The past two weeks or so have seen at least one historic meltdown — the virtually unprecedented disintegration of the credit markets. The question that won’t be answered until November 4 is whether they’ve also witnessed a secondary collapse — the self-destruction of the John McCain candidacy.
If so, the two will have been obviously related. When the economic crisis hit, it was bad news for the country, but also a godsend for Barack Obama’s campaign — as long as voters are focusing on the economy, it benefits the Democrats. And, more important, the crisis and the bailout that could have dearly cost taxpayers reminded voters how much they dislike the incumbent, George W. Bush, who, incidentally, hasn’t covered himself in glory over the past fortnight. Anyone connected with him — and in case you needed reminding, he and John McCain are members of the same party — was bound to suffer as a result.
But so far McCain has taken a bad situation and made it worse. In a presidential campaign, voters evaluate the candidates to see how they will handle the rigors of the office. This situation offers an ideal test of coolness and vision in a crisis. So far, Obama has successfully navigated it; McCain has hit an iceberg.
Impulsive to a fault, in the past several weeks McCain has certainly been anything but steady at the helm. The economy is good — oops, no it isn’t. I’m for the Paulson plan — no, maybe I’m not. I won’t be going to the debates unless there’s a bailout deal — oh, I guess I’ll go. All along, McCain’s trump card had been that Obama was too inexperienced to offer voters the stability the nation requires. That argument looks a lot shakier today.
Against all odds, again
If it persists until Election Day, that impression of volatility will particularly hurt McCain among women. Commentators frequently misunderstand the gender gap. Women voters actually don’t tend to be that much more liberal than male voters, as is commonly thought, but rather, historically speaking, they tend to be more risk averse. That is why Richard Nixon actually carried the female vote against John Kennedy in 1960.
Since then, however, with their threats to partially dismantle the welfare state, Republican presidential candidates have usually come across as riskier and more bellicose, thus appealing less to women than men.
In this election, McCain has a chance to pick up more of the female vote than the typical Republican, because of the McCain-fanned fear that Obama is too new and untested — and a perception that McCain is the lesser risk. Given McCain’s behavior over the past two weeks, though, it’s becoming harder to make that case.
Equally as bad for the Arizona senator, from a strategic perspective, is the time McCain spent in Washington this past week trying to secure a deal — time that would have been better spent getting ready for the key first debate. When you’re behind, you have to crystallize for voters specifically why voting for the other candidate is a mistake. On Friday night, McCain at least had to explain why he had suspended his campaign — namely, to secure a better deal for taxpayers. But he never did, and on Monday the package failed.