Sarah Palin Did Not Cost McCain The Election
Thu, 11/06/2008 - 4:51pm
Now that the McCain/Palin ticket found the bottom of the downward spiral to an electoral defeat of Mondale proportions, journalists, campaign operatives, and others looking to make names for themselves are all sagely pointing the finger of blame at Sarah Palin. Granted, she made things easier; I will enjoy few things more than seeing her consigned to the Dan Quayle Institute of Forgotten Novelty Candidates. One thing that she did not do, however, was cost the Republicans the election.
To assume that Sarah Palin cost the Republicans the election is to initially assume that they had a chance to win it. I contend that even if they had a small chance to do it, John McCain could never have done it running against Barack Obama. The basic formula for a victory is turning out the base of your party, some independent and undecided voters, and some amount of the other party's voters for you. John McCain has never had a lock on the GOP base:
Nearly five months after John McCain effectively locked down the Republican presidential nomination, many leaders of the religious right remain underwhelmed. A new Newsweek article asserts that McCain's candidacy has "tamped down" enthusiasm among these conservatives, "exposing fractures that make a rallying of the troops in the pews unlikely."
The recent L.A. Times/Bloomberg national poll spotlighted a pronounced "passion gap" in the presidential race, with fully 81% of Barack Obama supporters declaring themselves fired up about his candidacy and only 45% of the McCain backers feeling likewise about their man.
And here's an even more concrete sign of the difficulty McCain has been having rallying core Republicans, courtesy of a Gannett News Service story published Monday:
"Of the more than 900 Hoosiers who contributed at least $2,000 to President Bush's re-election campaign, only about 50 had contributed to the Arizona senator by the end of [May], according to a review of campaign disclosure reports...."
Part of this is not McCain's fault. The base of the GOP changed drastically between the 1980's, when McCain's political career began, and 2008, when he finally got his chance to run. Had the GOP still been able to get Sunbelt voters, Latinos, and Yankee Republicans and blue collar manufacturing sector white workers in addition to Southerners, as Reagan did, he would have been able to assemble a massive coalition. Had he been able to work with the Bush coalition, which had a Republican "Solid South", higher Latino margins, and the remnants of Yankee Republicans, he would have had a formidable base from which to work. But Republicans threw away all the gains that President Bush made with Latinos and Hispanics during their immigration meltdown of the last three years. Yankee Republicans are now voting Democratic, and the Sunbelt Republican is slowly being converted to a Sunbelt Democrat as well. All that was left for him to build on was The Solid South.
This, of course, is the rub. McCain was the candidate of every Republican coalition partner except the Southern moralists and the religious right that make up the Solid South. He has famously spat on them over and over again, and they were only happy to return the favor:
A prominent Christian leader whose radio and magazine outreaches are solidly in support of biblically-based marriages – and keeps in touch with millions of constituents daily – says he cannot consider Arizona Sen. John McCain a viable candidate for president.
"Speaking as a private individual, I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances," said James Dobson, founder of the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family as well as the Focus Action cultural action organization set up specifically to provide a platform for informing and rallying constituents.
Dobson, who always is careful to note that he's not speaking for the non-profit ministry, which cannot advocate for or against candidates legally, also doesn't hesitate to state his personal opinions on social or political issues and agendas.
Several times he's talked to Republicans, the traditionally conservative political party, about the need to maintain the values of that large part of the U.S. population, or lose the support of those people.
The important thing to note here is that McCain was the candidate of the traditional Republican coalition as it looked prior to 1980 — in other words, he was the candidate of the base to which Southerners and the religious right were added on. Unfortunately, by an operation similar to Gresham's Law, the party that relied on the religious right and Southern conservatives as the biggest partner in their coalition saw the other partners of their coalition marginalized or driven out. Their swelled ranks allowed them to wield a lot of power in the nineties, but the people who then nominated and elected Bush in 2000 were different from those that nominated and elected Reagan in 1980. While Reagan had once famously said, "You can't endorse me, but I can endorse you" to the religious right, Bush ran as one of them. The party that McCain inherited, while paying nominal allegiance to Reagan, now barely resembled the party that he had helped put together, and there was no way for a Sunbelt Republican like McCain to fully capture the allegiance of this transformed party.
Without going too deeply into the particulars of the Republican primary, we can all agree that it was a circular firing squad of conservative-approved candidates that allowed McCain to squeak through, which he did while repudiating every position that made him popular to the pre-Reagan Republican coalition. While the Democratic primary was going on without an end in sight, McCain was taking the time to try and convince everyone in the new GOP that he was their guy. From making "appropriate" speeches on the judiciary to cravenly backing down from his comprehensive immigration reform legislation, McCain gave it everything he had. Having inherited a Dixie revival tent party, he then spent months trying to recast himself as their champion, but to no avail. If you lie to everyone, no one will trust you.
Going into August, he still hadn't put the base of the Republican Party behind him, and, after a massively successful Democratic National Convention, he panicked. There is no other explanation for picking Sarah Palin. She gave him what no one else was able to: the base. Within minutes of her announcement, the entire tone of the Republican base changed. Whereas once they were putting up websites about getting drunk enough to vote for McCain, they were suddenly turning up in massive numbers to write blogs, volunteer, etc.
The problem? There just weren't enough of them to make up the difference. The Republican base is the analogue to bad money: it drove the moderates and soft Democrats out.
Sarah Palin is a noxious political figure who should be returned to obscurity as soon as humanly possible, and with luck, will be defeated in Alaska in 2010. But she should not be blamed for the catastrophe that was the McCain campaign.