McCain’s Outreach Tour

Going where Republicans fear to tread.

John McCain

How many points do you get for just showing up? John McCain will get an idea at the end of the month when he travels to venues where Republicans don’t usually campaign. McCain is planning to speak in inner cities, heavily African-American sections of the South, and poor sections of Appalachia. Most of his stops will be in areas where voters have traditionally supported Democrats.

Can McCain win over many new voters in these areas? Probably not. In 2000, President Bush got just 9 percent of the total black vote. He improved slightly to 11 percent in 2004. If McCain winds up running against Barack Obama, his opportunities in the African-American community will diminish further.

That’s OK, though, because the McCain tour is not aimed at winning a host of black votes. Nor is it primarily about the next obvious play: showing independents that he cares about minorities and the underprivileged, a traditional bank shot candidates take in order to make themselves appealing to moderate voters. The tour, which will include lots of freewheeling town halls, is more like performance art, an attempt to show off authenticity and the unfiltered McCain. “People can come in and do what they want,” says McCain’s top adviser, Mark Salter. “They can praise, chastise, and argue with him. This isn’t just his style. It’s a part of his message.”

McCain’s strategists are mapping the tour—and his campaign—on the theory that even if voters disagree with McCain, they come away with a favorable gut-level sense of his character when they get to see him up close. This is what aides think helped him win New Hampshire in 2000 and what they think sparked his comeback this election. With this tour, McCain is hoping not so much that the people in the hall fall for him as that the cameras capturing the event can convey some of his appeal to independents across the country.

McCain is doing events like this tour out of necessity, too. While the press is focused on the Democratic race, this helps bring McCain attention. The press likes Republicans-doing-unorthodox-things stories, and McCain likes to see himself reflected back as a maverick in their coverage.

The tour also appeals to McCain’s strong suit. He’s no good in the usual campaign setting. He sounds stilted and unemotional behind a podium. In a town hall, he speaks more directly. His better qualities are more likely to come out in a high-risk setting, where he exchanges views with sometimes hostile voters, than in the deadening policy speech told before the beaming faces of GOP stalwarts.

The McCain tour also aims to draw a contrast with Barack Obama. (They already assume he’s going to win the nomination.) The GOP’s attack will boil down to the accusation that Obama is a big phony. The Democrat gives them an opening: Obama talks about how he goes in front of hostile audiences, but he doesn’t really do it much. He heralds his bipartisan appeal and talent for bringing people together, but his track record on these fronts is thin. He talks about how his administration will put its negotiations over policy on C-SPAN, but he has run a conventionally conservative campaign, keeping press access relatively low. When his top economic aide (and former Slate contributor), Austan Goolsbee, got into trouble, the campaign hid him under a bushel rather than offering him to reporters to answer questions. “Obama talks about doing these things,” says a McCain aide, “he just doesn’t do them.” With big acts of accessibility and reaching out beyond his party ranks, McCain hopes to show as well as tell that Obama’s promises to do the same are empty.

With this tour, McCain is trying something that has never really been tried before by a Republican presidential candidate. When Jack Kemp ran with Bob Dole in 1996, I toured with him to a community center in Watts and Sylvia’s in Harlem. He pitched the African-American crowds on the power of tax cuts and personal empowerment with just as much of his wacky energy as he spread over lily-white crowds. He was well-received, but his constant mantra that “green [meaning money] is the color of civil rights” never caught on. (No one was ever quite sure what he meant when he yelled it.) Plus Dole never made the same kinds of trips, which undermined the pitch. George Bush promised to run as a new kind of Republican for everyone but rarely performed outside of his comfort zone. Plus, Bush was highly nervous about unplanned questions, and his campaigns eventually screened voters to make sure he had to talk only to fawning ones.

That no Republican nominee has done a tour like this before should signal that it’s high-risk. For all the energy McCain derives from town hall appearances, so far his minority crowds have been limited to Indian reservations and poor Mexican-American areas in his home state. McCain is also going to be talking about education, health care, and the economy, issues he is far less comfortable addressing than issues of defense and national security. Still, McCain and his aides are hoping that the points they win for trying will overcome the downside of possible fumbles and missteps.

Will any of this work? Only if McCain’s effort is sustained. If this tour looks like a stunt, then all the grand claims the McCain team is making for it—that the tour is driven by McCain’s sense of duty and openness—will boomerang. As a candidate who wants to represent all the people, his aides say, he can’t keep himself from going before all different kinds of people, even if it’s a risk. But all that deep-convictions talk could easily come to look like a sham. McCain doesn’t want to go out to prove he’s the real thing only to end up looking like another phony.