Always a bad sign: Senator John McCain has come to comparing his campaign to the come-from-behind win by President Harry Truman in 1948. While Senator McCain has solidified the Republican base behind his candidacy, his standing with independents is surprisingly poor. Surprising, because Senator McCain had spent decades in Congress fostering a maverick, straight talking image that should have had a natural appeal to non-partisans in the electorate. His failure to connect with these voters now is a blunder straight out of Marketing 101.
Senator McCain had a strong brand leading into the general election. He was perceived as an independent maverick, willing to take on his own party and talk straight to the American people. If he had stuck to this image, in both word and deed, he might not be playing catch-up with eight days to go before election day. Just as consumers feel uncertain about a product that changes its attributes suddenly, voters don’t take well to a candidate who changes dramatically as November approaches. Yet the vehemence with which Senator McCain has distanced himself from his (former) brand is remarkable.
It began in the primary. Having attacked leaders in the Religious Right in 2000 he now embraced them. Having proven his “straight talk” bona fides by attacking President George Bush’s tax cuts, especially on high income Americans, as foolish and misguided, he now supported them. Having promised a positive campaign on the issues he attacked his opponent, Senator Barack Obama, as an empty suit celebrity.
There were still glimpses of the old Senator McCain on display. His call for 10 town hall debates with no moderator was brilliant. If accepted by Senator Obama it would have changed the tenor of the entire campaign. His attacks on Senator Obamafor failing to keep his promise to accept federal funding was on point and, even better, reminded voters of Senator McCain’s commitment to campaign reform. His response to supporters in a town hall meeting that they need not fear an Obama presidency was noble.
Senator McCain’s campaign, however, is consistent only in its inconsistency. It seems unable to focus on any one theme for more than a few days. So instead of emphasizing the maverick Senator McCain, he put on display the erratic Candidate McCain, talking about everything and everyone from Brittany Spears to William Ayers and socialism to buying up mortgages.
What undermined Senator McCain’s brand with finality, however, was the selection of Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. On the surface this seemed like a bold and unorthodox move. Nominating a popular governor with a demonstrable record of reform and of fighting corruption made sense. That she was a woman made the move even more exciting. From a short term political perspective, that Governor Palin secured the core of the GOP for Senator McCain’s candidacy was a huge win.
Yet it also did more to push independent voters away than any other act Senator McCain took in this campaign. After blistering attacks on Senator Obama for lacking the experience to be commander-in-chief, Senator McCain selected a running mate even less qualified. Her conservative political views put her outside the mainstream where independent voters reside. Misstating her record concerning earmarks made Governor Palin out to be a hypocrite and Senator McCain to be either ill informed or a liar.
Selecting a running mate is the only “presidential” decision a presidential candidate makes before the election. It’s the best window voters have into what their administration might look like. Selecting someone has unqualified to be president as Governor Palin undercut Senator McCain’s image. Defending her required the campaign to contort reality (you can see Russia from Alaska — well, yes, from an island Governor Palin has never visited). Contrast this with Senator Obama’s choice of Senator Joe Biden. No one questions his qualifications to be president. It was a solid, unflashy selection. It showed Senator Obama wanted a vice president who would be a part of his inner circle, who would be willing to challenge him, someone who would make him a better president.
Does anyone think Governor Palin will be a part of President McCain’s inner circle? Does anyone really think she could challenge him on a broad range of issues? And if she did, would a President McCain care? Does anyone think that in selecting Governor Palin as his running mate, Senator McCain put country first?
Senator McCain had to pretend the answers to all these questions were yes. As the answers are, for most independents, a resounding “no,” doing so contradicted Senator McCain’s hard won brand. Couple this with his erratic response to the economic meltdown (claiming the fundamentals of the economy are sound followed by a recognition the economy was in crisis just hours later) and an over-the-top, nasty and negative campaign, and the straight talking, honest politician disappears behind a haze of smoke and mirrors.
For the fun of it, imagine Senator McCain had selected someone less exciting, but more qualified, than Governor Palin. Governor Charlie Crist of Florida or former Pennsylvania Governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge come to mind. The GOP base would have been furious (especially over Secretary Ridge, who is generally pro-choice), but it would have bolstered the McCain Brand. Either selection would be consistent with Senator McCain’s image. Either would be appealing to independent voters. The Republican base might have torpedoed a McCain-Crist or a McCain-Ridge ticket. But would they really sit idly by and let Senator Obama waltz into the White House? It’s unlikely.
Senator McCain might still win this election. If he loses a large part of the reason will be the superior campaign and message of Senator Obama and the economic crisis, two factors he couldn’t control. But a contributing factor will be his own doing. Senator McCain is responsible for turning his back on who he was and what he once stood for.