As everyone knows by now, Senator Barack Obama defeated Senator John McCain to become America's forty-forth President. The popular vote was 53% to 46%, and the electoral college vote was 365 to 173.
Why were the results what they were?
Certainly there was plenty going against Republicans. The approval ratings of President Bush and congressional Republicans are terrible. The economy is in a recession. There is an unpopular war in Iraq. Only once since World War II has one party held the White House more than eight years in a row.
Yet despite all this, John McCain was tied with or even leading Barack Obama for part of the campaign. Plenty of voters weren't sold on Obama.
The most important factor in the election results was the Barack Obama ran a strong campaign, while John McCain ran a terrible campaign. Indeed, McCain was a terrible candidate.
McCain's campaign had no consistent message. Does anyone remember what it was about? McCain talked about being a war hero. That didn't get Bob Dole or John Kerry elected.
McCain had no consistent message on the economy. He offered no rebuttal to the line of Obama that the financial crisis was caused by deregulation (what deregulation?). He was clearly out of his depth on economic issues. He railed against earmarks, not exactly a major issue with voters, and then proposed a hundred-billion dollar mortgage bailout.
Speaking of bailouts, McCain's vote for the Wall Street bailout doomed his campaign. Not only was it bad policy, but it was terrible politics. The bailout was wildly unpopular with voters. McCain could have rallied support by voting against it, particularly with Obama voting for it. It would have been a great way to refute the "McCain is four more years of Bush" line. McCain could have branded Obama the candidate of Wall Street, what with the many millions of campaign contributions that he got from there. But McCain threw that opportunity away.
McCain was AWOL on the issues that motivate the Republican base. Such issues as official English, drivers licences for illegals, no amnesty, gun rights, partial birth abortion, protecting marriage, and racial preferences were hardly mentioned. Of course, McCain was on the wrong side of some issues (immigration) and inconsistent on others (gun rights). Letting your opponents and the media pick the issues of the campaign isn't a good way to win.
McCain's attacks on Obama were disjointed and ineffective. He refused to bring up Jeremiah Wright. He waited too long to mention Bill Ayers. Many incidents that could have taken the shine off of Obama such as having his opponents kicked off the ballot in Chicago and helping Tony Rezko take control of a hospital construction board went unmentioned.
There is a reason for this. McCain refused to run any ads that could be perceived as involving race, however tangentially. He was more willing to lose the election than be called a racist. In the end, he got both. Maybe the media's praise for his concession speech made it all worthwhile.
McCain's staffers didn't do him any favors. When it appeared increasingly likely that he would lose, his staffers began anonymously leaking made-up stories attacking Sarah Palin to the media to blame her for his impending loss.
There were other problems with McCain. Nominating a senator was a terrible idea. Senators have long voting records and no executive experience. They never win, unless they're running against another senator, like Obama was.
McCain's age hurt him. He may not have been too old to be president, but his age definitely hurt his ability as a candidate.
Nominating a moderate was also a mistake. Moderates don't appeal well to the base and they lack the ideological consistency to explain issues clearly. They also have records of supporting bad policies that hurt their ability to use issues effectively. McCain supported a highly unpopular amnesty bill and did a switcheroo on offshore drilling.
Probably McCain's best decision of the whole campaign was picking Sarah Palin as his running mate. Liberals and the media are trying to damage her future electoral prospects by claiming that she caused McCain to lose. But the truth is that "of the 60 percent of voters who told exit pollsters that McCain's choice of Palin was a "factor" in their final decision, the Arizona senator won 56 percent to 43 percent". It would have been better, though, if Palin had been given more time to prepare before being thrown into the national spotlight.
How about Obama? There is no question that he ran a strong campaign. He raised record amounts of money, inspired legions of followers, and effectively harnessed new technologies. In many ways, Obama ran a rhetorically conservative campaign. He promised to cut taxes for most Americans, cut wasteful government spending, protect the Second Amendment, oppose "gay marriage", and fight the war in Afghanistan more effectively. Many voters who only heard his words believed him. Of course, it didn't help that McCain didn't effectively refute what Obama said. It says a lot about Obama's inherent weaknesses that the election was as close as it was.
The 2008 election had a lot going against Republicans. But a strong candidate and campaign could still have won. McCain blew it. Republicans need to make sure to pick candidates for future campaigns who won't repeat his mistakes.