Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Where McCain Went Wrong

This will be the first of three post-election posts, the other two looking at Obama's next steps and thoughts on the 2012 election. But first, an autopsy on John McCain's campaign.

For those that missed McCain's very nice concession speech, you can watch it here:

That said, let's look at the top reasons why McCain's campaign was doomed for failure. No one reason is single-handedly responsible, even though many will will try to say so. They all worked together to put the final nails in the coffin built by President Bush.

But let's start with Sarah Palin. Going into the Democratic National Convention, the question was if anything could unite the party after the divisive primary battle between Obama and Hilary Clinton. A week later, we got the answer: Sarah Palin. Chosen partially to attract Hilary voters that wanted to see a woman on the ticket, her conservative record and complete lack of qualifications made even some PUMA (Party Unity My Ass) voters feel pretty good about voting for Obama. But in addition to uniting Democrats, she also drew independents and moderates over to Obama. The idea of someone who had difficulty forming a complete sentence and doesn't believe in evolution being a (cliche alert) heartbeat away from the presidency was terrifying. But while I think Palin ultimately hurt McCain more than she helped, the Palin Effect wasn't all bad. George W. Bush was elected for getting the type of evangelical Christians who would rather stay home on election day to get out and vote. Similarly, Palin's presence may have been the only thing getting McCain conservative support. But this election will prove that the Republican base is not the same as the United States of America.

Next, negative campaigning. Steve Schmidt may be taking even more blame than Sarah Palin for McCain's loss. There are a lot of reasons for why McCain's negative campaigning backfired. First off, a lot of the claims were just weak. He couldn't convince people that Obama sharing a charity board with a college professor proved dangerous judgement. The socialist claims were effective among some groups, but it did make him look erratic to go from "he will raise your taxes" to "he will lower them too much." With the economy on everyone's minds, the Ayers attacks were a blatant attempt to change the subject and showed McCain's lack of solutions. But above all, the campaign strategy backfired because it wasn't consistent with John McCain's character. Schmidt told him to become someone he was not as a means to the greater good of becoming president. But going against his honor and even his maverick policies (supporting the Bush tax cut, saying he wouldn't vote for his own immigration bill) lost him the moderate support he expected. His legacy will not be the man we wish had beaten Bush in 2000 but for this bitter and desperate campaign.

The economic crisis. Many see it as a deus ex machina that gave the election to Obama. Given that McCain voted for the deregulation in 1999 that allowed the crisis to happen, maybe he couldn't survive it. But his attempts to do so only made him look worse. Suspending his campaign was endlessly mocked as a false way of appearing presidential while not actually helping. His insistence on sticking to earmarks reform in the debates instead of addressing the crisis made it appear that he really didn't know what to do. There's no question that the economic crisis helped the map become as blue as it was last night. But I'm not convinced it was the sole reason for McCain's loss.

Because in my opinion, the election was destined to go to the Democrats ever since the primaries. With an approval rate around 27%, Bush had just done too much damage for any Republican, even one as different as McCain, to stand a chance. With a massive deficit, a low standing in the rest of the world, and two wars that have dragged on far too long, the country desperately needed a change. While people focused on the divisiveness of the Democrat primaries, the more interesting divide was in the Republican primaries. Between McCain, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee, the primaries showed a full-scale breakdown of the Reagan coalition. McCain was foreign policy, Romney was the economic conservative, and Huckabee for social values voters. All these months later, the election has shown this coalition was not willing to unite for John McCain. Reaching out to Huckabee voters with the Palin pick lost the Romney voters. We'll see in 2012 whether this coalition can reunite again.

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