Why McCain Lost
There was never much chance that John McCain would become president. Every single poll in the last three weeks of the election put him far behind Barack Obama. In addition, 2008 was never going to be a Republican year—McCain would have had to run a nearly perfect campaign to win, and he didn’t. And finally, candidates trying for a third consecutive term for their party rarely do well—the last candidate to win in those circumstances was George H. W. Bush; the last one before him was Harry Truman.
McCain’s campaign may not have been perfect, but he did exceed expectations. He got about 46% of the vote, which, while not particularly impressive, did at least stave off an Obama landslide. The Democrats won’t have a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, and they didn’t get the thirty or more House seats some predicted. This election was awful for Republicans—but not the Democrat landslide 2006 was.
McCain did many things right in his campaign. The Palin pick got a lot of media criticism, but Palin was almost certainly a net bonus. True, her disastrous interviews hurt McCain, but she energized the conservative base in a way that, say, Mitt Romney couldn’t. She energized conservative voters, and her charisma must have helped the McCain campaign in swing states.
McCain’s television ads were another strong point—until he ran out of money. The “Celebrity” ad (the one with Paris Hilton) successfully distracted from Obama’s Berlin trip, and McCain’s “the One” ad poked fun at Obama’s messianic image.
But during the key last month of the campaign, Obama’s massive fundraising advantage caught up with McCain. Obama saturated the airwaves, leaving McCain unable to get his message out.
Of course, it was impossible for McCain to keep pace with Obama’s fundraising, given his decision to adopt public financing for his campaign. (How does the Republican candidate accept public financing, while the Democrat doesn’t? It really should have been the other way around—public financing for political campaigns in a profoundly unconservative idea). Obama broke his pledge to follow McCain’s lead on accepting public financing—that decision may have given him the election.
Another factor in McCain’s defeat was the lack of a sympathetic media. The “mainstream media” was solidly opposed to George Bush—but the conservative media wasn’t. Bush could always count on Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and the rest of talk radio to support him. McCain couldn’t—virtually the entire conservative movement opposed his nomination, and even on those occasions when Rush Limbaugh (among others; Rush is simply the best example) praised him, it was always with reservations.
Had McCain had any media (liberal or conservative) help at all, his campaign might have looked quite different. But he didn’t, which made clear victories in the debates an imperative. But it’s hard to win a debate outright, particularly when one is a debater of John McCain’s rather mediocre caliber, and he couldn’t.
McCain would have needed considerable luck in order to win—and didn’t get any. Quite the contrary—weeks before the election, the U.S. stock market crashed thousands of points. The Republican party (not unreasonably) got blamed, which didn’t do much for McCain’s brand.
Worse, McCain tried to help the situation. He suspended his campaign, proposed postponing the first presidential debate, and flew to Washington to help. He didn’t help much, but that didn’t matter—he mistake was drawing attention to himself. During a time of crisis, it is best to lie low. McCain managed to link himself to the financial crisis, which did not attract voters already suspicious of the GOP.
But perhaps the most important factor in McCain’s defeat was the absence of any coherent political philosophy. McCain’s beliefs were a mixed bag, without any rhyme or reason. He supported offshore drilling—but for some reason, was dead set against any drilling in ANWR. He supported corporations—but favored a crippling tax on carbon emissions. He supported a lower corporate tax rate—when not criticizing “Wall Street greed.” (“Greed” is sort of the point of Wall Street). Voters couldn’t place McCain ideologically—he was a cross between Teddy Roosevelt and Barry Goldwater, and that hybrid just doesn’t work.
John McCain made some crucial mistakes that doomed his campaign. But he also made some smart moves, and the odd negative ad aside, ran an honorable campaign. He lost, but he may have helped pave the way for a Republican renaissance in the near future. He is an honorable man, and was a fine presidential candidate, and I am proud to have cast my vote for him.