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.