Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Ten Myths of Election 2008

Most of us aren't thinking as much about the election anymore as we are about turkey, presents, and a certain presumptive nominee for Secretary of State. And that's too bad, because now that we have a little more distance from the thing, it's a lot easier to come to a few sober--if not necessarily popular--assessments of what really happened over the past year and a half. Here, then, are the Key Grip's assortment of the ten biggest misunderstandings, misapprehensions, misinterpretations, and outright misses of the 2008 Presidential election cycle. If I've done my job, at least one of these will make you mad; that is, after all, what I do best.

10. It was John McCain's money disadvantage that sank him in close states. The shame of this one is that it sounds the death-knell for public financing of election campaigns, but the truth of the matter is significantly more complicated and has a great deal more to do with McCain's inability to take the ground war seriously. The intrepid young (?) journalists at fivethirtyeight.com spent a significant amount of time and personal treasure criss-crossing the country in the final four months of the campaign, and in stop after stop--battleground after battleground--they found Obama field offices in the least likely of places, bursting at the seams and open well after dinner, while the McCain field operation in the same places was either empty of volunteers or entirely non-existent.

McCain lost Indiana by a hair's breadth and Nevada by an eye-popping twelve points, and both of those results were largely attributable to the massive turnout advantage brought to bear on the situation by Team Blue. If recent election cycles have proven anything, you can't win toss-up states without a solid ground operation, and the McCain people (like the Clinton people before them) seemed pathologically incapable of taking the Obama organization seriously enough to answer it--despite the fact that most of the hardest work could've been carried out by volunteers.

9. A Republican couldn't possibly win in 2008. This country has a long and storied history of holding its nose and electing people that it either doesn't want, or who come from a party that it doesn't want. The most recent example is George H. W. Bush in 1988 -- whom absolutely nobody in this country was thrilled to have as our forty-first President but who, owing to the swift and precipitous collapse of the Dukakis campaign, found himself backing into the top job on account of being the last man standing. The better example, though somewhat less modern, is the time-worn story of Harry Truman (a man whose disapproval ratings were for a time even higher than Nixon's were in August of '74) coming from nowhere to beat Thomas Dewey for a full term in the Oval Office in November of 1948. To suggest that, post Bush, post Katrina, post Iraq, there was no way any Republican could've carried 270 votes is to ignore whole swathes of America's singularly peculiar political history. McCain--or possibly someone else--most assuredly could have won.

8. Mr. Obama's agenda will prove difficult to secure in such a center-right country. America is not a center-right country. What America is, rather, is a country that wants a Head of State as much as or more than it wants a Head of Government--and thus it routinely elects people who talk in short sentences, press the same hot-buttons all day, and aren't quite up to the messy job of governance (Reagan, Bush I, Bush II) if those people can also manage to run an entire campaign without looking weak, indecisive, palpably dishonest, or unable to hit big-league pitching (Dukakis, Kerry, Gore, McGovern). The fact that most of the people who've passed this metric in recent times have been Republicans is a semi-accident of the Republican party's far deeper stable of individuals willing to be stupid about governance in favor of a carefully crafted leadership image. When Democrats advance people who are in fact capable of looking the part of a strong leader, it doesn't even matter if they are Catholic, a philanderer, talk with a funny Massachusetts accent, and their father was a war profiteer with borderline antisemitic German sympathies and contacts.

7. Barack Obama was inevitable. This is partly a reprise of number 9, above, but the specific question of Mr. Obama's supposed cult of personality bears an independent thought or two, precisely because it so willfully disregards the facts surrounding his ascendancy. In early 2004, Mr. Obama was, at best, the second-most popular candidate in the Illinois Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. Then the Democratic frontrunner, Blair Hull, was forced to withdraw when he became embroiled in a domestic abuse scandal and Obama raced in to fill the vacuum. Obama's presumptive opponent in the general election for the seat, Jack Ryan, was also forced to withdraw after damaging information about his child custody battle with an ex-wife in California was released to the press. With no one else to run, the Illinois Republican party turned to Alan Keyes, a man so extremist in his conservatism that he no longer even considers himself a member of the Republican party because it's--wait for this one--too moderate.

With his inevitable trouncing of Keyes (and the stirring keynote address he'd given at that summer's Democratic National Convention), Obama became a national figure overnight and shortly thereafter he began to organize himself toward a run for the Presidency. But fate had one more blessing to bestow on the supposedly methodical-genius Obama, and this particular blessing would come from the least likely of sources: The Republican-controlled state legislatures of Michigan and Florida, both of whom ignored national agreements to schedule their primaries after the "first four" of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Instead those two delegate-rich states scheduled their primaries "too early," and in consequence were (temporarily) disenfranchised by the Democratic Party.

Had these two states held primaries on Super Tuesday, the President-elect wouldn't necessarily be Hillary Clinton right now, but it certainly wouldn't have been Barack Obama, because Clinton would've clobbered him so forcefully in the Super Tuesday primaries that he'd never have been able to recover. Take nothing away from David Plouffe's brilliant general election campaign, please, but the cold hard fact is that it took an unusual haul of artfully timed serendipity just to get Mr. Obama into that position in the first place.

Moreover, on the day the Lehman failure precipitated the first big crash on Wall Street (and John McCain uttered his now infamous gaffe about the fundamentals of our economy being strong), Mr. Obama wasn't ahead by six or eight points, he was trailing by three. Much of that was convention bounce, but still: The notion that Obama and his people deserve the credit, the whole credit, and nothing but the credit for their victory two weeks ago is about as far from the reality of the election we've just had as anything I've yet heard. Would Mr. Obama still have won without this enormous assist from the Citigroups and Lehmans of the world? Perhaps. But it certainly wouldn't have been a 365-electoral-vote wave, the way it was.

6. Obama's decision to pick Joe Biden was designed to bolster his foreign policy credential. Rightly or otherwise, Barack Obama and his campaign never much worried about the prospect of a foreign policy debate in the general election campaign. If the Republicans had tried to turn this into another referendum on security, Mr. Obama (as the fall cycle has proven) was capable of pivoting the discussion to his advantage in a variety of ways, without the help of Joe Biden.

This myth is particularly frustrating to me because it's such an insult to Joe Biden: The idea that Obama would never have "risked" picking such a rambunctious and talkity partner if his own weak resume on foreign policy hadn't forced his hand, completely misses the point of the Joe Biden selection. Biden is middle-class through and through, and just the sort of public figure against whom charges of Massachusetts elitism were just never going to stick. He raised Obama's stature not so much with foreign policy voters (is there any such thing?) as with Catholics, working-class voters in Ohio, the Jewish vote in Florida, and anybody who worried that an Obama Administration would be distant and aloof. Say what you will about Joe Biden, he's not distant and aloof.

5. John McCain's biggest mistake was choosing Sarah Palin. This one is actually half-right: It was a huge mistake to pick Sarah Palin, and this very column said so at the time. With the combination of her youth, inexperience, and manifest unreadiness, Palin's selection to be McCain's running-mate opened the door to renewed consideration of McCain's age, judgment and temperament. But as poor a choice as she was--and in the end she certainly damaged her benefactor more than she helped--the question that such analysis begs is, who else? Mr. McCain's very strength as a candidate, his very appeal in the first place, was that he could pitch himself as the country's premier independent: a politician without a brand. It's a marketing strategy that makes for great theater (even when it's mostly a bald-faced lie), but it does raise some serious problems when it comes to picking someone to balance the ticket.

Had McCain chosen, say, Joe Lieberman, then the evangelical right--without whom McCain couldn't possibly prevail--would've stayed home. Had McCain chosen one of his prominent opponents in the primary campaign (say, Mitt Romney), the evangelical right would've revolted against that choice, too, with the added drawback that Mr. McCain himself didn't like any of his prominent opponents in the primary campaign. Had he picked a candidate who was suitable to the evangelical right and also not Sarah Palin (say, Haley Barbour), he would've alienated the swing voters in the middle even faster than Palin herself ultimately did. What Mr. McCain needed was a devout culture warrior, pro-life to the extreme, who liked to hunt and fish and generally kill other living things while talking about being pro-life, and yet who still carried at least the longshot prospect of consolidating his claim on the persuadable independents-- especially women. In 2008, there was exactly one person who came even close to fitting that description, and he picked her.

4. The PUMAs were McCain's best path to victory. File this one as a counterpoint to (5), perhaps, but the idea that there were legions of disaffected Hillary voters out there, prepared to cross over and vote McCain, was even at the time so fanciful as to seem downright comic. PUMAs were never going to cross over in force and vote for McCain, and there's more than one pretty good reason why.

To begin with there is the small problem that a great many of those supposed PUMAs were actually Republicans who'd been recruited by the hate-wing radio crowd to pretend they were Hillary supporters, in the hope of sowing dissension in the Democratic party. The more these people did exactly what Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter were telling them to, by logging in to comment fields in the blogosphere and droning on and on about how pissed they were that Hillary was getting such a raw deal, the harder it became for the senior McCain campaign staff to discern that they were, in point of fact, liars from within their own party who never had any intention of voting for Hillary in the first place. If there is one great untold story left among the debris of the losing side in this great contest, it is the as-yet unspoken admission that the campaign literally head-faked itself on this question, picking a woman to appeal to a constituency that they themselves had conjured out of nothing.

Add to this the small problem that there wasn't a Democrat left on Planet Earth who was prepared to commit the same sort of ritual seppuku in the voting booth that had denied a clean win to Al Gore in Florida back in 2000. Mr. Bush saw to that. By the time of the Lehman meltdown, the Democratic party was as united behind its own brand as it has been in my lifetime by a margin too wide to measure, and no woman on earth would have made any difference in partisan-base support for the Democratic ticket--not even Hillary Clinton herself.

3. Defeating Barack Obama would've resulted only from making him look scary and different. The Lee Atwater / Karl Rove / Steve Schmidt playbook is to convince persuadable voters that the guy they wish they could vote for is unacceptable on sweeping character grounds, then move in for the kill on a specific question of policy. You show your opponent riding in a tank, and then you follow that up with the Willie Horton ad. You stand passive while a 527 accuses him of lying about his purple hearts, and then you hit him on his right flank over his voting record about Iraq. This technique is referred to as "stripping the bark off" the opposition, but the most important aspect of it is the timing of the two approaches: You can't call someone a tank-riding, unpatriotic, weak-kneed liberal if you've already endeavored to engage him on policy grounds, and you certainly can't do it if the general public has already gotten to know the other guy and come to respect him.

It's no accident that the McCain candidacy enjoyed its strongest polling during the weeks immediately following the Paris Hilton ad--the tactic was pure Atwater and it worked. Many people were still making up their minds about Barack Obama, and here was a concise, not entirely groundless, almost funny TV commercial to assist in making the final judgment on character.

The problem wasn't so much with the ad itself (though of course anyone reading these words would rather live in a country where such tactics didn't work), as with the fact that the attack was leveled immediately prior to the conventions. Mr. Obama neutralized the effects of that commercial by winning back the persuadable character voters at his own convention, after which news of Mr. McCain's choice of running-mate had the unintended effect of blotting out any consideration of anyone else's suitability for high office for the weeks afterward. By the time Sarah Palin herself was standing on an airport runway before a microphone, saying "The American people have a right to know who the real Barack Obama is," the American people already felt they knew who the real Barack Obama is--he had passed the "living-room test" and become someone we were used to thinking of as one of our own. In consequence, instead of asking the question Ms. Palin wanted us to ask, we turned their attentions to the question of just who this interloping stranger was, leveling such nasty innuendo.

2. The Obama campaign won by widening the playing field. Again, this is certainly at least half-true: You weren't going to win an election for President in 2008 by defending all the states that John Kerry had won, and not winning any others. But just below the surface of this inescapable reality lies a Machiavellian bait-and-switch so deft and so brilliant that I find it personally frustrating to have seen so little written about it: Barack Obama and Joe Biden never seriously contested the states in which the Democratic party had always been believed to make or break its fortunes every four years. From Arkansas to West Virginia, along a roughly arrow-shaped swathe of the country on the south side of the Ohio river basin, Messrs. Obama and Biden never spent serious ad money, never made serious campaign appearances, never hedged their electoral bets, and in consequence never stood a chance.

The brilliance of this wasn't in the money that it saved--heaven knows there was plenty of money--but in the agenda that it allowed them to ignore. Democrats and independents in Arkansas and Louisiana and Tennessee and Kentucky and West Virginia had for a generation been thought of as the ideological key to victory for Team Blue (think of a certain Governor from Arkansas or, more recently, a certain first-term senator from North Carolina).

By attempting to build a coalition around the voters in these states, the Democratic party consistently presented itself as a "donkey designed by committee," with no clear sense of what its priorities were or how best to respond to the venomous attacks that were being launched from within its own power band. By running on a platform that carried broad appeal in other parts of the country--one might even say, a platform that carried broad appeal only in other parts of the country--the Democratic ticket of 2008 accomplished something that the Democratic tickets of 1988 and 2000 and 2004 could not: They cabined-off the influence of the upland South. Make no mistake, it was a brilliant campaign on so many levels as to leave them too numerous to count here, but a fifty-state strategy it manifestly was not.

1. Elections are won and lost using time-tested formulas. Here at last we come to what I believe is the core lesson from this campaign season: Successful election campaigns aren't one-size-fits-all. In 2004 if you were a Republican who wanted a (second?) term as President, you ran a security-conscious, character-assassinating, slash-and-burn election campaign designed to paint your opponent as a mealy-mouthed fumbler who can't be trusted to stick to his word in a pinch, and you won. In 2008, you try the same set of tactics, orchestrated by many of the same senior campaign staff, and you lose.

Now, on one level this observation is a tautology. People realize that each election presents both candidates with a different set of challenges and a different set of opportunities. (Imagine a Bush v. Gore election in the middle of the sort of financial crisis we've just had, and you've pretty well proved this point to yourself on a sample of one.) But electoral strategies also succeed or fail owing in large measure to the personality of the candidate him- or herself, too--and this would seem to be far less obvious to at least the people who were running John McCain's campaign, if not Hillary Clinton's.

Mrs. Clinton, lest we forget, ran the bulk of her primary campaign on the platform that Mr. Obama couldn't grasp the bitter realities of a permanent Democratic minority on the electoral map-- offering herself as the only candidate who knew to play for John Kerry's 252 plus one or the other of Ohio and Florida. This strategy would've served Clinton better than it served Kerry, for sure, but it also would have freed McCain from the majority of the downside consequences of his funding disadvantage. The 527's would've descended on Ohio and Florida with a gusto that makes the Swift Boat campaign look vague and indecisive by comparison, after which Clinton would've had a very difficult time defining herself in the eyes of the blue-collar Ohio independents as anything other than the gal with her fingerprints all over the Whitewater billing records.

Meanwhile, the same John McCain who once decried the polarizing influence of the evangelical opinion leaders in his own party could be heard approving television commercials in which Barack Obama was accused of trying to teach sex education to kindergarteners and fighting to prevent post-natal care for the surviving babies of botched abortions. Not only did these attacks ring hollow with an electorate that had already come to know and respect Obama, but the backlash of such a character reversal redounded mercilessly to McCain's own detriment. McCain -- perceived until this election as a principled centrist who would tell it like it is, regardless of hiw it was -- had been coached by Steve Schmidt and Rick Davis into campaigning like just another Bush, at the one time in history when presenting one's self as just another Bush would prove singularly devastating for one's electoral fortunes.

Much will be written and said about this election for years to come. It may, indeed, become the sort of watershed that people have already suggested, thus heaping even more expectation onto the shoulders of a certain skinny kid from Chicago. But out of the shadows of all these crazy and surprisingly durable myths about how the race was run and why it turned out the way it did, the one inescapable truth that has already crystallized is that John McCain lost this thing every bit as much as Barack Obama won it. ...And that McCain lost it, in the end, when he lost himself.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

3 comments:

sully said...

This is a very cogent, thought-provoking and convincing analysis, and I've already slurped it into a separate document so I can fax it to a fellow political junkie who refuses to buy a computer. Reading your blog is one near-daily self-indulgence that I can staunchly defend as not a time-waster!

The Key Grip said...

WOW -- thank you!

...And to anyone else reading who has kept with me during the slight down-tick in posting frequency.

Keep checking in for columns about travel and movies, too.

Anonymous said...

Ditto Sully's remarks, sans the fax...