Okay, so we’re nearing the end of the presidential election, and with McCain’s camp already starting the finger-pointing, I thought I’d offer some observations. Why am I qualified? Well, primarily I’m a Democrat living in Virginia and have worked on campaigns essentially all my life. And as a Democrat living in Virginia and having worked on local, state, and national races, I’m somewhat familiar with the practice of finger-pointing following an election loss — we’re really good at that!
McCain’s advisers and GOP operatives all are pointing at each other, the “liberal, elitist” media, and evil-intentioned socialist gremlins (okay, so I’m guessing at that last one). But what was the real issue? Well, as many with experience in this sort of thing might guess, to lose this badly requires more than one issue. Here’s my list, in no particular order:
- John McCain stopped being John McCain — McCain of 2000 through 2006 and before was a guy I had tremendous respect for, even while disagreeing with him on most issues. McCain of 2007-2008 started out as an apologist for the Bush administration, then it went downhill from there. It seems he would rather win an election than stand by his principles, and once the voters sense that, they stop trusting you (see Gore, 2000).
- A misplaced sense of entitlement. Hillary should probably take this one into account to, at least in general. How much arrogance does it take to (at the age of 72!) pick someone completely unqualified for your VP choice and then complain when people start analyzing how well, or not, her experience has prepared her for the VP’s number one priority — being ready to be President. How much arrogance to not even bother vetting your choice before announcing it? And how much arrogance to expect to win just because you think the other guy is so bad? Voters want to vote for a candidate, not against the other guy. That kind of thing locks up your base, but doesn’t pull in the independents. As John McCain and Hillary Clinton discovered, even if you think its obvious that you should win, you still have to convince everyone else of this as well.
- Really poor execution of campaigning fundamentals. This is again something that both McCain and Clinton were guilty of. While each decried the lack of experience of Obama, his field organization ran circles around theirs. This was a more profound failure for McCain though as the vaunted GOP voter management techniques seemed to be no where to be found. Obama fields offices have turned up everywhere in a seemingly Starbucks-like way, and they are all largely staffed by volunteers. McCain’s field offices are far fewer, staffed by a few paid staff and some diehard volunteers. It’s not just that the standard GOP volunteer base didn’t come out, McCain for all of his running to the right seemed never to give them a reason to come in. I believe I’ve read two or three articles all in the last week (like this one) comparing different reporter’s experiences in visiting Obama and McCain offices — now I’ve worked on a number of losing campaigns and in the final days of those, I’ve never seen anything like what is being described in McCain’s offices.
- Now, to almost wrap this up: a 90% voting with Bush record, a negative campaign that turned more people off than brought them in, and a faltering economy (though I think the impact of this last one is negligible).
- And finally the one decision he and his campaign made that, if it had been made differently, could have completely changed his prospects on Nov. 4: Sarah Palin. This wasn’t just a maverick-style gamble — in gambling you should have some expectation that your bet will win. This was a jump-off-the-cliff-and-hope-for-the-best decision where McCain (as every great victim of hubris does) starts believing his own propaganda and figured even if he picked someone like Palin to lock up his base, he was still a maverick and people would love him for it. What he forgot, is that a maverick is nothing but a successful eccentric, and once the weakness shows and success becomes a more remote possibility, you instantly go from being maverick to erratic.
If McCain had picked Lieberman (whom I despise) or Romney (whom I just sort of vaguely dislike and feel sorry for), he would have seen as a strong “maverick” who bucked the right wing of his party and the moderate middle would have swarmed to him in droves. Instead he picked Palin, which basically announced “I am a weak and ineffectual leader of my own party and need to pick this kook from Alaska to shore up my base.” Honestly, most independents were just waiting for McCain to give them a reason to vote for them. They weren’t ready for Obama, and were fully open to McCain of 2000 and the Straight-Talk Express to whisk them away from the past 8 years. Instead, Obama maintained his cool and McCain acted like an old man presented with too many options and unable to deal with complexity (of his own campaign, the economy, or just about anything else).
I still have some respect for McCain, nurtured like a flame from candle that is about to burn down. He served his country admirably, he was someone who managed to speak truth to the American people, and “way back in the day” before this latest round of craziness started showed the most admirable trait in a public figure — he didn’t take himself too seriously. Now, he actively seeks to besmirch the reputations of others, he has run one of the most negative and untruthful campaigns I’ve ever seen, and basically seems to have turned his back on what seemed to be heartfelf and sincere beliefs. In short, he has become everything that George W. Bush is and was to him back during the 2000 campaign.
He might have deserved to be President. He certainly deserved to be a well-respected candidate for the office. And now sadly, after embracing something that he professed “disgust and revulsion” for (when referring to the Bush attacks of 2000), he deserves to lose and really has no one to blame but himself.