From NBC's Mark Murray
As Republican pollster Bill McInturff sees it, two differences would have made last month's presidential contest much closer -- had the financial collapse occurred on Dec. 15 instead of Sept. 15, and had the Republican National Committee been able to raise more than $200 million in the final two months, without any restrictions on how the McCain campaign could use it.
But, of course, neither happened.
McInturff, who was McCain's pollster and who has since returned to become the Republican half of the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, says the McCain camp was in the process of unveiling its "Chicago" ad on Sept. 15. That advertisement, which linked Obama with Tony Rezko and even Rod Blagojevich (!!!), was the beginning of an effort to raise this question with voters about Obama: What else do we not know about him? "It was not the killer ad, but it was the right opening," McInturff said. Yet the economic collapse that began on Sept. 15 forced both campaigns instead to spend the next month reacting to that crisis.
The Obama campaign, McInturff notes, was better able to get out its message during the crisis by being able to spend a whopping $100 million-plus during the first two weeks of October. By contrast, because it decided to accept public funds during the general election (giving it just $85 million to spend from September to November), the McCain campaign couldn't compete financially. The money that the Republican National Committee raised helped close the gap, but those funds came with restrictions, which forced the McCain camp and the RNC to produce "hybrid" ads that were split between criticizing Obama and congressional Democrats.
McInturff said those ads were "horrible" because they didn't present viewers with a consistent message.
McInturff made these remarks at a breakfast meeting with reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. During the Q&A, he acknowledged that the campaign's polling numbers bottomed out after House Republicans killed the initial financial bailout package and after Colin Powell endorsed Obama. And he said he knew McCain wouldn't win on November 4 after seeing the initial exit polls that were released at 5:00 pm ET on Election Day.
To win, McInturff noted, the exit polls were going to have to show McCain narrowly ahead in Indiana, tied in Virginia, and up big in both Kentucky and Georgia. Those things didn't happen: As McInturff expected, the exit polls were inflated for Obama, but even after shaving several points off the Democrat's numbers, he knew Obama was well on his way to winning approximately 350 electoral votes.
Despite the grim outlook for McCain, McInturff defended the campaign memo he penned a week before the election, which argued that McCain's poll numbers were improving to the point where "we are headed to an election to an election that may easily be too close to call by next Tuesday." He said the campaign's internal polling had McCain down by 11 or 12 after Powell's endorsement, but those numbers kept improving until Election Day. The memo's purpose was two-fold, he said: 1) to argue that the race wasn't in the double digits as some public polls showed, and 2) to demonstrate that "John McCain had a pulse."
Also at the briefing, McInturff talked about the GOP's upcoming challenges with Latinos, younger voters, and moderates and independents. "If you can't win the center, you can't win an election."
Asked what Obama's potential vulnerabilities might be as president, McInturff responded that sometimes a person's strengths -- e.g., Obama's calm temperament -- could later turn out to be a weakness. He also said that the White House "bubble" could be a problem. "There is a big difference between how you operate in a campaign and what happens in the White House."
Yet McInturff cautioned that Republicans should probably wait a few months before taking out their knives to combat Obama. "The comeback doesn't have to start the first day after the swearing-in."
And given that about half of Republican Iowa caucus-goers are religious conservatives, McInturff predicted that Sarah Palin might be tough to beat in that first 2012 GOP contest. Despite her poor poll numbers among swing voters, he said to expect her to try to reach out in some way to these voters if she is indeed serious about a 2012 bid.