In 1980, Ronald Reagan asked voters whether they felt better off than four years earlier. He went on to defeat Jimmy Carter a few weeks later. On Friday Barack Obama raised the same question: “Do you think that you are better off now than you were four years ago or eight years ago?” he asked voters in Florida. “And if you don’t… do you think you can afford another four years of the same failed economic policies that we’ve had under George W. Bush?”
With unemployment on Friday jumping by 51,000 to take this year’s job losses to almost half a million, Mr Obama is mining a potentially rich seam. But a number of Democrats, including advisers to the Obama campaign, are worried that the Democratic party’s overall electoral advantage this year has not yet translated into comfortable leads for Mr Obama. On Friday Gallup showed Mr Obama just one point ahead of John McCain – a significant tightening in the past two weeks.
Mr McCain’s improving fortunes have coincided with a strikingly negative turn in his campaign’s tactics, with the launch last weekend of an advertisement criticising Mr Obama for failing to visit wounded soldiers when he was in Germany because the Pentagon refused to permit the media to accompany him. That allegation has since been debunked.
But the signs are that Mr McCain’s continuing attacks – most recently in a commercial that portrayed Mr Obama as a vapid celebrity against images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears – may be striking a chord with the white working class voters who shunned Mr Obama so emphatically in many of his primary contests with Hillary Clinton.
With just one month to go before Labour Day – the traditional beginning of the general election – and only three weeks before the Democratic convention, many Democrats fear that time is running out for Mr Obama to overcome the suspicions of this key swing vote.
“We have got to move away from these beautifully choreographed speeches which appeal to groups of voters who are unassailably in the Obama camp already,” said a non-staff adviser to Mr Obama. “What plays well with the educated liberal voter sometimes grates with the blue-collar folk, whom we need on our side if we are going to win.”
The numbers back up the concern. Although Mr Obama has a good shot at winning traditional Republican states such as Colorado, Virginia and even North Carolina, he cannot capture the White House if he loses more than one of Pennsylvania, Ohio or Michigan – the more traditional, blue-collar swing states, which Mrs Clinton won by huge margins in the primary contests. Polls suggest these states are too close to call.
At this stage in the 1988 presidential race, Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate, had a 17 percentage point lead over George H.W. Bush, who went on to win the election. John Kerry emerged from the 2004 Democratic convention with a strong lead over George W. Bush only to lose the election as well. In 2008, conventional wisdom says Mr McCain is running a much less effective campaign than either of the Bushes.
That only reinforces disquiet about Mr Obama’s inability so far to take a decisive lead. “Even on his worst day, Bill Clinton was able to signal that he understood voters’ concerns and that he felt their pain,” said Douglas Schoen, a Democratic consultant. “Obama has no trouble with the campaign stagecraft. But this isn’t Harvard, it’s the beer hall. He has to talk in language that people understand.”
Conventional wisdom also suggests Mr McCain’s campaign overstepped the mark by moving on to direct negative attacks on Mr Obama’s character. But Mr Obama has also kept up a stream of material for them to exploit. At a meeting with Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday, he said he represented the world’s hopes for America. “This is the moment the world is waiting for,” he said when asked about his overseas trip. “I have become a symbol of restoring America to its best traditions.”
The Obama campaign says the remarks were taken out of context. But reports such as this can still play badly in communities that pay little attention to foreign policy and are looking for empathy with their economic situation, say analysts. “Look, Obama has pulled off a good tour of Europe and it was probably necessary,” says a Democratic consultant who backed Mr Obama against Mrs Clinton. “What we need now is campaign events in hospital emergency rooms and in unemployment offices and small town diners. These people have a vote.”
Given the McCain campaign’s barely concealed contempt for Mr Obama and Mr Obama’s occasional tendency to present his candidacy in soaring, epochal terms, many believe the pattern of negative attacks is now here to stay.
By Edward Luce in Washington