Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Grasping defeat from the jaws of victory

For much of the political year, I've been indicating why I thought John McCain was going to win the presidential election. I have been accused of being a far-right conservative and a racist for doing so. This has caused me a great deal of pause.

It is unfortunate that so many people caught up by Obama's very impressive rhetorical ability have become unable to see past the hype and imagine that there would be anyone, anywhere who would oppose him for any legitimate reasons.

It is also unfortunate that people would be so caught up in Obamamania that they couldn't see the difference between looking at a political situation impartially and commenting on what one thought would happen, and support for the outcome one predicted.

Obama has many gifts and many flaws, just like any candidate (or any person for that matter). Based on the history of recent U.S. elections, and the country's right-leaning nature, I believed that Obama was unlikely to be elected. I have never seen race as a major issue in the contest because race would only affect voting preferences of significant numbers of people in states the Democrats were unlikely to win anyway.

However, John McCain has done his best to lose this race. As a friend of mine once said in refernece to John Tory's loss to Dalton McGuinty in 2007, he seems to have grasped defeat from the jaws of victory.

Nate Silver's brilliant site fivethirtyeight.com says McCain has a 3.3% chance of victory. I remain convinced that Americans will have a hard time voting for a liberal with a thin record so I would say it is more like a 20% chance, but still not very likely.

McCain's people, all but admitting defeat, are trying to blame the loss on the financial crisis and the weak Republican brand thanks to the Bush years. They forget however that at one time the media was willing to give McCain the benefit of the doubt, he was branded as a maverick beholden to no party, started the summer with higher favourability ratings than Obama and led in polls as recently as late September. George Bush and Wall Street did not lose this election for McCain, McCain did.

McCain's support of immigration reform could have bought him unprecedented support among Hispanics. Instead, he looks likely to get far less votes there than Bush did in either 2000 or 2004. This is but one example where he made a huge strategic error. This would have locked Nevada and New Mexico into his column and put California into the single digits forcing Obama to spend big money there to keep that Democratic-must-win-state blue. McCain did backtrack on his position during the primary, but after he locked it up, without flip-flopping, he could have easily stated a position that honoured his record and appealed to Hispanics.

On March 4, McCain wrapped up the nomination. On March 5, he should have been in Southern California announcing his immigration and border security platform. With Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mike Huckabee at his side (both supporters of immigration reform, one an independent figure and one popular with the base) he should have said:

"Over the past year, this country has had a profound debate on the question of immigration and border security. I have been in the middle of this debate and I have crossed party lines to try to find a solution. My friends, I was the first to admit during the primary campaign that the proposal put forward by myself and others become unsaleable. It was not what Americans wanted and during the primary, I said if it came back to the Senate I would vote against it because I must reflect the will of the people. What Americans have told me is, though they are compassionate, they also have legitimate concerns about their economic and personal security so long as our borders are not secure. If elected, I will ask the Congress to pass the Comprehensive Immigration and Border Security Reform Act. This law would incorporate the best of our bill from last June but would also ensure that while we treated those people who have come to this country to seek opportunity and the American dream with respect, we would make sure that no one else ever entered this country illegally."

With that, he would have regained credibility among the immigration reform lobby without going back on his statements during the primary.

Then he should have set out to tour around 10 or so Democratic states that he could win under some scenario, including several more visits to California. This would have put the scare into Democrats who were already fretting their long primary.

Some of these activities may have scared the base, and something would have had to have been done to counter-balance that. One of the big mistakes McCain made was that he wasted all kinds of time in the spring trying to make up with the base and then he announced a base-inspiring vice-presidential pick. He should have done one or the other, not both. A big centrist maverick tour of Democratic states could have put him solidly in the lead in polls by the time the Democratic primary wrapped up. He then could have followed it by picking a base vice-presidential candidate, such as Sarah Palin who, I think, if handled differently, could have inspired the base (as she has) without damaging McCain's credibility. But this should have been in June or early July, with the campaign doing a week or two of setting the tone for the vice-presidential pick.

The next big mistake made by the McCain campaign has been their abrasive relationship with the media. The media, which McCain himself used to call his "base", feel betrayed. Moreover, the restrictive, scripted campaign regimen that has been imposed on him has not been to his liking and it has made him grumpy which has help paint a very unhelpful caricature. There is a great web-editorial on ABC News that talks about how far the media has turned against McCain, check it out.

Is McCain going to win? Very unlikely. Could he have won? Very easily. Whose fault is it? The McCain campaign.

12 comments:

Rob said...

re: immigration, would they have been able to touch this without becoming radioactive in the Republican base? I agree with you that pulling Huckabee and Arnold together would have made for a great backdrop to a policy speech on rationalizing immigration. However, I don't know how you get Rush et al. onto that boat.

I also imagine that Obama's ground game will have made a large difference in this election. It locked up Iowa very early on for him, and has made states like NC and GA a very neutral shade of purple. I also see the 50-state Dean strategy that was planted a few years ago sprouting up this cycle.

It seems that Obama can put together large field operations in very traditional red states. I imagine that DailyKos style meetups have had something to do with energizing Democrats in Republican areas like Montana, North Carolina, and Indiana. I'm not saying he'll win all those states, but it certainly helps force McCain to play defense on home turf. Perhaps something for the Liberal-308 crowd to take heed of.

nbpolitico said...

Rob, I agree with all you say but this is a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Certainly, Howard Dean is to be owed a lot of thanks by Democrats for the fact that they won close Senate contests in Virginia and Montana last cycle (the organizers he moved in in 2005 almost certainly can take credit for more votes than the narrow margins) and for building foundations in states for this presidential cycle which were no where in 2004. Obama's campaign has wisely built upon these bases and has put some crazy states into contention.

However, if McCain had gone agressively for moderates when Obama and Clinton were still duking it out, Obama would have emerged from the primary playing defence in Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey and Maine. If he had to devote organization to hold those states blue, he would not have been able to make the in roads into red states he is making today.

Certainly the base would have reacted negatively to the campaign I suggested for McCain, but the base was already pretty turned off of McCain at that time. In March lots of the right were saying they wouldn't vote for McCain and despite spending the whole spring wooing them, none were enthused until Palin came around.

If McCain had alienated the base marginally more this spring and picked Palin in June or July - the base today would have the same enthusiasm, but McCain would be at 55% in the polls.

nbt said...

I didn't mean to nudge you into such a long post. lol

Anyway, you make great points with regards to immigration reform. If McCain could have carried the Hispanic vote along with the blue collar workers and split the indies, he could have very well won this election. Unfortunately, his immigration reform stance was what sank him two summers ago (and almost put an end to his campaign), so any further discussion on the matter would have been radioactive in his camp.

I think the only thing he can hope for now is a lower then anticipated voter turnout on Tuesday, which btw, can be a good thing according to Cato fellow Will Wilkinson.

Not likely when you see the early numbers for the advanced polls.

Anonymous said...

Palin was a disasterous pick, little experience and could not even speak coherently to the media.

Somebody with more credibility on the economy, like Mitt Romney, would have been a better pick. Or Kay Bailey Hutchinson if he wanted a woman -- a real "mavericky" pick would have been Olympia Snowe.

It was the War in Iraq, the economy, Bush's unpopularity and especially Wall Street that sealed the deal -- you're just trying to explain yourself out of your faulty prediction of a McCain win. It was going to be a tough year for Republicans anyway.

nbpolitico said...

Somebody with more credibility on the economy, like Mitt Romney, would have been a better pick. Or Kay Bailey Hutchinson if he wanted a woman -- a real "mavericky" pick would have been Olympia Snowe.

It was the War in Iraq, the economy, Bush's unpopularity and especially Wall Street that sealed the deal -- you're just trying to explain yourself out of your faulty prediction of a McCain win. It was going to be a tough year for Republicans anyway.


Uhhh... ok. If I wanted to blame it on "especially Wall Street" that would be a lot easier to explain myself than this convoluted post. Wall Street was not predicted (at least not widely and not to this specific point in time) and it was after that that McCain fell in the polls. I could say "look, McCain was tied or ahead when Wall Street crashed, so I was right except for that one aberration". But my view is McCain still would have lost without Wall Street because of a poorly executed campaign.

Orange said...

I don't think you're racist or far-right, I think you're just an idiot.

Just because the Democratic nominee is someone you don't personally like -- and btw I agree that Obama has his shortcomings (I was rooting for Hillary in the primaries) -- you'd be rooting for the Republicans (or at least neutral about them winning) even though their ideas are diametrically opposed to those of a progressive leaning person.

Anonymous said...

Uhhh... ok. If I wanted to blame it on "especially Wall Street" that would be a lot easier to explain myself than this convoluted post. Wall Street was not predicted (at least not widely and not to this specific point in time) and it was after that that McCain fell in the polls. I could say "look, McCain was tied or ahead when Wall Street crashed, so I was right except for that one aberration". But my view is McCain still would have lost without Wall Street because of a poorly executed campaign.

That would have been an easier way to explain your faulty prediction.

Even before Wall Street, for most of the campaign McCain was 3-5points behind. It was going to be a bad year for the Republicans anyway.

True, McCain's awful campaign and horrible VP pick didn't help, but it was not the GOP's year to begin with. I'm surprised you were so oblivious to factors such as Bush's unpopularity, the Iraq War and a declining economy (even pre-Wall Street crash).

All I meant by the Crash by the way, is that it sealed the deal in an already bad year for the Republicans.

Anonymous said...

Only two points post-Obama-nomination was McCain ahead (and only narrowly).

First, the post-convention/Palin-is-new bounce (these kind of bounces are almost always temporary).

Second, the Georgia crisis which (from a PR perspective) McCain handled better than Obama, but even this was short-lived once the issue was off the headlines.

The reason McCain picked Palin in the first place was that he was desperate, he knew he was losing and needed to shake things up.

Alas, his gamble did not pay off.

Anonymous said...

http://redtory.wordpress.com/2008/10/28/stupid-4ever/

nbpolitico said...

Just because the Democratic nominee is someone you don't personally like -- and btw I agree that Obama has his shortcomings (I was rooting for Hillary in the primaries) -- you'd be rooting for the Republicans (or at least neutral about them winning) even though their ideas are diametrically opposed to those of a progressive leaning person.

Ummm, did you read the post? I am not rooting for the Republicans... as I said:

[One ought to] see the difference between looking at a political situation impartially and commenting on what one thought would happen, and support for the outcome one predicted.

I also predicted that the Bloc Quebecois would win 50 out of 75 seats in Quebec in the recent federal election. I did not predict that because I like them, I predicted that because I thought it would happen. I similarly can tell you that the most conservative man ever to live, Tom Coburn, whose views disgust me, will likely be re-elected in 2010.

Because one thinks someone will win, does not mean that they want them to.

On the other hand, as a pragmatic Canadian, there is something to be said about having a Republican in the White House. Wars in the middle east raise the price of oil, which is good for the Canadian economy, and Republicans are more apt to be free traders which is good for the Canadian economy.

I would never pick John McCain over Barack Obama to be the leader of my own country, but it might be fair to say I am "neutral about them winning" in the U.S. That has nothing to do with whether or not I like Obama though, it is simply a matter of knowing that what is best for the United States is not necessarily what is best for Canada.

Anonymous said...

Wars in the middle east raise the price of oil, which is good for the Canadian economy.

I don't think those wars are so good for people in the Middle East.

So basically your philosophy is, what's best for Canada, to hell with the rest of the World.

nbpolitico said...

You people could really drive a guy to give up blogging or at least give up on the hope that there might be intelligence in the blogosphere.

I said:
there is something to be said, i.e. there are some pros. Once again, because there is one pro to something, doesn't preclude 100 cons and doesn't equate support for it.