Okay, I called McCain over Obama in Nov. 2006, and then stuck with that prediction through 2008. I blew it. What did I misunderestimate?
First, I don't buy the "McCain couldn't win in this environment" business, which is the Republicans' attempt to define an "America is still a center-right nation" narrative. You see, just because America elected expansive Democratic majorities at all levels of elected government, that doesn't mean that actually want the Democrats to do the things they'd expect of Democrats. Horseshit.
McCain could have won the election. He could have separated himself more completely from Bush instead of prevaricating, selected a trustworthy VP candidate, developed a convincing change message, and stuck with it. Instead he flailed. And he failed.
How Obama won:
- Discipline. For smart candidates, the hardest part of campaigning is sticking to your message. I didn't think Obama would be able to do it.
- Organization. All my favorite right-wing blogs traced the power of the Obama campaign to Marxist organizing principles. And when I got a text message from the campaign urging me to fly to Colorado to support the Great Movement, I started to believe the kooks. The Bolsheviks will come not on horseback, but on Facebook.
- Performance. Gen X has never seen another candidate with such energy, consistency, and pure stamina. Obama's three debate performances were so solid, so comforting, so vastly improved over his matchups with Hillary, that they locked up a large portion of the electorate. Down the stretch, he was doing three states a day. I still weep for the poor schmucks in the press who had to sleep on the plane.
How McCain failed:
- The Sarah Palin selection. If George W. Bush represents the vestiges of America's mediocre aristocracy, then Palin represents our superstitious provincialism. By picking a know-nothing punchline-in-waiting, McCain lost major influencers, what remained of his media halo, and untold millions of votes. Given his age and health, McCain's VP selection was the most critical of any campaign's in memory. He had months to get it right, and he impetuously grasped on instinct. It led many voters to ask: What kind of decisions could we expect of him as president when he so badly blew this one?
- Sarah, again. I thought McCain could have been a transformative candidate, by rebuilding the oddball Republican nexus between fiscal and religious conservatives. But the Palin selection only split those groups further apart. Marketing guru Seth Godin nails it:
Then, McCain made a momentous decision. He chose Sarah Palin, and did it for one huge reason: to embrace the Rove/Bush 'base'. To lead a tribe that was already there, but not yet his. He was hoping for a side effect, which was to attract Hillary Clinton's tribe, one that in that moment, was also leaderless...
In McCain's case, it failed. His choice cost him the economically-concerned middle (which went to Obama's carefully woven tribe). And it clearly cost him the mostly female Clinton tribe. Yes, he energized the conservative base, but he lost the election. If he had chosen Mike Huckabee, one could wonder what would have happened. Would this less polarizing figure been able to collect a bigger tribe for him?
- Reinforcing his own negative narratives. McCain had three weaknesses to overcome to win over mainstream voters -- his age, his self-professed weak grasp of economics, and his being a Republican. His behavior during the bailout negotiations reinforced all of the negatives. Meanwhile, Obama had little of substance to offer, but he blew McCain out on demeanor.
- Ineptness down the stretch. When he should have been closing the deal with a positive narrative, McCain flailed among "Obama was friends with a domestic terrorist," "Obama is a socialist," and "We are all Joe the Plumber." Then he appeared on SNL in a sketch that looked remarkably like a concession speech. The whole was less than the sum of its parts.
So there you go. I promise to do better next time.