A post-mortem of the McCain campaign.Â Isn’t it interesting how the conventional wisdom of the strategists doesn’t look like wisdom after the fact.Â Conventional wisdom said McCain shouldn’t have won the nomination, but he did.Â Unfortunately he didn’t maintain the same sort of independence in the general election.Â It can’t al be blamed on McCain, of course, and the folks have a point when they talk about the fact that McCain got absolutely no media coverage until he started playing to the base and running negative ads against Obama–and without the same sort of fund-raising mechanism as Obama, he certainly couldn’t have bought it.
WASHINGTON — Heading into the 2008 presidential race, many Republicans thought Sen. John McCain‘s image as a deal-making maverick made him the one Republican who might win in an anti-GOP year. His defeat now has observers wondering what might have been had he stuck to his persona.
Instead, the Arizona senator ran a more traditional campaign, appealing to conservative voters who make up the base of his party. His advisers offer a variety of reasons for why he chose this tact, but the decision confounds those who missed the “old McCain.”
Sen. McCain “was a candidate that could have transcended the Republican brand. But the campaign often seemed aimed squarely at the Republican base,” said Todd Harris, a Republican consultant who worked on his 2000 campaign.
Some advisers said the senator couldn’t emphasize the areas where he split from other Republicans because those issues — stem cell research, campaign-finance reform and the use of torture in military interrogations, for instance — were not front-burner this election.
“There was only one issue — the economy,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, Sen. McCain’s close adviser. He noted that in the areas where Sen. McCain had staked out his independence, he and his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, agreed.
Bill McInturff, Sen. McCain’s chief pollster, said it was tough for the candidate to appeal to moderate voters after he urged more troops be sent to Iraq.
“I don’t think we ever had a chance to establish John as the interesting, go-against-the-grain candidate,” he said. His position on Iraq “created a boundary for lots of swing voters.”
The result was a McCain campaign that championed tax cuts Sen. McCain had once voted against.
Soon after winning the GOP nomination in the spring, Sen. McCain attempted to reach out to moderates. He talked about service to America. He spent a week visiting what the campaign called “places that Republicans don’t usually go,” such as Appalachia. Sen. McCain also gave a speech calling for the U.S. to work more closely with allies in world affairs, an implicit break with the Bush administration.
But these actions received scant attention, partly because, by then, the Democratic primary was commanding attention. At the same time, the Republican Party base remained lukewarm about Sen. McCain.
By the time Sen. Obama wrapped up the Democratic nomination, the McCain campaign was foundering. With Sen. McCain’s approval, senior strategist Steve Schmidt took control, and focused the candidate’s message. The campaign eliminated Sen. McCain’s once free-wheeling sessions with the press and focused on issues that appealed to core Republicans. Sen. McCain reversed his previous opposition to offshore drilling. He painted Sen. Obama as a celebrity who wasn’t ready to lead. And he emphasized his opposition to abortion.
The result: He rose in the polls.
“He delights in being an unconventional politician but he wanted to win,” said Dan Schnur, a former McCain aide now at the University of Southern California.
The most-important decision would be his choice of running mate. Sen. McCain considered his friend Joe Lieberman, an independent senator and former Democrat. But Sen. concluded that choosing a supporter of abortion rights would lead social conservatives to revolt at the upcoming Republican convention.
His choice, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, thrilled the party’s base. But she proved a liability in Sen. McCain’s pursuit of independent voters, many of whom considered Gov. Palin too conservative and unqualified for the job.