Why did McCain lose?

  • Matthew Price
  • 5 Nov 08, 05:36 AM GMT

On a hot, exhausting August day this year, in Block 133 of Mile High Stadium, Denver, Colorado, I realised that what I had just witnessed would be remembered in one of two ways.

It would either be seen as a flash-in-the-pan moment, when a candidate for president exuded a confidence that the country simply wasn't prepared to match in him.

Barack ObamaOr I would look back on Barack Obama's convention speech as the moment when this country changed, and perhaps - by extension - so too did the world.

The reason was this, and I think it helps to explain why John McCain did not win. The event at Mile High was organised down to the smallest detail, every single moment of it. I came out of that event believing Barack Obama could win this election. If organisation ever won a campaign, 2008 was the year and Obama's campaign the model to which anyone aspiring to office must now look.

In contrast, John McCain ran a poor campaign. Yes, he was faced with an historic struggle against the prevailing mood in the country. A Republican president who was deeply unpopular, an economy going down the pan, a real and true desire for change among a wide cross-section of the electorate. Yet I also believe his campaign got it wrong.

John McCainThis has been clear to me ever since I started speaking to people across this country who consider themselves Republicans. I am not writing about those who will always vote Republican. Nor for those who will never vote for a black candidate.

I am writing about the hockey mums in Pennsylvania, who worried about Sarah Palin as VP nominee, and who were not energized by the ticket itself. Those who were considering breaking with their party and voting Obama.

I am writing about the man who told me that he had supported John McCain in 2000 against Bush, but who said he would not vote for him this year because he'd been so fed up with the negative campaigning that had come out of the McCain-Palin camp.

I am writing about the voter in Indiana who agreed that John McCain is a war hero, and a man who loves his country, but that did not mean he necessarily had a pass to the White House. This voter was going to vote Republican for governor. John McCain could have had his vote. He lost it.


I spoke here in Phoenix to Wes Gullett, the co-chair of the Arizona Republican Party and a man who has worked with John McCain for many years. He knows him well. He says he's been fighting for 10 years to get John McCain into the White House.

I told him about an event last week in northern Ohio in which John McCain spoke, unscripted, from a gazebo in the centre of a small town. It was, I told him, the most lucid and energetic I had seen the senator, and I wondered whether it was a mistake not to have held more events like this.

"I agree," he said, after a second's pause. "We've been hoping that the 'gazebo' John McCain, speaking from his heart, talking directly to the American people would be the way they would run the campaign."

Mistakes were made. It was a mistake for instance to suspend the campaign and head to Washington DC to sort out the economic collapse. He set himself up, and was a victim of politics and the failure of Congress to past the bail-out plan.

Mr Gullett says that was the moment when he knew the race was over. Why did McCain go to Washington? "That's just John," he replied. "He should have killed that bill."

McCain was hugely out-spent - by hundreds of millions of dollars. He was (as already noted) out-organised.

It is not as if Barack Obama did not have his own problems. He had to spend weeks getting the Clintons and their supporters on board. John McCain could have had more of those supporters.

Some will blame the media for Barack Obama's victory. That is nonsense. Think back to the huge media reaction when the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's comments were first reported. That could possibly have sunk him, but Obama's response was a sign of what was to come. Obama bided his time, wrote a speech about race, and spoke directly to the people of this country. The media did not win it for Obama. Obama won it for Obama.

Similarly the media did not lose it for McCain. He had a bad campaign. He didn't attack Obama in the way that an independent, right-minded, honourable politician could have. There were major policy differences between the two men. He didn't exploit them.

Yes, as his campaign says, it was a tough environment for a Republican candidate, but not an impossible one. McCain may have had the economy against him. Trying to get elected after eight years of an unpopular Republican president was not easy. Obama was a strong adversary, but John McCain and his campaign team did not give him the best chance.


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