southern than Democrats. Translating this to conservative media outlets, the WSJ’s audience is more of the “country club” variety and tends to be more socially liberal than that of FNC or Limbaugh, while the latter’s audience is more economically conservative than the other two. Limbaugh’s audience is predominantly Republican and increasingly so in recent years, and collectively the conservative media establishment caters to a base critical to the electoral prospects of the Republican Party.

Limbaugh is the overwhelming focus of the authors’ efforts throughout the book. It is almost as if FNC and the WSJ were added to complete their argument. Aside from rough descriptions of their audiences and references to a few related studies, their argument turns on Limbaugh listeners. They argue that he plays a prominent role in vetting Republican candidates during the party’s nominating processes. His favorites are associated with Reagan, and those he opposes are branded “liberals." On this front, the authors find evidence that “Limbaugh’s message matters." Indeed, his opposition to Senator John McCain in the 2000 presidential nominating process resulted in lower favorability and likelihood to vote for the Arizona senator among his listeners.

Limbaugh is more likely to exert himself in this fashion during the primary stages of a campaign when multiple candidates remain than later on when only one Republican is left standing and he tends to rally the troops around that candidate. In effect, he, along with FNC, prevents audience members from defecting.

One might expect that Limbaugh and his conservative media cohorts breed cynicism in their audience, thus reducing their proclivities to participate in the process, but he instead reinforces their natural tendencies to engage in the duties of citizenship. The mistrust he breeds is ideological, not systemic. Indeed, Limbaugh listeners have higher levels of efficacy than non-listeners. Trust in government, on the other hand, tends to sway depending upon who holds the reigns of power. For example, conservatives are more trustful of government when it is in Republican hands.

The authors believe that “…the conservative opinion media use emotion to heighten attention to politics and spur political engagement." If one is more emotionally tied to the candidates or feels hostility toward an opponent, he or she has a greater stake in the outcome and a stronger feeling of importance in terms of influencing government.

Jamieson and Cappella admit that the relationship between conservative media and the mainstream media is complex. It relates to framing, and when FNC co-hosts Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes present conservative and liberal perspectives, respectively, on their FNC show, viewers tend to default to the frame consistent with their ideology, that of Hannity’s. Conservative outlets also highlight some issues and candidates to the disadvantage of others and make positive associations with those they favor, and negative ones with those they detest. In this sense, the authors consider Limbaugh and his minions “opinion leaders."

Limbaugh’s daily diatribes against the mainstream media reinforce his audience’s distrust of these sources. At the same time, this distrust did not limit their consumption of mainstream news sources throughout the 1990’s, though it did turn them on to alternative sources. More recently, the advent of FNC has increasingly won the favor of Limbaugh listeners. FNC viewership coincides with reduced ratings for network news on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. Limbaugh and his conservative cohorts also employ a standard vocabulary that enhances Republican positions and detracts from those offered by Democrats. The “death tax” and “partial birth abortion” stand as notable examples.

The authors cite a series of works that share concerns about the fragmentation of media and the creation of so-called echo chambers. In this vein, they argue that consumers of conservative media “…come to hold specific knowledge largely unshared by those unexposed to these or similar outlets,” a process they label “balkanization." This relates specifically to one’s knowledge of politics and social affairs and the means by which they are interpreted. Indeed, in the authors’ analysis that found distortion in Limbaugh’s listeners’ understanding of political issues and candidates, while mainstream media had the effect of reducing these distortions.

Jamieson and Cappella then make an effort to distinguish distortion and polarization. Distortion is defined as “inaccuracy,” while polarization relates to difference, accuracy aside. The driving force behind polarization is the desire to seek out one-sided sources that reinforce one’s existing beliefs. Both are based on bias. “Contrast effects” further expand the difference between an audience member’s view of a candidate and his or her actual positions, while “assimilation” has the opposite effect. Looking specifically at the 2000 and 2004 elections, Limbaugh listeners show more evidence of “contrast effects” than other groups of strong Republicans. Moreover, the conservative media audience as a whole tends to contest “facts” that would benefit a Democratic candidate or their party, summarily dismissing them.

In the concluding chapter, the authors repeat their contention that this is not about a walled-off conservative media establishment, but instead that it acts as a buffer to conflicting information they encounter in external channels. They also add the caveat that Limbaugh, FNC, and the WSJ do occasionally present alternative viewpoints, even though they privilege the conservative one above all others. They also add that the conservative media establishment has brought an air of accountability to the mainstream media previously absent.

Most problematic about the rise of the conservative media establishment, in the authors’ eyes, is the weakening of democratic engagement when alternative views are disparaged without defense. In so doing, they argue, it may “undermine individual and national deliberation."

Altogether, I feel as if the authors make an outstanding contribution to the field of media studies by delving into this increasingly fragmented, and politically polarized, media market. I am hopeful that this constitutes a starting point and not an end game, however, for I feel that there remain several holes in this body of research. My most overarching concern is the sole focus on the conservative media establishment. There is certainly a flip side to this coin in the trio of the New York Times opinion page, Air America and NPR, and MSNBC. Moreover, by some accounts beyond that of Limbaugh and company, the mainstream media in general has a left-of-center and Democratic bias. I would suggest that this phenomenon is every bit as dangerous for democracy as Limbaugh’s “ditto heads.”

On a micro level, I am troubled that the authors based almost all of their statistical analysis on Limbaugh listeners, representing his 14 million or so listeners as emblematic of all consumers of conservative media. They implicate FNC and the WSJ, but provide scant examples of media effects on these two audiences. Indeed, they admit that the WSJ caters to an entirely different audience than Limbaugh and FNC. I also wonder why they selected Sean Hannity as their test case for FNC. Because he pairs with the liberal Alan Colmes, this already clouds the sample. Why not focus on Bill O’Reilly, who flies solo in his wildly popular O’Reilly Factor, instead?

I must clarify, however, that I don’t disagree with the author’s central conclusions. I have myself witnessed a great deal of cross-pollination within the conservative media establishment and agree that they arm their audiences to take what the mainstream media offers with a grain of salt. They are a contributor to the polarization that infects this country on a larger level, too. However, returning to my primary beef with this work, there are guilty parties on the other side of the ideological divide, and I would like to see more in-depth analysis of the liberal echo chamber.


Tangling on the Web

By Shawn Healy
The Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study this week of the presidential candidates' respective web presence. Not surprisingly, they found that Senator Barack Obama has a significant advantage over his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, although the gap has closed in recent weeks. The study focused on both campaign web sites, but also the degree to which the two candidates are supported on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. I'll review a few highlights of the survey, then commence upon my own investigation of the candidates' web sites.

In an election where some expect the candidates' Internet presence to play a pivotal role for the first time, the Project for Excellence in Journalism has provided a great service through their investigation. True, many skeptics remain, contending that the Internet remains a mecca for the young who tend to be the most fickle political participants. Likewise, old media options such as television advertising continue to play the most prominent role in this general election portion of the campaign, and phone banks are operated in earnest with only 46 days and counting remaining until Election Day. Door-to-door canvassing continues to hold sway, too.

However, what is different in the way in which all three of these practices are now facilitated. Television adds are disseminated via the candidates' web sites and YouTube. Indeed, many are never aired on the networks unless picked up by television news stations, effectively providing free air time. Phone banking has become as simple as logging on to the candidates' web site, using provided talking points, and dialing numbers on one's personal cell phone. Even knocking on doors has assumed a Digital Age bearing, as Obama's web site assists with map generation and even provides plans for grass roots organizing.

Both campaigns offer social networking sites of their own, arguably the latest manifestation of grass roots organizing. MyBarackObama has been in place for months, while McCainSpace is a recent creation, but both rely upon similar technologies. Obama leads McCain by a 6-1 margin in terms of MySpace friends, and a 5-1 margin on Facebook. Obama's YouTube channel subscriber lead is even more substantial: 11-1.

Obama has used text messages liberally throughout his campaign, most famously announcing his VP in this fashion, while McCain reroutes visitors to the Republican National Committee web site to sign up for text message alerts. Both sites feature live blogging, and the McCain site actually encourages supporters to blog on its behalf on targeting sites.

Both host online stores where supporters essentially make donations to the campaign in the case of Obama, and the RNC in McCain's case given that he accepted federal money for the general election and the restrictions attached. Obama has famously used the Internet as a chief fundraising tool and features it prominently on his web site. Indeed, it's the landing page and speaks to his risk of going at it alone, a first for a candidate during the modern era of campaign finance laws. The irony here is that McCain was the first pioneer of online fundraising during his insurgent run for president in 2000. He paved the way for his opponent in 2008.

McCain and Obama feature their own bios prominently on their web sites, along with those of their wives and running mates. This is a traditional feature, along with news clips of campaign coverage that shows the candidates in a positive light. Obama is more apt to link to actual news coverage, while McCain relies more heavily on press releases, though this has changed since the addition of Governor Sarah Palin to the ticket. As detailed in my "Pass the Pundits" series, each candidate provides a menu of issue positions, though Obama's tend to be more detailed and even compiled in the form of brief position papers for downloading and printing. McCain, to his credit, has added detail to his platform, but still lags behind Obama in this respect.

Both have formed electoral coalitions and feature them prominently on their web sites, be they "Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders for Obama" or "Sportsmen for McCain." Obama has even made a play for former supporters of vanquished rival Senator Hillary Clinton, thanking her for her barrier-breaking campaign and offering an olive branch of sorts.

Altogether, the Obama campaign clearly has made a more conscious effort to make their web presence central to the campaign. For much of this cycle, McCain's online efforts appeared to be little more than an afterthought, but it, too, has recently embraced the opportunities a strong Internet presence offers. True, Obama's base of younger supporters is more wired into these new media options, but it also represents fertile ground for McCain to make inroads amongst this cohort and the increasing number of middle-age and older Americans who use the web as a source of political information and a means by which to engage in the process.

The success of their respective efforts will be evaluated in the epitaph for this campaign, but during the stretch run, it is safe to say that the electoral landscape has changed and a candidate's web site represents much more than an online brochure; indeed, it is a means of political transformation.


Poll Position, Level Two

By Shawn Healy
Monday's post touched upon the internal dynamics of public opinion polls, and this follow-up will serve to place this daily flurry of information into the context of the 2008 presidential election. On Monday, I focused on national surveys, but as we learned in 2000, presidential elections turn on the Electoral College, or a state-by-state breakdown of the election.

We have become increasingly familiar in recent years with the red-blue divide that defines our electoral map. Republicans tend to dominate the Great Plains and the Deep South, while Democrats own the Northeast and West Coast. The Midwest stands as the swing region, along with the Mountain West in this cycle. While some suggested that the rise of Senators McCain and Obama, both departures from previous nominees in terms of both rhetoric and record, might somehow alter the Bush-driven electoral maps of 2000 and 2004, it appears that we are falling back into a familiar pattern as Election Day looms ever closer.

Given the fact that the McCain-Obama contest remains a dead heat and is likely to remain this way from here on out, this election will turn once more on the outcomes in a handful of swing states. Casting national polls aside for the balance of this post, let's consider the race in the context of state surveys. According to, based upon an aggregation of polls, Obama is poised to win 238 electoral votes to McCain's 224, leaving both short of the 270 necessary to win. This leaves eight toss-up states, NV, NM, CO, MT, MI, OH, NH, and VA, wielding 76 electoral votes, whose decisions will likely elevate one of the two contenders. Notice also that there are a handful of states in each candidate's column that are merely leaning in their direction and are still considered in play, including MO, WI, PA, and FL.

Real Clear Politics offers a slightly different projection, moving Montana into McCain's column, and adding Minnesota and Pennsylvania to the list of toss-ups, thus giving McCain a 227 to 206 lead over Obama. The reality is that these maps change with the polls they are based upon, and these same polls surface from a myriad of sources and with varying degrees of sophistication. Moreover, they are conducted with less frequency, thus failing to account for fundamental changes to the face of the contest, such as McCain's choice of Governor Sarah Palin for vice president. These factors alone should make us skeptical. Moreover, close contests at the state level often turn on the so-called ground game, simply, who is better at turning out their core supporters on Election Day.

This said, a breakdown of these swing states is warranted. I will rely upon both Pollster and Real Clear Politics for identification purposes, but Pollster alone for polling data for the sake of simplicity. In order, McCain leads Obama in Nevada based upon a conglomeration of polls, 47%-44.7%. Obama is up 47.3-43.3% in New Mexico, and McCain is up by a whisker in Colorado, 47-46.8%. McCain also leads in Montana, 49-46%, though recent polls show a wider margin. Moving to the Midwest, McCain leads in the Show Me State, 49.8-44.3%. Obama is ahead by a similar margin in Minnesota, 48.3-43.6%, and also in neighboring Wisconsin, 48.1-40.4%. Obama leads in traditionally Democratic Michigan by a 47-44.3% margin, while McCain clings to a similarly narrow margin in Ohio, 47-44.5%. Obama leads in the Keystone State (47.7-44.1%), although polls are tightening here, too. McCain also holds slight leads in the final three battleground states, New Hampshire (47-45.3%), Virginia (47.8%-46.7%), and Florida (48.6-44%).

We are now swimming in a sea of data with only minimal significance. It represents nothing more than a rudimentary temperature of the electorate, or at least that portion of it likely to decide who will serve as our 44th president. For the sake of curiosity, I gave each of the states listed above to the candidate who holds a lead in the aggregation of polls to date. Using a web site called 270towin, Senator McCain would best Obama 278 electoral votes to 260. To show how fickle this lead is, however, flip Colorado where McCain holds a scant 0.2% lead to Obama and the race is tied, 269-269, and would be decided by the House of Representatives. I encourage you to have fun with this map, manipulating it through a variety of scenarios. Come November 4, it will be all that matters.

This will certainly not be the final post where I address polling data in the context of the Electoral College, but seems fitting on this date, September 17, when our nation honors the completion of the Constitution that created it, for better or for worse. I'll be back on Friday to discuss the candidates' web presence in an election where the Internet has transformed many aspects of campaigning. Happy Constitution Day!


Poll Position, Level One

By Shawn Healy
In our coverage of the 2008 presidential election, polling data has entered our discussion an untold number of times. As consumers of daily news, we are literally bombarded with data on the so-called horse race as media outlets trip over one another to release their latest temperature of the electorate. These numbers are significant, but must be interpreted with several caveats in mind. What follows is Part One in a series of simplistic breakdowns of public opinion polls in the context of the 2008 presidential election.

As polling data is collected and analyzed, keep in mind that public opinion is never stagnant, but instead in continuous flux. Polls are snapshots of how the electorate feels at a specific moment in time. In order to make meaning of this deluge of information, we are better served by longitudinal looks at public opinion where trends become evident and day-to-day fluctuations balance out. Gallup provides a great service through their daily tracking poll, allowing us to view the contest along a longer trajectory. Also, notice that their daily polling figures are a compilation of three days of data, providing a longer time horizon.

Any responsible polling organization releases its margin of error when presenting survey data. This figure is a product of sample size, and accounts for the fact that samples are but a small fraction of the general population. If samples are representative of the population as a whole, or of likely voters, the margin of error allows for wiggle room in either direction. The aforementioned Gallup poll, for example, finds Senator John McCain leading Senator Barack Obama by a mere 2 points, 47%-45%. With a margin of error of plus or minus 2%, this means that Obama could actually be leading the race, 47%-45%, or that McCain is up by a larger margin, 49-43%. The race, according to Gallup, is a statistical tie. However, the 2 point spread represents their most accurate projection of the national electorate over the three-day period studied.

As mentioned earlier, as consumers of public opinion polls, it is best to be wary of any single poll as a predictor of pending election results. In a sense, we try to avoid placing all of our eggs in one basket. and both do a great job of aggregating these polls. Take Pollster's compilation of national polls in the presidential race, for instance. Each of the dots on the chart represent data points from individual polls, the red ones representing McCain, the blue ones Obama. The red and blue lines denote the mean of these individual data points. Listed below are the series of individual polls, along with dates compiled, incorporated into this longitudinal look at the 2008 contest.

As the election nears, it is also important to be wary of last-minute polls, for their may push undecided voters into a decision they are ill-prepared to make. Moreover, undecided voters at a late hour are much less likely to actually vote on Election Day than those already committed to a candidate. Also, undecided voters may break decisively to one candidate or the other, throwing off any number of previous polls.

This election cycle actually has a small, but still significant number of undecided voters who will without doubt determine the winner. I attribute this to the fact that the race is 20 months old and has been the top news story since the Spring of 2007. Many of us are very familiar (if not tired of) the two major party candidates and the central narratives in this close contest.

An unfortunate variable that must be considered in this year's clash is the so-called Bradley Effect, named after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who ran and lost a race for Governor of California even though late polls showed him with a healthy lead. The hypothesis states that low income white voters (<$50,000 in annual income) tend to over report their proclivities to support African-American and other minority candidates to poll administrators, later voting for the white opponent upon entering the voting booth. Given that Obama is the first African-American candidate for president, the Bradley Effect must remain on our radars. True, Obama did exceedingly well in a number of predominantly white states, specifically Iowa and Wisconsin. However, New Hampshire is similarly homogeneously white, and polls there predicted an Obama victory in the primary over Clinton only to see her squeak out a 2 point win.

A final word about polling methods is also warranted. I have long been concerned about pollster's almost exclusive reliance upon land lines to conduct surveys, partially because I have been almost exclusively a cell phone user myself for a good part of the last decade. The typical defense was that cell phone only voters were decidedly young, and more fickle in their turnout on Election Day. More recently, in 2004 we witnessed an uptick in voting amongst the 18-29 demographic, and early indications in this election cycle predict a record turnout among young people, a seismic shift that indeed could decide the election. Some polling organizations have incorporated cell phone reliant users into their samples, negating my concerns, but I caution you to be vary of those who have not.

This initial overview was just that, and I invite you to forward poll-related questions my way that I promise to address in future posts. Leave a comment below, or send me an email at Wednesday's edition will move from national to state polls, taking into account the fact that this election will be decided by a handful of swing states. Until then, pardon the pun, but I'm polling away.


RNC in a Wrap

By Shawn Healy
I posted synopses last week of the daily drama that unfolded at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, MN. Lost in this play-by-play coverage was my own experience as an alternate delegate. I promise to post pictures later this week, but what follows is a recap of my experience in the Twin Cities last Sunday through Friday.

I flew to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport the Sunday before the convention began, arriving in the early evening to a metropolitan area clearly prepared for the deluge that would follow. Volunteers were strategically staged throughout my weekly journey, always proving that "Minnesota nice" is an apt description for locals in these parts. I rode their relatively new rail system from the airport to downtown Minneapolis, then walked to the Millennium Hotel which housed the entire Illinois delegation.

The convention began on a down note, as Hurricane Gustav wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast, and Monday's activities were scaled back as a result. While the convention was called to order and First Lady George Bush and Cindy McCain made pleas for disaster relief, I opted to skip the somber meeting and instead attended Civic Fest at the Minneapolis Convention Center. I was treated to exhibits featuring Minnesota history, forgotten members of our nation's founding generation, and a history of the American Flag. Also on hand was a bald eagle waiting to be named (I voted for "Franklin," Benjamin of course, who famously advocated for a turkey to serve as our national symbol, limousines used by Presidents Roosevelt and Reagan, a portion of the cabin of Air Force One, and a model of the White House Rose Garden. Also on hand were models of the Oval Office for recent presidents, along with an exhibit on all 43 of our presidents, featuring an audio recording for each.

Undoubtedly the most exciting feature of the fest was the convention merchandise for sale at a pretty penny. Fresh-off-the-press McCain-Palin t-shirts, hats, bumper stickers, and yes, pins, were peddled to customers more than ready to buy in bulk. An elephant, the symbol of the Republican Party, co-starred in this mecca of campaign ephemera. Additionally, authors peddled their wares (I picked up a copy of It's the Economy! (Stupid)), Republican organizations strutted their stuff, and this shopper left with a bag full of paraphernalia, hoping there would be room left in my suitcase come Friday.

Monday's detour would yield to a predictable routine for the balance of the convention. A morning breakfast featuring surrogates of the McCain campaign would set the agenda for the day. This was typically followed by afternoon luncheons, day trips to local tourist traps, and an occasional substantive meeting, such as a Google seminar on politics. Since the convention itself was staged in St. Paul, we were forced to board buses for what became an hour-long journey each day to the Xcel Center. Traffic snarled us from every direction as organizers made every effort to keep us away from the protesters who threatened to kidnap one of us.

Upon reaching the convention site, we were whisked through security and screened by Secret Service. On the periphery, attendees were invited to enter the Fox Experience, a behind-the-scenes look at the Fox News Channel's remote operations. Little did I know that this was a precursor of things to come.

As I entered the Xcel Center for the first time it was clear that the entire convention was made-for-television. The luxury boxes surrounding the area was transformed into TV studios, and even the open areas along the concourse were monopolized by local affiliates. On the convention floor, Fox News and CNN claimed prominent positions. While CNN rotated new members of the "best team on television" to their five-person panel, Fox shifted from Shepard Smith, to the O'Reilly Factor, to Hannity and Colmes, and finally Chris Wallace.

Shortly after taking my seat at the 100 level to the left of the main stage, I was asked to fill a seat on the floor and eagerly jumped at the opportunity. I neglected to consider the fact that the Illinois delegation was relegated to back of the floor as states were assigned positions portending to their strategic importance in the Electoral College come fall. Let's just say is that it's clear that Illinois is not in play.

Upon arriving on the floor, I was exposed to a who's who of the State Republican Party. State Chair of the McCain Campaign, Rep. Jim Durkin, presided, with Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson alongside, and former gubernatorial candidate Judy Baar Topinka in tow. Speakers throughout the convention climbed a modest stage built as an acknowledgment of Senator McCain's preference for a town hall setting, and this made it difficult for those seated on the floor to even see the orators. Instead, many turned their attention to the adjacent Fox News stage and the A-list of guests who rotated on and off throughout the evening. I met "The Architect," Karl Rove, who was disarming with his kindness and delightful interaction with the crowd, and also Sean Hannity, who reveled in an atmosphere where it was clear he was "playing at home." Dick Morris, Rudy Giuliani, and Newt Gingrich were but a few of the distinguished guests who shared their talking points with the viewing public.

After speaking on the main stage, many of the campaign surrogates did the cable and network news circuit throughout the arena. For instance, after First Lady Laura Bush introduced her husband for his remote address to the delegates, she ascended to the NBC box right above us for an interview with NBC's Brian Williams. In recent years, the networks have showed fewer and fewer hours of convention coverage, so the parties stage their keynote speakers later in the evening for all to see, namely between the 9-10pm slot. The cable news channels cover more of the convention, yet the great bulk of this features their own talking heads and not the speakers themselves.

After the final speech, attendees board buses once more for a ride back to their hotels, then another to that evening's after party. Most of these are sponsored by major corporations and feature free food and drinks. They are staged at local hot spots, and generally last well into the wee hours of the morning, with parting gifts for fatigued partisans. In fact, Minneapolis went a step further, recognizing that the party need not end at bar time. They extended bar hours until 4am, and from these road-weary eyes, convention-goers took full advantage of this gesture.

I documented each of the major speeches in my previous posts, but it goes without saying that Governor Sarah Palin's was both the most anticipated and the most electric in its reception. There was an electricity in the air on Wednesday, and the keynote speakers, namely Giuliani and Palin, recognized and played off of this. Attendees were greeted with new souvenir items, namely Sarah Palin pins. One simply displayed a pink heart with the words "I Love Sarah." Another, 20,000 of which sold out within an hour on display, read "Hottest VP from the Coolest State" with a picture of the former beauty queen atop the caption. I shamelessly purchased an ample supply of my own.

Buttons proved the staple of honor at this convention, as hardly a soul traveled without at least one fastened to their shirt or sports coat. Wild hats were also en vogue, and Texans stole the show here with their 10 Gallon concoctions, but others preferred to don an elephant or a simple McCain baseball hat in a variety of styles. The Illinois delegation sported paper Lincoln hats, a fashion statement eaten up by the Chicagoland TV affiliates.

The excitement amongst attendees after Palin's speech was palpable, and many felt that McCain's speech would simply be icing on the cake. The "original maverick" delivered arguably the best speech of his career to a national television audience even larger than the one Obama addressed one week earlier. The balloon drop followed and continued for at least 20 minutes as the candidates leaped on and off the stage to greet delegates and acknowledge the entire crowd in the rafters. I managed to catch a piece of confetti, but was deprived of the balloon shower and beach scene of balloon volleys on the floor. Blaring from the speakers was a campaign version of "Raising McCain" by John Rich of the famous country duo, Big and Rich.

The sentiments as I left the hall for the final time was that Senator McCain actually had a fighting chance to win this thing, and lo and behold, his supporters had a pitched battle in store for them over the final 60 days of the campaign. This week's polls suggest that he received a generous post-convention bounce, setting the stage for three presidential debates with Senator Obama and the equally-anticipated showdown between Senator Joe Biden and Governor Palin. Without doubt these developments represent only the latest twists and turns of this historic campaign.

I returned to Chicago thankful for the opportunity to partake in an event I had watched from afar throughout my entire life. While modern political conventions may be little more than coronations for presidential candidates, the daily drama of this made-for-TV event is even more gripping at the center of the arena. It is my goal to keep you at this favorable position as the countdown to November 4 continues. 55 days and counting...


The Maverick's Moment

By Shawn Healy
Senator John McCain waited a long time to formally accept his party’s nomination for president. Perhaps it began with his military enlistment at the age of seventeen as he entered the U.S. Naval Academy. Maybe it was formed on an aircraft carrier or in the cockpit of the F-4 as he flew 23 bombing missions over North Vietnam, only to be shot down by a surface-to-air missile in his final approach. Or from a Hanoi lake where he parachuted down McCain and was greeted by angry North Vietnamese captors, who took his broken and burned body to the infamous POW prison camp known as the Hanoi Hilton. It was here that McCain survived unspeakable torture and lived in solitary confinement in a 4 X 6 foot cell. This wrenching experience, according to McCain, bestowed in him a love of country like no other, and stands as the rationale for his candidacy to serve as the 44th President of the United States.

McCain spoke last evening to a crowd of 20,000 assembled Republican delegates, alternates, and distinguished guests at the Xcel Center in St. Paul, MN. He leaned heavy on his aforementioned biography, perched over a simplistic podium on a narrow stage amid a sea of supporters. The contrast to that of his opponent one week earlier could not have been more striking, for McCain has always sold best in small venues where he can engage in the give-and-take of a town hall setting. It was this approach that rescued his campaign from the dead a year ago as he camped out in New Hampshire and used a victory in the first-in-the-nation primary to propel himself to the Republican nomination that eluded him eight years earlier.

McCain will never match the soaring rhetoric of his opponent, but his straight talk and record of reaching across the aisle may indeed prove the winning formula in this change election. His nearly hour-long speech was pre-staged by testimonials from two of his closest political supporters, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. They were followed by Cindy McCain, who highlighted her own humanitarian service and spoke to her husband’s greatest strength, that of a father of their five children. A video montage of McCain preceded a dark arena, where the words of Senator Fred Thompson introduced the Arizona senator in dramatic fashion.

Early in his speech, McCain referenced the current presidential administration without invoking George Bush’s name, praising him for his decisive leadership on 9-11 and record of keeping the country safe from terrorism during the intervening 7 years. His remarks featured only occasional strikes at Obama. Indeed he acknowledged that he respects and admires the Illinois senator, yet vowed to fight to the end in this historic contest. McCain embraced his maverick reputation, claiming that he places the interests of his country before those of party or person. This theme permeated the entire convention, and McCain’s coronation was but a capstone.

McCain focused heavily on his reform credentials, scolding his own party for allowing Washington to change them and abandon their principles. He promised to bring the Republican Party back to its fiscally conservative roots, referencing the proud lineage of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan. He emphasized his intention to cut taxes, reform our nation’s schools, and make health care more affordable, yet managed by the individual and not a government bureaucrat. He invoked his now famous line that he will veto every pork barrel project in spending bills forwarded his way, making their authors “famous.”

His speech ended with an implicit contrast to the rationale of his opponent's. Rather than save America, McCain suggests that the country saved him long ago in that Hanoi prison cell. He asked for the honor to serve the nation he loves until his dying breath, revisiting a theme he has uttered often as a public servant. McCain seeks to serve a cause greater than self, and America voters are now left with 60 days to examine the respective resumes of these two inspiring candidates. Polls show a dead heat, and this contest will undoubtedly offer many twists and turns over the coming weeks.

As a first-time convention attendee, the theatrics of the past two evenings are simply indescribable. Whether they alter the underlying dynamics of this election remains to be seen, but I can attest to the fact that the Republican Party is united behind the McCain-Palin ticket, and the excitement spawned by the latter addition may yet shift the contest in unforeseen directions. I’ll write once again next week with a synopsis of my experiences as an alternate delegate, for this story deserves to stand on its own, and end this post with the words of Senator McCain on an evening that he prepared for in the 55 years he has served this country in one capacity or the other.

“I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s. I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here…I loved it not just because it was a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for.”


Danger: The Barracuda Bites!

By Shawn Healy
Fresh off Governor Sarah Palin's acceptance of the vice presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention last evening, Senator John McCain is poised to do the same this evening on presidential par, a position he has sought for nearly a decade. The coronation comes on the heels of a rather tumultuous week first disrupted by Hurricane Gustav, then personal drama surrounding Palin and her family, ultimately raising questions about the vetting process she endured.

The convention kicked off in subdued and abbreviated fashion on Monday with an appeal for funds to help Gulf Coast victims of yet another natural disaster. Cindy McCain and First Lady Laura Bush appealed to the nation's consciousness on Labor Day, as the convention carried on only necessary business to enable this evening's balloon drop. Thankfully, the storm wasn't as potent as feared, and the convention resumed at full strength on Tuesday.

Tuesday's program was punctuated by speeches from Laura Bush, who introduced her husband and our current President. Speaking via satellite, the unpopular president made clear that McCain is his own man, effectively handing off the Republican baton to his former rival. His father, former President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara sat in the crowd and were acknowledged, but the imprint of the Bush dynasty was purposefully limited as McCain attempts to fend off allegations that he represents a continuation of the current administration.

The keynote addresses of Tuesday evening were delivered by former Senator and presidential candidate Fred Thompson and Independent Democrat and former vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman. In a folksy manner that raised questions of what might have been had his campaign not fallen so very flat, Thompson served up the first red meat of the convention, rallying conservatives with a mixture of charm and bravado. Lieberman followed with an appeal to our nation's interest, suggesting that these tough times require us to transcend party, and arguing that John McCain is singularly qualified to serve as our next president.

Tuesday's warning shots set the stage for perhaps the most anticipated evening of the convention on Wednesday as Sarah Palin would speak on a national stage for the first time. The festivities also featured McCain's "team of rivals," a succession of vanquished opponents from this year's Republican primary season who attested to the qualifications of their former foe and rallied behind the longtime maverick. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney led the parade, followed by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and finally former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. While the first two delivered a few memorable lines and bloodied Senator Barack Obama with an occasional blow to the chin, Giuliani proved a Brooklyn-tough prize fighter. Swaying with confidence and enthusiasm with each successive strike at the Democratic presidential nominee, Rudy played bad cop and electrified the assembled delegates at the Excel Center in St. Paul.

Sarah Palin strolled in immediately thereafter, blowing the lid off an arena and signaling a Republican Party that is clearly unified. She laid out her biography, introducing her family one-by-one, then spoke to the qualifications of John McCain, testifying to the honor of joining the ticket he heads. A good portion of the speech was devoted to the hatchet (wo)man role traditionally reserved to the running mate, and Palin proved that she will not pull punches, living up to the reputation she earned as a state championship point guard in high school, "Sarah the Barracuda."

In the end, Palin electrified a party that has been on life support of late, bringing needed enthusiasm to a ticket stuck in neutral for much and the spring and summer since McCain became the presumptive nominee. She also answered a series of questions that arose in recent days, most notably of whether or not she was ready for primetime. Early reviews are incredibly positive, and an estimated 37 million viewers, just shy of the number that tuned in for Obama's historic address one week ago, wanted to view another trailblazer in her own right. Palin set the bar remarkably high for Senator McCain this evening, especially for a man not known for his lofty oratory. Expect a workmanlike speech this evening before an audience predisposed to launch him out of the blocks for the two month sprint toward November 4.

Check back here tomorrow for a review of McCain's acceptance speech and more general observations of my experience this week attending the Republican National Convention.


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at