Like many a baby-boomer the first US Presidential election of which I was really aware was the epic battle between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. It was the first truly twentieth century election – contested, for the first time, by two candidates who had both actually been born in the century and characterised, also for the first time, by the first tenative use of modern marketing methods – especially advertising. Seen from Britain, where we had a Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, who had been born when Queen Victoria was still on the throne and who would no doubt have seen all the American razzmatazz as irredeemably vulgar, it was all very exciting.

The principal brands in Election 2008 are arguably far more differentiated than Kennedy v Nixon, indeed for America to have two candidates each of whom is from way out of left field is unusual, if not quite unique. Although Kennedy and Nixon had very different personalities they were both machine politicians out of the classic American mould. The handsome Kennedy, for all his film star looks and glamorous wife was just as much a mainstream Democrat as was Richard Nixon an archetypal Republican. True Kennedy was a Catholic and Nixon was from comparatively humble origins – but neither was too far removed from the core values that were held by most of their supporters.

By contrast forty-eight years on from 1960 this year’s contest has two candidates neither of whom could be seen as remotely establishment in character or style. Barack Obama will find it hard to tar John McCain with the brush that he is part responsible for some of America’s current difficulties. McCain was never a Bush supporter and was scathing of the neo-cons who pulled Bush’s strings. Obama is the first genuine liberal to achieve the Democratic Party’s nomination since Carter and he too is unencumbranced by association with any past administration. This fact is the principal reason that Obama won against Hillary Clinton who could never argue as credibly for “change” as he can – certainly with Bill so closely in the wings.

But whilst Obama can have “change” as the key word in his brand positioning McCain can equally credibly do the same. In the past his record as a maverick would have been a disadvantage – today it is a benefit. George Bush has the lowest poll ratings of any President of modern times and McCain needs to be linked in the public mind with Bush like he needs a hole in the head. Indeed Iraq is the only issue on which McCain is vulnerable – which is why the “success” of the “surge” (of which he can reasonably claim to be an architect) is so important to him. If between now and November Iraq turns horribly sour again the McCain position may become untenable and he may be unelectable.

Although John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were the same age give or take a year or two Kennedy was by far the fresher, more youthful, more “modern” candidate. But it was a close run thing and without a bit of old fashioned pork barrel politics and quite a bit of behind the scenes skulduggery by the Kennedy team, Nixon could well have won.  The risk for Obama is that his youth, inexperience and, for some, his race may be a step too far. Kennedy could appeal to the more conservative voters by reference to his record as a patriot with distinguished active service behind him. Of this year’s two candidates only McCain can do this and it would be foolish of Obama to underestimate the benefit that might accrue from his opponent’s Vietnam War Hero identity.

Jackie Kennedy was a huge asset to her husband and in a tight contest this too may have made a crucial difference. Pat Nixon, with her “…respectable Republican cloth coat”, was worthy but not inspirational. Cindy McCain seems a Pat Nixon type, supportive but in the background. Michelle Obama, on the other hand, needs to be turned into an asset because there is no doubt that the Republicans, however subtle the attack may be, will continue to lambaste her for her “…for the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country ” gaffe. Obama might be tempted, as he was for a while in the Primaries, to keep Michelle in the background. He should think about doing the opposite and try and reposition this attractive, articulate and intelligent woman so that she becomes, like Jackie, an asset.

John McCain, like Nixon all those years ago, can pretty much rely on core Republican support and he will probably choose a running mate who will deliver him the religious right vote as well – and George Bush has shown twice what a powerful electoral combination this is. Obama has got to get Hillary’s working class whites to transfer to him but, above all, the constituency that can deliver him victory is the millions of Americans who couldn’t be bothered to vote in the past. A high turnout, which means above all getting African-Americans to the polling station, is Obama’s best chance of victory. To the man or woman who says, “Give me a reason to vote” Barack Obama must give that reason. If he does this then his fresh appeal, brilliant oratory and clear break with the past should carry him to the White House. It won’t be Camelot – but it might not be too far from that brief but oh so glamorous Kennedy era – lets hope that it lasts more than a thousand days this time.
 

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