McCain’s general election campaign is not off to a smooth start. First, his opening salvo focused on Obama’s commitment to public financing promises -- whoops. Next, his campaign responded to the (grossly irresponsible) NYT article with an impulsive, overbroad “never helped any lobbyists ever” denial – thus opening himself to more unfavorable press.
These tactical misfires won’t sink his campaign by any means. They do, however, raise larger concerns. Simply put, McCain hasn’t proven himself to be a good campaigner yet. In fact, there are many reasons to think that he’ll actually campaign poorly.
I’m a big believer in the “primaries matter” theory. Elections are Darwinian environments – and candidates tend to win for a reason. Tactics matter, as does an ability to tap into the larger Zeitgeist (i.e., structural forces matter too, but good campaigners recognize and tap into those underlying currents). For this reason, candidates who look great on paper (Dole, Rudy, HRC) lose if they run wretched campaigns. Similarly, candidates who don’t look so hot on paper can compensate with superior campaigning skills. In short, people who win tend to run superior campaigns. Not always, but generally.
At first glance, you might think McCain’s primary victory is evidence of his own campaigning skills. But I don’t think so. His victory (for unique reasons) doesn’t necessarily show his Darwinian chops. Despite all his experience, McCain remains in many ways a roll of the dice.
Consider 2000. While he had some initial success due to fawning press coverage (which is probably his key “skill”), the ultimate result was a spectacular flameout in South Carolina and beyond. The South Carolina tactics were despicable, sure. But Republican primaries aren’t pretty. He knew the players involved and should have been better prepared. More to the point, you can’t win a Republican nomination when you ostentatiously demonize key coalition members, as he did. Personally, I applauded the criticism of Jerry Falwell, but I’d have been cringing if I were his campaign manager.
Moving on to 2008, the stars aligned perfectly for him. Ross Douthat has made the case more eloquently than I have, but McCain’s victory had a lot to do with luck. First, his rapid ascent helped him avoid embarrassing media moments. Remember that, for most of 2007, McCain was ignored. Thus, he wasn’t subject to the type of exacting scrutiny that Romney and Rudy (and, to a lesser extent, Fred Thompson got). He had to keep things together for a month rather than a year – a much easier task.
Second, his victory was less than overwhelming. McCain won a relatively small plurality among a sharply divided field. His victory had less to do with his savvy campaigning, and more to do with (1) a conservative base split between Romney and Huckabee; (2) Rudy’s rapid collapse and strategic blunders; and (3) Thompson’s silly last stand in South Carolina. None of this establishes that McCain is a bad campaigner. The point is that his victories don’t necessarily establish that he’s a good one.
He looks great on paper of course – and his story and service should be honored. But the flaws I see with McCain (and his staff, frankly) are (1) a lack of strategic foresight; and (2) impulsiveness. Neither is well-suited to a high-intensity presidential campaign.
On #1, it’s hard to fathom how a campaign with such significant exposure on the FEC front would open the general with an attack on Obama’s commitment to public financing. I mean, it’s not like they didn’t know the FEC troubles were brewing. To me, it shows (at best) a lack of communication and (at worst) a failure to think a few moves ahead on the chess board.
On #2, McCain has always been a hothead. I worked on the Hill for six months as a nobody and even I heard McCain stories (I heard a few more as a lawyer in DC). The temper itself is not necessarily a problem (see, e.g., Bush, Clinton). The problem is acting (and talking) without thinking. For instance, saying that he’s never helped lobbyists is just patently ridiculous, particularly from such an experienced legislator. It's also ridiculous to deny that he spoke with Paxson -- though I'm sure his passion for the Pittsburgh media market runs deep. This statement is already getting him into some trouble.
But the larger fear for Republicans is that the same impulses that led him to blurt this denial out could lead him to blurt out something much more harmful – particularly under the Sauron-esque eye of the national press corps, bloggers, and YouTubers. There’s less room for error in the post-George Allen world. Part of being a good campaigner, after all, is being disciplined. For all its flaws, the Bush team was a relentlessly disciplined organization.
McCain, of course, is the strongest GOP candidate on paper. And he may well prove the best campaigner. But I ain’t seen it yet.