Why McCain Lost

“The newspaper reader says: this party destroys itself by making such a mistake. My higher politics says: a party which makes such mistakes has reached its end; it has lost its sureness of instinct.” – Nietzsche

With all due respect to Mr. Nietzsche, I’m about to point out the key reasons why I believe McCain lost this election. But I don’t wholly disagree with the quote — insofar as the Republican Party will live on in name, it’s not at its end. However, the party as it currently stands is in major need of an overhaul and a smart party needs to re-tool after every major loss. The Democrats didn’t after 2000 and got whupped in 2004. If the Republicans don’t, they’re going to find 2012 very painful (a sure way to further self-destruct: nominate Palin).

So, the three major reasons McCain lost big on 11/4/08:

1. McCain was unable to control his own campaign. His campaign was basically split, divided over whether to be Maverick McCain or Bushie McCain. The former faction is represented by Mark Salter and wanted to run McCain version 2000. The other side is represented by Steve Schmidt and wanted to run McCain 2.0, ie be Karl Rove to George Bush. McCain’s own impulsiveness meant he swung wildly from one to the other, opting for wild gambles (Exhibit A: Palin; Exhibit B: bailout grandstanding) instead of consistent and thorough campaigning. In the end, the McCain we got was a bizarre mixture of these two factions: in name (read: branding), we got Maverick McCain. In deed, we got Bushie McCain. The McCain we all thought would show up for this election, ie the one we saw years ago, never materialized. With only a quarter of Americans approving of Bush, coming off as an angrier Dubya did not help the Arizona senator.

This inability to run his own campaign also shows up in the bizarre change of message mid-game. Whatever you think of the intelligibility of these arguments, a CHANGE vs. EXPERIENCE battle makes a whole lot of sense. Pit the Jr. Senator from Illinois against the Senator from Arizona who’s been in D.C. since, seemingly, 1901. This seems like such an obvious match-up. So McCain pitches this battle, gets it to start sticking, and then decides in August/September to change message. Now he goes for Maverick, for Reform, for Change. Problem is, Mr. Obama’s been drilling home for 18 months that he’s the candidate of change. So we suddenly get CHANGE vs. CHANGE. Whether fairly or not, this is how it works: you will never look like the embodiment of “change” if you’re an angry old white dude running against an eloquent young black man.

2. McCain pandered to the far right. Since the far right in the GOP is essentially the “Religious Right,” his mistake lies there. Thus we find the same man who repudiated Falwell & Co. in 2000 decides, beginning in 2006, to cozy right on up. This, in my opinion, drastically mis-read the mood of Evangelicalism. The people committed to the marriage of the GOP and the Evangelical church were going to oppose the Democratic candidate no matter what. Yet in the 8 years since their powers peaked in 2008, the Religious Right has experienced a significant backlash. And by “significant” I mean actually-very-tiny comparatively, but I think it was a enough to make a difference. Amy Sullivan is one journalist who’s written extensively about this, and the Obama camp saw the trend from a mile away. They actively courted the Christian vote in a way that’s been historically uncharacteristic of the DNC. Whether it was a true shifting of parties or merely momentary (Bush soured many on the whole “elect-an-Evangelical-and-everything-will-be-awesome” thing) is perhaps still up in the air. The ultimate act of pandering, of course, was selecting Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate….

3. McCain picked Palin. I don’t think this can be over-stated. McCain spoke a total of something like 70 minutes with Palin before selecting her as his VP choice. By the end, we’re told, the two camps were still barely speaking (anecdotal: note, near the end of this thing, how many times McCain made appearances with Cindy and Joe Lieberman, not Palin). The McCain camp was right to realize the need to “energize the base.” And Palin did just that. But “the base,” by virtue of being the base, was already going to vote for McCain anyway. After Palin, they just got more excited about it. Rather than opt out, millions of Christians would’ve reluctantly voted Republican even if the VP choice was less than desirable; they’d whine and moan but still cast their ballot for McCain. So it energized people who were already decidedly Republican, but alienated independents and moderate Republicans/Democrats (fence-sitters). I’m quite sure that Palin convinced a few of these famed undecideds to swing Republican, but it seems clear that she pushed far more to Obama than she brought into the fold. The moderates were appalled by what was obvious to everyone except the Republican hardliners: the Palin pick was a crassly political manuever that thrust enormous responsibility on a woman wholly unprepared for it (let alone the vice presidency). The true believers on each side reacted predictably (outrage on the left, outpouring of love on the right) while the moderates saw through the ruse immediately and were generally insulted (not to mention the whole change-of-message swing that her pick required, as already discussed).

So there’s my three. Note, of course, that I tried to focus on why McCain lost the election, not why Obama won it. I realize those two are essentially inseparable, but it’s an inherent difficulty I felt like ignoring. Also, some of this comes from Newsweek‘s fantastic 40-page post-election insider’s scoop, written using confidential information only provided to Newsweek on the condition they only write about it after the election. Which they promptly did. The summary/highlights from all seven parts are provided here.

6 thoughts on “Why McCain Lost

  1. The #1 factor was:

    4. The Economic Meltdown began in September and October, McCain offers no consistent solution and thereby satisfies the desires of nobody. Since McCain belongs to the same party as the current president the people overwhelmingly vote for ANY ‘change’ in the current financial situation that is made available to them, especially when the promised change includes ‘tax cuts’ for people who don’t pay taxes. Despite your #2-3, McCain had a comfortable lead over Obama after selecting Palin until the meltdown occurred. Track it in the daily polling and you’ll see the effect. Bill said it best, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

  2. “The people committed to the marriage of the GOP and the Evangelical church were going to oppose the Democratic candidate no matter what.”

    The best/funniest/saddest illustration of this is Dr. Dobson.

    I read the Newsweek material over the past few days–great stuff.

    My biggest fear is that the GOP has learned nothing, that they will convince themselves that they simply weren’t “conservative” enough, that Limbaugh and Dobson will tie themselves even closer together. This country needs two strong parties.

    Although, how incredible would it be if the GOP dissolved into bickering, the Dems continue to shift rightwards, the country as a whole shifts leftwards, and the Greens emerge as a mainstream party to the left of the Dems.

    True story: the government class at my wife’s school (an expensive private Christian school in a very conservative area) held a mock Obama/McCain election. One of the bully type students was ripping on a young black girl for presumably voting for Obama (even though it was a secret ballot). He was strong-armed into the hallway (where my wife caught sight of the incident), given a stern talking to by the teacher, and marched back inside. He finished filling out his ballot, picking it up just so to place it in the ballot box, and from the hallway it was visible that he had voted for Obama himself.

  3. gump, I guess you weren’t following 538? McCain held about a 1 point lead at the time of the meltdown, a lead predicted by 538 as the remainder of his “convention/VP bump”, a lead that was destined to remain only as long as the current news cycle. After the breakdown, Obama’s lead went back to more or less what it was before either of the conventions, and remained consistent until the end.

  4. A friend and I were talking last week, and she said that in a typical campaign, one spends the primary season rallying the base, while spending the actual campaign reaching out to moderates and independents. McCain did the reverse – he had indies and moderates flocking to him in the primaries and he totally lost them during his pander-to-the-far-right campaign.

  5. The sentences immediately preceding that Nietzsche quote are, I imagine, pretty important.

    As an outsider looking in, the McCain campaign was something like a 3-ring circus to me. Attraction number 1 was Palin, who while I’m sure she’s a nice woman was totally unprepared to be thrust into a role like this. Attraction number 2 was Joe the Plumber, who had no business being anywhere near the campaign of anyone who didn’t want to lose credibility. Throw in some 9/11 baiting and you’ve got a show for all ages.

    It wasn’t until I saw McCain on SNL that I remembered that he’s actually a sane person that would do a decent job running the country. I didn’t think he ever had a shot at winning this election, but he could have done a lot better job making himself look sane and competent.

  6. Nietzsche’s pretty aphoristic so I don’t think it’s inappropriate to pull quotes like that. The full paragraph, for what it’s worth:

    “The church and morality say: ‘A generation, a people, are destroyed by license and luxury.’ My recovered reason says: when a people approaches destruction, when it degenerates physiologically, then license and luxury follow from this (namely, the craving for ever stronger and more frequent stimulation, as every exhausted nature knows it). This young man turns pale early and wilts; his friends say; that is due to this or that disease. I say: that he became diseased, that he did not resist the disease, was already the effect of art impoverished life or hereditary exhaustion. The newspaper reader says: this party destroys itself by making such a mistake. My higher politics says: a party which makes such mistakes has reached its end; it has lost its sureness of instinct. Every mistake in every sense is the effect of the degeneration of instinct, of the disintegration of the will: one could almost define what is bad in this way. All that is good is instinct — and hence easy, necessary, free. Laboriousness is an objection; the god is typically different from the hero. (In my language light feet are the first attribute of divinity).”

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