Although the election has only just ended, it is clear why Sen. John McCain lost. It is not because millions of people viewed now-President-Elect Barack Obama as a beacon of hope in a harsh world, or because they thought he transcended ideological, racial and other traditional boundaries, or because countless voters believed that he could truly change the face of American politics. These are all reasons, but not the reason. And the reason why McCain lost is because he lost the moderate vote when he had every chance to win it.
The GOP base has never been enamored with McCain, and while social and religious conservatives publicly complain about the Arizona senator, the base still votes Republican. This was never in doubt. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, most Democrats were going to vote for Obama, even those dejected after he defeated Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the Democratic primaries. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin may have energized her party’s base as McCain’s pick for vice president, but the idea that she effectively drew Hillary supporters away from the Obama camp into McCain’s is ludicrous. The voting bloc left standing, therefore, was the moderate vote.
For many moderates (or independents and undecided voters), McCain was the ideal candidate: principled, strong-willed, experienced in foreign affairs and a war hero. They admired his “straight talk” and his willingness to buck the party line for the good of the country. As in any election, both major-party candidates attempted to woo moderates to their side. But McCain turned his back on the kind of voter that could have propelled him to the White House. There are two main components of McCain’s campaign that steered moderate voters toward Obama, and I’d like to illustrate these two points with a personal anecdote about a relative of mine who is a moderate voter.
This relative is around 60 years old and has lived his entire life in the swing state of Pennsylvania, which as we all know, was won by Obama on Election Day. My relative calls himself an independent and is educated but solidly middle class. He has a great deal of respect for McCain due to the senator’s service to his country and his maverick reputation. In short, my relative epitomizes the kind of voter that McCain appealed to and counted on for support.
But the McCain that my relative and many other moderate voters knew in 2000, when he ran for president and garnered a great deal of support from both sides of the aisle, was not the same man in 2008. In his campaign against Obama, he used the same negative tactics used against him in 2000 that he so vehemently denounced at the time; his campaign seemed unpredictable and unsteady, impatient and excitable; and his political stunts, such as suspending his campaign to go to Washington, D.C. ostensibly to provide leadership in the midst of the economic crisis, were not well-received.
But to moderate voters, the most egregious stunt was McCain’s choice of Gov. Sarah Palin as his nominee for vice president. It quickly became clear that behind the pretty face, there was an appalling lack of experience when it came to being on the biggest political stage. Palin may yet have a bright future in the GOP — rest assured, there are already plans for her in the coming years — but she represented everything that McCain (and therefore moderates) didn’t: extreme conservatism, vast inexperience and little understanding of foreign policy. Moderates saw her as grossly under-qualified for the job, a concern intensified by McCain’s age and medical history. For a man who touted himself as the candidate with better judgment, McCain’s judgment was called into serious question, as was his mantra of “country first.”
For moderate voters like my relative, they tried to ignore, subconsciously or not, the criticism being heaped on McCain for choosing Palin and his increasing negativity in his attack ads and rhetoric. But as the weeks wore on and Nov. 4 drew nearer, moderate voters who liked McCain saw fewer and fewer positive attributes. My relative sincerely wanted to support McCain, for while he didn’t dislike Obama, he just couldn’t vote for him based on a gut feeling — a common sentiment found among moderate voters nationwide. He never mentioned anything about Obama’s inexperience or race; just that he just couldn’t see him as our country’s commander in chief.
In the end, my relative’s mind won out over his heart. The weekend before Nov. 4, he made up his mind and decided to vote for Obama. He cited two main reasons: Firstly, the John McCain that my relative knew in 2000 was no longer the man he saw in 2008, and secondly, he simply got scared by the possibility of Sarah Palin in the White House. This viewpoint was shared by moderate voters all over the United States and doomed McCain’s chance at the presidency.
The irony is that McCain had the best shot of any Republican candidate to win the election, despite his unpopularity with the party base. Given his record, he was better-positioned than any other Republican to overcome his association with the Bush administration. Simply put, however, he never did this.
There is much to admire in McCain. Deep down, he is an honorable, principled man who has served his country for the majority of his life. His maverick label has been tarnished, fairly or not, but he has reached across the aisle on big issues on multiple occasions. True, he did and said things during this campaign that go against the convictions that many people believe he holds true. But it was an exhausting campaign, and things are always said that are regretted later by both sides. He was gracious in his concession speech — probably the best speech he’s given in the entire campaign — and he deserves our respect.
The reality is that McCain was caught in a catch-22. After the conventions, he was down in the polls, so he had to change things up. To win over more voters, his campaign advised him to aggressively and negatively attack Obama. In doing so, he went against the kind of values, like integrity and honor, which many of his supporters expected him to uphold.
In the end, McCain’s campaign couldn’t create or sustain a consistent message, which he desperately needed to connect with voters. The campaign reflected McCain’s current public personality — restless, erratic and temperamental. This notion, coupled with the choices he made to mollify the GOP base, alienated the type of voter that he needed to attract in order to win the election, and sealed his fate as the underdog going into Election Day.
In the last few months, McCain talked a lot about the importance of character, but it was his own character that came into question by my relative and other moderate voters — his former defenders turned estranged opponents.
Aaron Schumacher is a senior majoring in International Relations.