In January, a few days before the South Carolina Democratic primary, I went to a Barack Obama rally in Columbia with a Republican friend who had never before seen Obama in action. This friend’s reaction: “Oh, s**t.” The super-enthusiastic crowd was about 3,000 strong — no big deal compared to the audiences Obama would later draw in the general election, but several times what John McCain was attracting in South Carolina at the time. My friend said the scene reminded him of the old clip from Jaws, in which the small-town sheriff, seeing how big the shark really is, says, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” The question, of course, was whether Republicans actually had a bigger boat.
Now we can say for sure that they didn’t.
In his concession speech, John McCain referred to his effort as “the most challenged campaign in modern times.” He was right. What sank McCain’s presidential bid was a set of the worst conditions to face any candidate in decades, in combination with an opponent who was not only a better campaigner but also the favorite of the nation’s media establishment. And there was some luck involved, too.
Could any candidate have been elected to succeed a president of his own party whose job approval rating was 25 percent? Probably not. Could any candidate have been elected to continue his party’s stay in the White House when roughly 90 percent of Americans believed the country was on the wrong track? Probably not. Could any candidate from the governing party have been elected after the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 4,000 points before one could even turn around? Probably not.
McCain faced all those obstacles — and not just those, but a political climate in which his advantage over his opponent was perversely diminished by McCain’s own courage and good judgment. In the primaries, McCain bet his entire candidacy on the surge in Iraq. He was right, and Democrats were wrong. By any measure, he should have benefited, and Democrats should have suffered, when the surge worked. Instead, as Americans achieved greater success in Iraq — and as U.S. deaths fell to 13 last month, equaling the lowest total in a very long time — the war in Iraq simply fell off many voters’ radar screens. McCain’s resoluteness and good sense went largely unrewarded.
And yet in spite of it all, McCain still managed to outperform conditions. The vote totals, as of 2 a.m. Eastern Time, show McCain with about 47 percent of the national popular vote. Perhaps that figure will go down a bit, but there’s no doubt that McCain far outshone George H.W. Bush’s 1992 re-election effort — a campaign undertaken in poor conditions for a Republican, but not nearly as bad as what McCain encountered this time — in which Bush won just 38 percent of the vote. Likewise, McCain outperformed Bob Dole, who won a little less than 41 percent in 1996. And McCain’s percentage of the popular vote might be not too far from George W. Bush’s in 2000, when Bush lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College.
In other words, McCain faced tougher challenges than his predecessors, yet somehow managed to win more votes. Just not enough.
You hear a lot of talk to the effect that, despite all the obstacles facing his campaign, McCain was actually even, and a little ahead, of Obama until the financial crisis blew everything up. There’s some truth to that; on September 8, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, McCain led Obama 48.3 percent to 45.4 percent. As late as September 17, the two candidates were tied at 45.7 percent each.
But that relatively brief moment at the top of the polls didn’t mean that all McCain’s other problems had gone away, or been conquered. Instead, it meant that any new problem, whether it be one as cataclysmic as the financial breakdown or one far less serious, would be placed on top of all of other McCain’s other handicaps, making the wall facing McCain a little higher.
A few weeks before the election, a top McCain aide gave me the campaign’s inside view of the situation. “You could think of this as trying to summit a mountain,” he said. “Both campaigns have to summit the mountain. In most elections, one campaign has some kind of advantage over the other — maybe they get a ten-minute or a half-hour head start — but both sides have to climb the same face of the mountain. In this election, we’re not climbing the same face of the mountain. They’re climbing the side of the mountain with boardwalks and latte stands and playgrounds for the kids, and we’re climbing the side of the mountain with axes and ice picks and one slip and you’re dead.”
It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t fair, but that’s the way things go. And in the end, McCain slipped.