It’s all relative, Part Two

In a post below, I argued that this year’s presidential election came down to two questions: first, do we want major change and second, which candidate will provide it. Both questions proved fairly easy for the electorate to answer in the end: it wanted significant change and believed that Obama, not McCain, would provide it.

The 2008 election was hardly unique in terms of its dispositive questions; the only real twist was that the party in power put up neither an incumbent nor someone tied to the incumbent. Yet many pundits failed to focus on these questions. Indeed, some seemed to focus on everything but these questions, as the analysis flitted from Obama’s race, to his associations, to his affinity for pomp, and then to gender, to McCain’s alleged unsteadiness, and finally to Joe the Plumber. For some commentators, the only constant theme was the alleged incompetence of one campaign or the other — first McCain’s, then Obama’s, then McCain’s again.

Both campaign made mistakes, of course. But (and this should come as no surprise) both had a far better fix on what would swing this election than did the pundits who constantly second-guessed them. For both campaigns grasped that the election would be won by the candidate who could convince the electorate that he was the true agent of change. And both campaigns made their major decisions accordingly.

Change was Obama’s message from the beginning — “change we can believe in.” This message, and this message alone, enabled Obama to defeat Hillary Clinton who, as the wife of a past president, simply could not present herself as an equally credible change agent.

John McCain was in key respects an even less plausible change agent than Clinton. Not only was he a member of the president’s party, but he had supported many of the policies that caused the president to become so unpopular. Obama had supported virtually none of them.

Yet McCain made a strong bid for the change agent mantle. A steady stream of McCain ads, especially during the Olympics, intoned that Washington is broken and that one man, John McCain the original maverick, knows how to fix it. During this period, McCain drew close to Obama in the polls.

Then, just before the convention, McCain “doubled down” on reform by selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate. In doing so he placed into question the one advantage he indisputably held over Obama — the experience factor. But the McCain campaign understood that in this election “change” would trump “experience.” It also undestood that Obama had the advantage here, and thus that McCain had to gamble. Within about a week of Palin’s unveiling, McCain suddenly found himself leading Obama in the polls.

Obama’s response was swift and remorseless. The campaign unleashed a barrage of ads that hammered home (1) McCain’s ties to Washington insiders (or, more precisely, the ties of his campaign staffers to said insiders), (2) McCain’s alleged support for “big oil,” and (3) McCain’s record of voting with the Bush administration. This blitz cemented Obama’s position as the real change agent.

Thus, when the financial meltdown occurred, it was always going to be McCain who took the fall. McCain flailed not primarily because he is unsteady or because his campaign was incompetent. McCain flailed because the electorate placed the burden on him to come up with an answer to the crisis, and none was apparent.

Obama won the election not because of anything the McCain campaign did wrong. Obama won the election because he had the more plausible “change agent” message and because he had vastly more resources with which to get this message out.

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