What happened to John McCain’s lead? Some people say it’s the financial crisis; some people say it’s Palin; some people say it’s McCain’s personality, but no one has synthesized these things to my liking so I’ll have to do it myself. Trying to guess what a hundred million people are thinking, even if they’re your countrymen, is insanity, but here goes.
To begin with, thanks to anger with Bush, McCain is running his campaign in heavy gravity. He can’t be merely equal to Obama; he has to be clearly better. McCain hasn’t managed to argue he’s philosophically better than Obama because outside of loving his country, the centrist/maverick McCain’s philosophy isn’t very clear. (When a random plumber from Ohio can make your case more clearly than you do, you have to admit philosophy isn’t your strength.) He could have argued that he is an honest public servant (earmarks) while Obama is a machine type (Chicago history/farm bill), but he hasn’t run with the yin of his argument. McCain was most comfortable with the argument that he had more experience and would be a steadier hand in a time of crisis. Obama’s choice of the career senator Biden seemed an acknowledgment that McCain’s experience argument had some merit.
People say the Palin choice nullified McCain’s argument because it proved he didn’t value experience after all, but he overtook Obama in the polls after choosing her so I don’t think this is quite right. Instead, I’m going to be topical and say that McCain -leveraged- his experience creds by choosing Palin. He was basically saying he had so much experience and so much leadership that he could afford to develop a minor leaguer on the bottom of his ticket. It showed moxie, and people respond positively to that.
Just as McCain was cresting, though, something unexpected happened: an actual crisis. Unfortunately for McCain’s argument, it was an economic crisis, not a foreign policy crisis. He made a lot of noise, even calling off his campaign for a week, but still failed to successfully interpret the problem or produce a result people liked. McCain’s standing diminished, he came to look more like a gambler than a confident risk-taker, and his choice of Palin was re-evaluated in this light. Obama did not distinguish himself in the crisis, either, but voters weren’t expecting much from him. He hid in the bushes, Tao-style, and people assumed good things about him. So McCain and Obama ended up looking like the same thing, which really means McCain is losing.
So why isn’t the race over? Perhaps voters realize that a Democratic Congress + a Democratic President = A Lot of Democrats. Thus the big question about Barack Obama – Is he a pragmatist who pretended to be a liberal, or is he a liberal pretending to be a pragmatist? – is very relevant. The Bill Ayers and Joe the Plumber arguments point in this direction. A few conservatives believe in Pragmatist Obama but there are enough skeptics (including your faithful narrator) that polls still average 7% undecided, the AP gets outliers like 44-43 Obama, and the race won’t be resolved until Election Day.