It was already apparent that the race was lost. Even before Ohio turned blue, everyone knew that only a miracle could save the day. Thus, with the full weight of inevitability bearing down upon him, the old war horse strolled across a stage emblazoned with the motto, “Country First.” With a glint of purpose in his eyes, he walked to the podium and addressed the crowd. “My friends,” he began, “we have come to the end of a long journey.”
In the course of the next ten minutes, John McCain ended a campaign that had lasted two years. It had persevered through tough and trying times, yet it fell short on the night that mattered most.
“We fought,” he continued, “we fought as hard as we could. And though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours.”
But just like all campaigns, the explanation is not that simple.
McCain’s defeat, rather, was the product of a number of forces— some external, some internal, some undefined.
It should be readily apparent, of course, that McCain ran in an environment that was simply toxic for Republicans. The senator was burdened by a brand badly damaged by incompetence, corruption, and complacency. Still, there had been hope that the gentleman from Arizona could have transcended that obstacle. After all, who was more different from George W. Bush than the president’s old nemesis himself?
McCain, however, got himself painted into a corner. The man once known as the Maverick of the Senate became defined as the party man who “voted with George Bush 90% of the time.” Finally, in the third debate, McCain found the right retort: “If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.” This was, unfortunately, too little, too late, especially given the slew of other factors working against him.
His opponent, while himself a uniquely flawed candidate, had the advantages of an eloquent voice, a ‘hip’ image, and disciplined campaign that offered a clear, consistent (if terribly vapid) message.
The media’s biased coverage only accentuated these differences. Eight years before, McCain had joked that the journalists and talking heads who made up the mainstream media were his base. Now, however, things were different. Presented with a liberal candidate who was as charismatic as Kerry was arrogant or Gore was stiff, the media had the luxury of throwing McCain overboard.
Such biased behavior was recently confirmed by The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, which analyzed election coverage over a six-week period in September and October. The study concluded that while Obama received more ‘positive’ coverage than either ‘neutral’ or ‘negative,’ McCain was four times more likely to receive an unfavorable story than a favorable one.
This impediment, however, was made all the worse by the campaign’s inability to drive a coherent, cogent message. Indeed, the McCain communications team was perpetually plagued by inconsistency. Why, for instance, was William Ayers fair game, but Jeremiah Wright was off-limits? Even when they managed to formulate an effective message, the McCain campaign had trouble getting it out. A combination of public financing and Obama’s uncanny fundraising ability put McCain at a severe monetary disadvantage.
This, too, was further exacerbated by poor decisions. McCain, for example, spent a questionably high amount of time in Iowa down the stretch—stumping for a state he ultimately lost by over nine points. Certainly, that time could have been better spent on a number of other battlefields.
Interestingly, the campaign was also hamstrung by McCain’s policy positions. Granted, the maverick mystique probably helped with independent voters, but the senator was weak on several of the issues where his party was strongest. The GOP had the high ground on energy; McCain opposed drilling in ANWR and supported cap-and-trade emission policies. The country was deeply opposed to amnesty; McCain was its leading advocate. Conservative judges had proven a winning issue time and again; McCain was a key member of the Gang of 14.
This disconnect contributed to another failure: the inability to rally the base. The conservative foot soldiers that are the lifeblood of every Republican campaign were far from convinced that the Arizona senator was one of them.
To help mitigate this problem, McCain tapped a popular but little- known governor from Alaska, Sarah Palin, to be his running mate. While ‘Sarah Barracuda’ helped resurrect the base’s missing fervor, questions about her readiness to lead on day one, as well as bungled interviews and controversies about the cost of her wardrobe, decreased her effectiveness.
This was not, however, the limit to the Palin problems. Rather, it seems that a civil war was raging within the McCain campaign behind-the-scenes, and sometimes in public. Indeed, even before the election, the long knives were coming out, as each camp began slashing at the other. Palin’s people charged that their champion had been mishandled; McCain’s inner circle retorted that Palin was nothing more than a diva. Whatever the truth, this lack of cooperation surely weakened the campaign at the very moment when it needed to pull together.
Not all mistakes, however, were the product of pettiness. Some were simply the progeny of bad timing, aggravated by even worse responses. Indeed, in the wake of the RNC, McCain looked poised to pull off an upset, but the collapse of the financial markets changed everything. In the end, McCain’s initial diagnosis—that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong”—were likely his campaign’s last words.
Yet, one is forced to wonder: what if the bailout had happened earlier in the election cycle? What if McCain’s gamble—to suspend his campaign, fly back to D.C., and broker a deal—had actually paid off? Perhaps to some extent, McCain was hurt by nothing more than bad luck.
In any case, while all these factors seem relatively straightforward in principle, how they came together in practice seems remarkably more complicated. Why, for instance, did McCain perform so well in Wyoming, but barely eked out a win in Montana—a state Bush twice won by over twenty points? And how did he outperform Sen. McConnell in Kentucky, yet lost reliably-Republican Indiana? True, Obama poured money into both those vulnerable states, but he only did so after it was apparent that McCain was in danger of losing them.
For all the talk of Obama’s transcendental rhetoric, the GOP’s weakness in the suburbs, and the myriad other explanations offered by pundits, phenomena like these remain more or less unexplained. Is it possible that one set of factors were particularly important in one state, but not in another? If so, why? And what does it mean for the next election?
McCain seemed to share this confusion. Toward the end of his concession speech, he remarked, “I don’t know what more we could have done to try to win this election. I’ll leave that to others to determine. Every candidate makes mistakes, and I’m sure I made my share of them. But I won’t spend a moment of the future regretting what might have been.”
Indeed, it may well have been that the old warrior’s final battle was doomed from the very start. In that notion, the gentleman from Arizona can surely take solace.
For the rest of us, though, we have the next four years to figure out the right answer.