November 04, 2008

Why McCain Will Lose Today

After the American Century

On election day, Barack Obama appears to have an insurmountable lead, and appears headed for victory regardless of what happens in the few remaining swing states. A dramatic upset is possible, but in that case a large number of polls will prove inaccurate. An electoral map based on New York Times data shows only a handful of undecided states: Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, Ohio, and Missouri. Even if McCain manages to win all of these, itself improbable, he would still lose the election. That is why his campaign has made a hard push in Pennsylvania, because only if it wins its 21 electoral votes can he come within striking distance. Supposing he does win all the swing states and Pennsylvania, however, the result would be Obama 270, McCain 268.

Why has McCain lost? In good part, he lost because Obama waged such a strong, well-financed, and disciplined campaign. Even so, McCain made four fundamental mistakes.

1. McCain failed to distance himself decisively from President Bush. He should have done this early in the process. Instead, he sought Bush's approval, and he even used Bush's speech writer to craft Sarah Palin's convention speech. This fundamental mistake undermined his claims to represent change.

2. By August, McCain had abandoned his open campaign style, which for years made him the darling of the press. Instead, he adopted Karl Rove-style secrecy and negative attacks on his opponent. McCain himself was a victim of such nasty campaign tactics in 2000, when Bush falsely spread the rumor that he had fathered an illegitimate black child - when he and his wife in fact had adopted one from India. The public expected him to rise above negativism, which boomeranged to hurt him more than his opponent.

3. McCain chose the inexperienced Sarah Palin instead of a more credible and more centrist candidate, such as Senator Joe Lieberman, who previously was the Democratic Party VP candidate. Not only is Palin too inexperienced, but with her on the ticket it became ludicrous to attack Obama for being inexperienced. Worse, her appeal to the fundamentalist right-wing of the GOP drove moderates into the arms of the Democrats. Roughly 60% of the electorate has declared that she is not satisfactory. a result that also threw into question McCain's judgement.

4. McCain failed to see the usefulness of Internet campaigning and fund-raising, both of which Obama mastered from the start. Indeed, McCain has no computer skills himself, and does not use email. By 2012 the Republicans will have to learn how to do this. The WEB factor alone accounts for several percentage points of the difference between the two candidates on this election day.

When McCain has time to reflect on the loss, he may well think that he was unlucky. The timing of the economic meltdown could not have been worse for him or better for Obama. Nor was it easy to escape the shadows of Bush's enormous unpopularity. Yet the more successful campaign by Gerald Ford in 1976, in the aftermath of Nixon's Watergate disgrace, suggests that McCain could have done better. If he did not beat himself, these four mistakes made Obama's job far easier.