I’ve worked in fair number of campaigns over the years, most — but for the record, not all — losing ones. Some were cliffhangers. My first campaign, back in 1972 when I was a teenage press secretary, nearly elected the first woman to California’s State Senate, Cathy O’Neill. She lost by a percent, less than what the Peace & Freedom Party candidate polled. It wasn’t until nearly 6:00 am the morning after election day we knew for sure we’d lost.
I was also there at the dawn of the Bradley Effect. That was when Joe Trippi, later campaign manager of former Governor Howard Dean and a senior aide to former Senator John Edwards, put down the phone and told then Mayor Tom Bradley that, in spite of the pre-election day polls, he was not going to win the California Governor’s race in 1982.
These are not fond memories.
Neither were the big losses, of which there were more than a few. These are the ones in which the candidate knows in his or her heart that the race is over, but needs to find the strength to keep on campaigning through election day. It’s a test of their character, poise and commitment to something beyond themselves, but it boils down to a simple choice: do they go out flailing or with dignity?
The former approach involves often ugly attacks at the opponent, the media, and anyone (and everyone) else who comes within reach of the candidate. The candidate and his or her inner-circle just can’t believe they’re going to lose. They assume it’s a trick. That the other side cheated. Or the Fates cheated. The inevitable loss is not their fault and they want the world to know it.
In the dignified version of acknowledging defeat, candidate becomes more introspective. He or she seems to recall why they got into the fray in the first place. Instead of winnin at all costs, they focus on why they should have won. They shift from doing whatever it takes to win, to doing what’s right to preserve their standing and reputation. It’s a campaign that moves from looking for the next headline to being able to look at oneself in the mirror. In many ways, it’s the most honest period of the campaign.
Senator Hillary Clinton veered between both approaches as her campaign against Senator Barack Obama wound down earlier this year. In the end, however, she displayed her best attributes. Losing somehow freed her to speak more from the heart, to present the ideas and positions she’d long delivered from scripts by rote in a more sincere and meaningful way.
Senator McCain is fast approaching his moment of truth. He’s a smart politician. While he sees himself as the ultimate Comeback Kid, he knows winning is a long shot. His campaign has given up on Michigan. The lift from selecting Governor Sarah Palin continues to rally the core, but is becoming a drag when it comes to independents. In the final month of the campaign he’s forced to shore up support in normally safe Republican states like Virginia and North Carolina. Leading voices in his own party are suggesting his campaign is floundering. And now some of the pundits and pollsters are claiming Senator Obama is a single state away from an Electoral College majority. While I’ve written before about why the polls in this campaign should be discounted, the sheer weight of so many polls tracking the Democratic candidate’s accelerating momentum cannot be ignored.
Senator McCain’s can still hope to strike a surprising blow during the last presidential debate at Hofstra University on Wednesday night. But he’s debated Senator Obama twice already and knows the odds of a game changing result are slim.
And that’s when we’ll see the direction in which Senator McCain moves. Last week he gave conflicting clues. He let his campaign, including his running mate, make ugly, personal charges against Senator Obama. The charges went beyond questioning his judgment — they were accusations of treason by someone who fails to see America the way Senator McCain’s supporters do. The charges looked a lot like flailing and Senator McCain seemed to encourage it. His angry side was on display.
Then there was the meeting in Minnesota in which Senator McCain stood up to his own booing followers to declare Senator Obama to be a “decent, family man” and “a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States.” In demanding respect for an opponent he clearly does not like personally, Senator McCain displayed the fairness and character for which he was widely admired prior to this presidential campaign.
And that’s the choice Senator McCain will soon need to face. Shortly after Wednesday’s debate, assuming no surprises there or elsewhere, Senator McCain will sit down with his advisers and face reality: his long-held dream of being President of the United States is unlikely to be realized. Yet, for the sake of his party and for his supporters, he will need to continue to continue a grueling campaign schedule of rallies, town hall meetings and interviews. He’ll have to decide whether he wants to spend the end game as an angry politician or a dignified statesman. He will need to decide if he wants to tear the country apart or help mend it back together.
When forced to decide, my guess is he’ll take the high road. He’ll continue to insist he’s best qualified to be president. He’ll continue to point out his opponent’s failings. Yet he’s shown he’s capable of doing both in a way that maintains the principles he’s stood for throughout most of his career. In taking this path, he’ll make his points in ways that enhances his stature when he returns to the Senate, much like Senator Clinton did.
And while this approach will disappoint his most ardent supporters, it will be the right thing to do because it puts his country. It might even add to his vote total come election day.