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Thursday, August 14, 2008

McCain's Strategy of Age

Over the last week, I've gotten a fair amount of media calls regarding the McCain-Obama election, mainly from a branding point of view. Is McCain out of it? Is Obama unstoppable? You know -- the usual stuff. I find these questions fascinating, if only because it reminds me of the incredibly brief attention span of a nation that seems increasingly ADHD. One minute they're impassioned about global warming; the next they're up in arms over higher gas prices. Go figure. The big question over the last weeks has been, "Is it over for McCain?" To which I reply, "Hardly." And here's why:

While youth is sexier and more robust, it doesn't always win out. In fact, it seldom does. And if you're paying attention, you're seeing one of the more intriguing public brand strategy battles happening in real time.

Everyone likes to dump on McCain for being older. What they don't want to acknowledge is that he may be a tad wiser in ways the American media really doesn't understand. Just as when the media wrote of his primary campaign, they're writing him off now. But if you look closely, there's a pretty smart plan in play. McCain is using a classic strategy of leveraging his opponent's strength to his advantage. And it's working.

Not only has McCain realized that Obama is a rock star, he's playing that very asset against Obama. Think differently? Okay, consider Obama's recent world tour that was designed to promote his international credibility. Lots of energy. Lots of talent. Lots of video. And lots of sellout crowds across the continent. Ostensibly, that huge effort should have worked. It should have pushed McCain into the shadows. But it didn't. McCain didn't fight Obama for media attention at all. In fact, he let Obama play out his tour. But then McCain took down Obama's entire effort with a well-placed comment about Obama's acting presidential when he's not the president. The massive whooshing sound that followed was the wind being sucked out of Obama's sails. Within one soundbyte, Obama went from "potential international statesman" to "publicity-seeking rock star."

Ouch.

This reminds me of when I was in my twenties on the racquetball court, and a man in his late fifties (now that's old) challenged me to a game. I couldn't believe the old fart had that stones to take me on. It was no contest, so I accepted. I had better speed, more agility and more endurance. Twenty one points later, the guy had whipped my ass, because he knew I had better speed, more agility and more endurance. So he stayed in one spot and hit the ball where I wasn't. At the end of the game, I was a losing heap of sweat and he was a winner, grinning calmly and coolly.

In the later stages of his career, Muhammad Ali used the same tactic on his younger opponents, applying his "rope a dope" strategy. He'd let the morons charge and punch and pound him in the early rounds -- and then won in the later rounds by pummeling them when they were too tired to fight back. It's the same thing with McCain and Obama. The young buck is out there, spending a lot of energy, getting lots of press. The old guy is just hanging back, waiting for his shot.

Maybe political pundits should take a look at the true definition of what experience means in this race. Perhaps it's not as important to have spent a lot of time on the Senate floor as it is to have spent a lot of time out there on the street.

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