I think it is true that vice presidents by themselves do not lose or win campaigns. It might be tempting for some McCain supporters to put all the blame for their loss on Palin, but that would not be fair. It is true that she did reveal herself to be out of her depth and made some serious missteps, but Dan Quayle faced similar doubts about his abilities and yet the Bush-Quayle ticket won quite handily in 1988, by a margin of close to 8 points, which these days would be considered a landslide.
But while Palin may not have directly been the main cause of the McCain loss, I think that she did contribute substantially in an indirect way, by derailing the McCain campaign theme of the importance of experience, and they never seemed to recover from that.
The process began with the Democratic convention August 25-28, with Obama’s speech to a huge crowd at the football stadium in Denver bringing the Democratic convention to a rousing finale. Obama’s poll numbers went up by five points and he had a 6 point lead by September 1, as he got the usual benefit of a week of highly choreographed convention puffery designed to put him in the best light.
For some reason, rather than viewing Obama’s rise to a six-point lead in the polls at the end of August as the usual temporary boost arising from a smooth party convention, and waiting to see if it would be eclipsed by their own convention and bounce the following week, the McCain camp seemed to panic and feel that the election was slipping out of their grasp. And this led to the first, and I believe ultimately fatal, mistake from which the McCain camp never recovered.
They seemed to want to, with one single move, grab the headlines, erase the lead, and wipe out all the positive images of the Democratic convention and so, on August 29, they made the surprising announcement of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate, announcing it the day after Obama’s speech.
This tactic undoubtedly worked in the short run. It created a lot of anticipatory excitement for the Republican convention held September 1-4, and overshadowed the positive coverage of Obama’s speech, just as they must have hoped it would do. During the week of the Republican convention and just after, McCain’s numbers shot up rapidly to 48% by September 8, giving him a 3-point lead over the rapidly falling Obama, and a 9-point overall swing towards McCain in just one week.
How much of this was due to Palin and how much McCain might have got anyway simply due to the nature of convention bounces is not clear. But Palin undoubtedly helped. She clearly ignited the passions of the party faithful. Suddenly the Republican party rallies, formerly lackluster affairs struggling to draw big crowds, became boisterous and enthusiastic, with packed audiences cheering loudly.
It looked like they had hit on a winning combination: McCain’s experience and Palin’s looks and crowd appeal, all mixed in with her down-home outsider status. The two of them were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, going to ride into Washington, clean up the mess, and solve all the country’s problems.
Looking back, this was the high point of the McCain campaign.
But as I wrote back on September 3 during the Republican convention, the Palin choice seemed to me like one of those ideas that seem brilliant at first and can be intoxicating but leave a long and deep hangover. It is one of the very few times when I have made a political prediction that turned out to be correct, so forgive me for quoting myself on it.
Someone once said that the most common last words expressed by reckless men before they do something stupid is: “Hey guys, watch this!” The McCain decision strikes me as exactly one of those ideas, something that looks bold and daring and exciting in the heat of a brainstorming session where a few people are trying to “think outside box” and make a stunning impression, but where all the negatives only show up in the cold light of day. It is then that you realize that there is a very thin line separating ‘thinking outside the box’ from ‘being out of your mind’.
I think that this decision is going to haunt McCain. His and her ardent supporters are trying to put on a good face and saying that this move is a ‘game changer’. I think they are right but not in a good way for him. It risks changing a narrow race into a blowout victory for Obama.
While the immediate aftermath of the choice and the McCain-Palin ticket’s rise in the polls seemed to prove me wrong, later events revealed that the choice was indeed a mistake. While the initial response to the choice of Palin was tremendously positive, it turned out that the price McCain paid for it was too high because, as I pointed out at the time, by selecting Palin, he had unilaterally disarmed himself of the main arrow in his quiver, that of the message of greater experience which, while not exciting, seemed to have been working for him. McCain could no longer plausibly argue that experience is the most important factor in selecting a president because he had clearly not thought it that important in selecting his own vice president.
The Palin selection started what turned out to be an irreversible decline in McCain’s fortunes because of the lack of a plausible alternative to the now abandoned message of experience.
Next: The Palin fallout
POST SCRIPT: Africa is a continent? Who knew?
Fox News tells us that Sarah Palin is planning to run for president in 2012. But more revealingly, it also reports on why the McCain camp did not want to have Sarah Palin give any press conferences and highly restricted her unscripted appearances.
So the McCain camp realized almost immediately that she could not handle the job but pretended she could. It makes a mockery of their campaign pitch that they were the ones who put country first.