Alex Castellanos: Presidential election is at a turning point

September 23, 2008

September 23, 2008 — Notch one Republican for Obama.

Not as a supporter, of course — after all, Alex Castellanos, a fellow at the Institute of Politics this semester, has spent more than two decades working as a media consultant for Republican candidates, including George Bush, Mitt Romney, and now John McCain. But in a talk titled “The Unprecedented Political Developments of Campaign ’08,” Castellanos gave the standing-room-only crowd his call on the upcoming election: 60/40 odds for the Democratic nominee.

“This has got to be the strangest election I’ve ever seen,” said Castellanos after his introduction by Shorenstein Center director Alex S. Jones. In quick succession, he ticked off Hillary Clinton’s losing the primary to “a young college kid”; John McCain’s coming back from political oblivion; that the personal life of one of the 2004 vice presidential nominee would attract the attention of the National Enquirer; that McCain would pick “a moose hunter” for vice president. “And just when we said it can’t get any stranger, the economy turns to sawdust.”

And on that will hinge the election, he believes — not the attack ads, not the hockey moms, not the sparring over who is or isn’t too old, who is or isn’t ready. What about the upcoming debates? a questioner asked. “What debates?” Castellanos asked in response. “We already know the candidates.”

For someone who’s worked in a lot of bare-knuckle campaigns, Castellanos is surprisingly soft-spoken. He’s also open about what he sees as the weaknesses of the Republicans, whom he described as being seen as “the cable repairmen of government.” “$5 gas, spending out of control, an economy on the wrong track, an unpopular war.” And they’re up against Obama, who doesn’t have a campaign, but a cause. “And causes beat campaigns,” Castellanos said.

Still, he isn’t ready to put on an Obama button. He feels that early on, the candidate inspired people by “speaking truth to power,” but that after accepting the Democratic nomination, he “ran out of script.” The solution? Obama has to demonstrate true strength, including to his own campaign and party. “People are voting this week,” he said, referring to the turmoil in the financial markets that he felt would determine the election.

Castellanos went on to discuss the state of the press, which he described as being “in tough shape.” “Technology is cruel on intermediaries,” he observed, but felt that in the end the changes would be positive. People are now “getting their information in other places and they’re forming their own opinions. And in a way, isn’t that what we’d like as a country? Isn’t that what we aspire to as a democracy?”

This article was written by and the photos taken by Leighton Walter Kille of the Shorenstein Center.