John, What Were You Thinking?

I’m going to try to resist the temptation – at least for now – to directly address what I think of Palin’s viability as a VP pick. I think McCain made a serious strategic error by choosing Palin. And I think that will cost him the presidency.

There are die-hard Republicans and die-hard Democrats, and those folks will always vote with their party. I mean, to be realistic, Evangelicals may not like everything about McCain, but it’s not like they’re going to vote for Obama or Ralph Nader. McCain doesn’t need additional votes from die-hard Republicans, and he’ll probably never sway a die-hard Democrat. So who does he need to impress?

Theoretically, there is a large group of “undecideds” out there who could go either way. Grab them and you win the election. But I believe the notion of “undecided voters” is a myth. I have never met someone who is truly undecided, despite what they might report to a pollster. There is always one issue, or a set of them, that is so important to each and every voter that he or she will lean right or lean left and, when it’s time to vote, barring some extraordinary event, they’re going to pick the candidate on that side. Sure, some will “stay home” on voting day, but they’d probably stay home no matter what.

I’m not saying that some people don’t struggle with their choice. Clearly, both McCain and Obama have some strong pluses and minuses, which can make the decision tricky for some. 2008 is not like 1980, when even die-hard Democrats had to meditate on the wisdom of voting for Carter over Reagan. But even then, the majority of them voted for Carter. Everyone leans left or right. The devil is just in the details.

The interesting dynamic of this election is that we have two candidates running who generally stick to their classical party platforms. As a result, the loyal party voters have an easy choice to make. If you’re “undecided” and, say, abortion is a critical sway issue for you, the candidates’ positions are clear and you’ll have no trouble picking your winner. The opportunity for a candidate in a close race like this one is to blur the lines between those choices.

Obama understands this. His choice of Biden was brilliant, because Obama knew that one of the major issues “undecideds” consistenly dinged him on was his lack of overall experience and his lack of foreign affairs experience, specifically. Fine. Add Biden to his ticket, and problem solved. Now those undecideds have fewer reasons to object to Obama and he surely gained some votes with that choice. That’s good strategy.

But McCain screwed up. Take a moment to make a mental list of all the things a voter on the fence might object to about McCain. Too conservative? Too religious? Too boring? Pro life? Pro NRA? Pro big energy? These are valid reasons not to vote for someone. So, strategically, what he should have done is pick someone left of him on at least some of these issues – someone like Lieberman, if not him, specifically. Yeah, that would annoy some (most? all?) of those die-hard Republicans, but they would still vote for McCain despite it. It’s better to have people vote for you with some misgivings than to lose the election because you didn’t get enough votes.

But McCain didn’t choose someone a little more moderate or balanced in any way. In Palin, he chose someone who is in my eyes MORE to the right than he is. Huh? I completely understand why this choice delighted loyal Republicans. But McCain completely missed the point that the goal of a presidential campaign is to win the election. It’s not about “uniting the party” or “sticking to principles,” John. It’s about becoming the next President. My small handful of left-leaning but not Democrat-loyal friends who were willing to consider McCain if he chose a moderate VP are now running into the arms of the Obama camp. Bad strategy, John.

And before you say it, let me address it. Yes, picking a woman could theoretically gain you some votes from undecided women – but only if those undecideds were right-leaning in the first place. Does anyone really think that women who supported Clinton would support McCain, regardless of who he chose as VP? Clinton was the most liberal candidate in the field, and McCain is extremely conservative. If you liked one strongly, you wouldn’t like the other. Give women some credit; they’re not going to support someone with positions opposite to those they hold just to make a statement about female empowerment.

The bottom line is that I think McCain’s strategy will backfire in the end. He’ll probably gain some votes with his pick, but I predict he’ll lose more than he gained. Unfortunately, we’ll never know for sure.


5 responses to “John, What Were You Thinking?

  1. You forgot to mention the independents & Republicans who are terrified of the idea of President “No Experience At All” Palin and are now going to stay home.

    But I disagree with your assertion that the ‘undecideds’ are all moderate. There are plenty of people here in Virginia who aren’t sure abt supporting McCain because he’s not socially conservative enough–adding Palin to the ticket just got him those votes.

  2. Patrick Bateman

    I’m not saying that undecideds are all moderates — I’m saying that they don’t exist. EVERYONE is either left-leaning or right-leaning. The people who worry that McCain isn’t conservative enough are obviously right-leaning in the first place. And they’ll most likely vote for McCain no matter who he chooses as VP, because for them the alternative of Obama is simply unacceptable.

  3. Generally, you are right on, but there are a couple of things you don’t touch on. First, while it’s true that your “core” voters are unlikely to vote for your opponent, it’s also the case that your “core” voters may not agitate for you as strongly as you might like. In McCain’s case, he’s faced with a GOP establishment that thinks that he is not orthodox enough–McCain really is a maverick in the sense that he has butted heads with the GOP main line, and those folks aren’t tremendously anxious to support him. They would be much less likely to raise money for him, and press their friends to turn out, if he picked a similarly unorthodox candidate as veep.

    Palin has addressed this perfectly. The enthusiasm for her among the base is huge–hard-core Republicans are delirious about this choice. McCain will not have any trouble raising money from here on out.

    Second, Palin shakes things up. That’s worth it’s weight in gold in a race like this, where the script had McCain as the crusty, old-guard loser and Obama as the young, upstart agent of change. A safe (by which I mean, logical) choice would have played into that script. Picking Palin, who is wildly outside the mold, gives McCain a chance to rewrite the narrative, and gives him a huge opportunity to grab reams of free press coverage.

    So, I actually think that there is some justification for picking Palin. Not that that means I like the choice–I am one of your left-leaning types on social issues who finds Sarah Palin not only repellent, but a bit frightening. There is a zero percent chance I would vote for a ticket with her on it.

    The real question for McCain is this: how many people like me are there, and how many of them live in “battleground” states?

  4. Patrick Bateman

    Billy, on your first point, I get your argument, and the pieces about fundraising and “tell your friends” enthusiasm are valid. But in the end, voting is binary. You vote for someone or you don’t. An unenthusiastic vote for McCain is still a vote. In the end, all that matters is how many votes are cast, not whether those voters strongly supported you or only mildly supported you. I believe that those within the GOP who were not enamored by a not-conservative-enough McCain sans Palin would still have voted for him, because the only alternative is not-at-all-conservative Obama.

    I mostly agree with your second point. Palin’s selection has put the media spotlight on McCain and completely, though only temporarily, removed it from Obama. No amount of money could buy publicity like that. However, for me, the age, maturity, and enthusiasm level contrast between McCain and Palin makes McCain look older and “more crusty” compared to “spring chicken” Palin. A somewhat younger, less hyper, but still charismatic candidate would have mitigated that.

  5. I’m late to the table here, but I was a _huge_ fan of this pick. I feel vindicated looking back at it a month after this was written.

    You couldn’t be more wrong. Billy’s a lot closer.

    The enthusiasm for McCain was damn near non-existent. It was a vote _against_ Obama by conservatives, not a vote for McCain. People in that situation don’t send in checks, don’t make phone calls and knock on doors, and often don’t even bother to go to the polls. And candidates with that base don’t win elections.

    Now conservatives (who I will call “we” from here on out) have someone to vote _for_. That is huge. No one else that I can think of would have brought that to the ticket. I love Mitt Romney, but the guy isn’t exactly Mr. Excitement. Rudy’s too liberal on social issues. I could go down the list, but there is no need.

    The subsequent media smear campaign only got us going more. She’s an idiot–not true. She’s a religious fanatic–not true. She bans books–not true. She promoted creationism in schools–not true. At that point, the Democrats, the media, and elitists everywhere weren’t just hammering Governor Palin. They were hammering _us_, and completely unfairly. What’s that you say about Bristol Palin? Where’s my checkbook again?

    This all backfired. After everyone told us she was a moron, we all watched her slow-roast the brilliant Joe Biden in the VP debate, (which was hugely enjoyable), demonstrating that most of her critics were either lying or just plain wrong.

    She’s drawing Obama-sized crowds, and I think I’ve read even bigger. She’s dazzling on the stump–better than Obama.

    If McCain pulls this off, in a year when Republicans have no right to pull this off (given that the Democrats are doing a very good job at passing the buck on their brilliant ideas of how and to whom home loans should be granted) real historians will point to two moments–the Palin pick and the moment Barack Obama let his mask slip on his socialist tendencies and the subsequent use of “Joe the Plumber” by McCain.

    Phony historians and the media will say it’s because we’re all racist. Well, at least we won’t all be sexist anymore.


    Billy (if that’s your real name), she’s no more social conservative than any other Republican presidential candidate, including McCain. She’s pro-life. She’s anti-gay marriage (so is Barack Obama, except everyone knows he’s lying). All that means is that she is a Republican.

    Everything else said about her is either a lie or greatly exaggerated–see “creationism.”

    P-Bates: I couldn’t find a good place to slip this into to the body of what I wrote, so I’ll throw it down here. One thing your binary model doesn’t consider is new voters. Obama is supposed to bring a tremendous number of them to the polls. Most of them are younger people who couldn’t get off their asses for John Kerry (for obvious reasons) and minorities excited about having a black man on the ticket. In fact, the polls that have Obama up by a whole lot weigh this factor heavily.

    But Palin will _also_ bring in new voters. Some women, some evangelicals, some bitter, gun-clinging, red state hicks. Not as many as Obama, but she does somewhat offset his advantage in this area, and in some key states (Pennsylvania, for example).

    Everyone: In two election cycles in Austin, I don’t think I ever saw a Bush-Cheney sign. I’ve lost count of how many McCain-Palin signs I’ve seen. I even saw one in Hyde Park! Anecdotal excitement, sure, but excitement nonetheless.

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