Party affiliation is still the number one factor influencing voter decision, but after that it may come down to a single word, or at least a one-word description of the candidates. You can see what I mean by applying the word association technique to a few former chief executives. Think of Nixon, you think of Watergate. Think of Carter you think malaise. Think of Clinton you think Monica. Or Hillary. Or bimbo eruptions, in general. Think of Ford and you probably dose off. Only Ronald Reagan seems to have been too big to pin down to a single word. He does, after all, get credit for winning the Cold War, which dwarf the other things he is remembered for: Reaganomics, the Reagan Revolution, Iran-Contra.
Sen. John McCain would probably prefer his word be "maverick," or "hero." Sorry, but the word most associated with the Arizona senator, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, is "old." Maverick and hero, in fact, come rather far down the list, after the unflattering "Bushlike" and the misnomer "conservative."
Sen. Barack Obama's description is even less attractive: "inexperienced." At least we may assume the connotations of inexperienced are less flattering than those associated with old. After all, isn't old age linked to wisdom, virtue, and experience? "Old foxes want no tutors," said historian Thomas Fuller. Of course this was the same Fuller who said, "Old sacks want much patching," and "old vessels must leak." So which is it? Is old age semantically a positive or a negative?
We like to think past generations had devout respect for their elders, and only with the Boomers did old become synonymous with fusty and outmoded. But that's not the case, notes David Hackett Fischer in Growing Old in America. True, the Puritans did venerate the elderly, whom they thought might achieve true moral greatness through the "leaven of time." However, their New England heirs, the Transcendentalists, took the opposite view. "Nature abhors the old," wrote Emerson, and Thoreau, as usual, went further: "I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot teach me anything." To Thoreau, the old were experienced only in the ways of failure. His "ethical anarchism" had an obvious appeal to 1960s radicals, intellectuals, and rock stars.
Ronald Reagan may have been (to date) the oldest man elected to the White House, but he was somehow able to convince the nation he was ushering in "Morning in America," that he was a revolutionary figure of change capable of restoring pride in the American body politic. McCain, meanwhile, has been dubbed "Bush Redux."
Further, old may equally signify out-of-touch, a notion McCain reinforced when he admitted he was an Internet illiterate, before a spokesman rushed to his aid with one of the unintentionally funniest statements of the campaign --"John McCain is aware of the Internet" -- which, gaffe-wise, was as big a flop as George H.W. Bush's amazement at a supermarket scanner, a fiction dismissed by the Urban Legends website, though one that nonetheless persists to this day.
TODAY AMERICANS 50 years of age and older make up 24 percent of the population. Not surprisingly McCain is doing well among the elderly, who are not so much interested in a maverick, as a steady hand on the tiller. "It's McCain's lead among voters over the age of 65 that is keeping him within shouting distance of Obama," says pollster John Zogby. Meanwhile Obama has been deified by the young. The fact that he is leading among independent voters (44 percent to 39 percent), most of whom tend to be young, suggests they, like Thoreau, prefer "inexperience" over "old." (Interestingly McCain was not always anathema to young hip voters. During the 2000 presidential campaign, David Foster Wallace noted McCain's appeal among the young which he attributed to the fact that they were "starved" for "just some minimal level of genuineness in the men who want to 'lead' and 'inspire' them." But McCain was eight years younger then, and David Foster Wallace was still alive.)
His age aside, it is hard for the mass of voters to personally dislike McCain. In fact, he seems so gosh-darn likable that Democrats have to try to hoodwink voters into thinking McCain is not McCain, but the reincarnation of George W. Bush, and the popularity of the word "Bushlike" suggests the strategy is working. Were it not for the current financial crisis on Wall Street, for which voters tend to blame Republicans, McCain would be dead-even with Obama among independents, and it is independents that will decide this election. For the Obama campaign, the financial crisis was the luckiest thing that could have happened.
A Welsh proverb states that, "One has to be neither strong nor bold to win a victory over the old." I would add, just lucky.