What Went Wrong

McCain was a poor candidate for all the reasons that liberals said he’d be a great candidate. In general, McCain is not a polarizing figure, and all great political figures are polarizing figures whenever they are active in politics. A non-polarizing political figure fails to offer the electorate a meaningful choice — their offering is either not meaningful or not a real choice.

McCain’s failure to polarize took four primary forms.

  1. McCain refused to define his opponent and failed to define himself. In an election, each candidate is competing to define herself and her opponent. This is how a candidate aligns herself with voters’ priorities and aligns voters’ priorities with herself. By failing to define himself and his opponent, McCain allowed Obama run unopposed. McCain fouled up in three areas here:
    1. McCain showed unprecedented restraint with negative advertising. Every campaign must sell two messages: (1) why should people vote for a candidate, and (2) why should people vote against her opponent. Message (2) is spread through negative campaigning. Obama hit hard, repeatedly attacking McCain on the economy, on being close to Bush, and on being out of touch. McCain, by comparison, was not negative often enough and his few attempts to go negative were half-hearted. As a consequence, McCain never gave voters a reason to vote against Obama.
    2. McCain failed to respond to Obama’s negative advertising. Obama, by contrast, had succinct answers for every attack made against him.
    3. McCain refused to defend what few negative ads he did run; e.g., opponents smeared McCain’s ad about Obama’s support for sex-ed in kindergarten as disgraceful and dishonorable, though it came straight from ABC News reporters Teddy Davis and Lindsey Ellerson.

    McCain’s ideological opponents in the primaries were conservatives. Since liberals rejected the conservative definition of McCain, they viewed his failure to engage them as clean and refreshing. The same thing happened in McCain’s 2000 primary battle against George W. Bush.

    Many less intelligent observers and pundits have said, “McCain changed during the campaign” or “We saw a disappointingly different McCain…” In fact, they were seeing the same man as defined by an ideological opponent that they trusted. The sad truth is that McCain’s own unwillingness to change led him to be viewed differently in the general election.

  2. McCain does everything from his gut, with no larger philosophical framework to guide him. This seems to be a fundamental weakness in McCain’s whole approach to politics. It impacts McCain’s ability to campaign in two ways:
    1. McCain is constitutionally incapable of treating politics as a battle of ideas. Outside of the campaign environment, this made him a favorite of liberals, because they could count on him to step out at random moments against Republican policy. But during the campaign, this left McCain unable to argue for his positions and unable to argue against plausible objections.

      This belies the notion that politics is nothing but sound bites. McCain is the ultimate sound-bite politician, because he says nothing that connects to a larger narrative. Yet he lost handily to an opponent who is less sound-bite oriented than any candidate in recent memory.

    2. McCain’s gut-level approach precluded any real strategy, discipline, or vision for winning.

      We saw this in the primary as well. In retrospect, it’s more obvious than ever that McCain captured the Republican nomination on accident because Huckabee played the spoiler, and not through any ingenious maneuvering on his own part.

      Now that the election is over, reporters are free to describe the unprecedented level of backbiting and backstabbing within McCain’s campaign. This, too, is the result of McCain’s lack of strategy, vision, and discipline. Former Clinton advisor Paul Begala expressed elation at the implosion of the campaign, and every Democratic partisan should share his feelings. (The allegations themselves are palpably ridiculous. The definitive refutation of the attacks on Palin’s policy knowledge is right here, and Rich Lowry relates the first hand account of Steve Biegun, the former Bush NSC aid who actually briefed Sarah Palin before the debate right here, and sites a source refuting other Newsweek claims right here.)

  3. McCain’s career-long opposition to conservative fiscal policy left him fundamentally unprepared to make the conservative economic case:
    1. McCain never articulated a credible answer to Obama’s tax arguments, allowing the Democrats to capture the tax issue for just the second time in 40 years — the other time was when George H. W. Bush broke his “no new taxes pledge.” (It’s worth noting that Americans who earned more than $200K per year favored Obama by a wide margin).
    2. Because McCain is reflexively attracted to liberal spending policies, he never got his mind around the real budget issues. That’s why McCain kept going after ear-marks, which mattered to nobody, and talked about a spending freeze, which nobody believed could happen.

    If we combine these two problems with #2 (McCain’s inability to treat politics as a battle of ideas), then we begin to see why McCain couldn’t even fake it.

  4. Conservatives just don’t feel strongly about McCain, and that allowed Obama to garner an unusually large percentage of conservative voters.

What Went Right

So with all these problems in McCain’s campaign, how did he come so far and get so close?

The best thing about McCain’s campaign was unquestionably Sarah Palin. From the day that McCain chose her until Democrats proclaimed victory following the Katie Couric interview, the anxiety with which they grasped at ways to destroy her demonstrated the fear that she struck into the hearts of members of the liberal establishment.

Older conservatives like Krauthammer argue that Palin was a mistake because she took the experience argument off of the table. Perhaps Krauthammer wasn’t paying attention to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy earlier this year, which proved that the experience argument was never actually on the table because it didn’t dissuade voters from voting for Obama.

After months of slanderous treatment from her ideological opponents, exit polls bear out the fact that she was a plus — even outside of the “Republican base.” Exit pollsters asked voters what impact Sarah Palin had on their voting decision. 60% said she was an important factor. 33% said that she was not an important factor. The 60% “important factor” voters favored McCain 56% to 43%. By contrast, the 33% not-important-factor voters favored Obama 64% to 33%. Thus, those who felt strongly about Sarah Palin favored McCain by a significant margin; no other measure matters (beware of stories that emphasize other voter inclinations that did not impact voting; it’s called CYA).

(For those who missed the links that I provided above in relation to the Palin backstabbing, here they are again: The definitive refutation of the attacks on Palin’s policy knowledge is right here, and Rich Lowry relates the first hand account of Steve Biegun, the former Bush NSC aid who actually briefed Sarah Palin before the debate right here, and Rich Lowry sites a source refuting other Newsweek claims right here.)

McCain himself also has many attributes desirable in a candidate. He is a fighter, and Americans respect that. His indefatigable, never-say-die campaigning kept his candidacy viable in both the primaries and the general election when even his allies had written him off. McCain’s gut instincts are very frequently right, as we saw with his selection of Sarah Palin. And McCain’s basic honesty comes through on television, making his statements on TV generally credible.


The election conditions this year did not favor Republicans, and it’s not clear that anyone could have beaten the Democratic candidate. Even so, Obama was not a strong candidate: He appears to have had no coattails. Moreover, conditions overwhelmingly favored the Democrats and the Republican party is very much a party in decline. Given the weakness of his opponent, Obama should have won by a landslide. In the final analysis, the most startling thing about this election is how competitive McCain remained throughout.