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Does “macaca” (still) matter?

at 11:36 AM ET, 05/11/2011

In the summer of 2006, Virginia Sen. George Allen’s re-election bid was on cruise control — so much so that those around him had begun to openly speculate about a possible presidential bid in 2008.

Then “macaca” happened.

Allen’s decision to lob that word at an Indian-American staffer for former Navy Secretary Jim Webb (D) during a campaign rally fundamentally altered the race and Allen’s political future. (It also ushered in the You Tube era of campaign politics.)

So, as Allen seeks to put his career back on track with a run for his old seat against former governor Tim Kaine (D) in 2012, it’s worth asking: Does “macaca” still matter?

A new Washington Post poll in Virginia suggests the answer is not really. One in five people said the “macaca” incident was either “extremely” or “very” important to them as they thought about the 2012 race while 78 percent said it was either “somewhat” or “not” important.

Not surprisingly, Democrats are the most likely to say “macaca” matters with three in ten calling it extremely or very important in 2012. Just 10 percent of Republicans and 15 percent of independents said the same, however.

(By way of comparison, 20 percent of those tested said that Kaine’s service as chairman of the Democratic National Committee helped his overall performance in the state while 15 percent said it hurt and 54 percent said it made no difference.)

And, there remains considerable debate among Virginia strategists (of both parties) about whether “macaca” really ever mattered in the way the media insisted it did in 2006.

Democrats note that while “macaca” certainly handed a dead-in-the-water Webb campaign a jolt of momentum, it was not, ultimately, a silver bullet against Allen.

As evidence, they note that neither the Webb campaign nor the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ran a single ad (Ed. note: the DSCC did run a commercial) making mention of “macaca”; Webb’s final ad of the campaign focused on his status as an outsider to the political process and the need for a “new direction” on issues like health care.

(Of course, “macaca” was so ubiquitous that Democrats didn’t really need to spend money to make sure voters knew about it.)

And, Republicans argue that despite the attention “macaca” received, the race was decided by 9,000 votes out of more than 2.3 million cast.

Still, exit polling done in the 2006 race showed that 37 percent of voters said Allen did not respect racial minorities and, of that group, 92 percent voted for Webb.

Given the short memory of the American public and the big issues — economy, health care, Afghanistan etc — at play in the 2012 election, it’s hard to imagine that “macaca” will be a central feature of the conversation between Allen and Kaine over the next 18 months.

But, while “macaca” is unlikely to be a major component of the 2012 campaign, whether Allen has learned the lessons it taught will be central to his chances of revenging his 2006 loss.

Allen insiders believe that “macaca” — and the incumbent’s inability to properly explain the incident or put it in his rear view mirror — was indicative of a larger lack of focus on his part that proved disastrous.

Although Allen was largely dismissive of speculation about a presidential bid publicly, he — and his political team — were clearly beginning to think about what a national race might look like.

(Allen insiders also note that he had brought in a number of new faces for the 2006 bid — perhaps in expectation of a presidential run in 2008 — and those staff changes reinforced the problems.)

What “macaca” demonstrated was a lack of discipline on Allen’s part. Whether or not you ascribe to the idea that he meant to use it as a racial slur — Allen himself has said he didn’t know what the term meant — it was clearly a giant unforced error on the part of someone who has previously prided himself on his ability to stay on message.

Those close to Allen insist that he is well aware that his wounds in 2006 were self-inflicted and won’t make any such slip-ups this time around.

If they’re right, then “macaca” is likely to be relegated to the history books.

Should Allen commit another verbal gaffe, however, the “macaca” narrative will re-emerge. And that would be very bad news for Allen's hopes of re-starting his political career.

 
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