A number of pundits, mostly of the conservative variety, would like you to believe that if Barack Obama wins on Tuesday, it's the mainstream media’s fault.
Don't believe a word of it. "Media bias" is to the Republicans what "Willie Horton" and "swiftboating" are to the Democrats — a convenient but false explanation for having lost.
Was much of the mainstream media tilted toward Obama this election cycle? Undoubtedly — sometimes embarrassingly so. But the support of the mainstream media — while irritating to those whose sympathies lie elsewhere — doesn't count for much.
Way back in the early 1980s, in his brilliant book The Real Campaign, Jeff Greenfield convincingly argued that the media "made almost no difference” in the outcome of the 1980 Reagan-Carter-Anderson election. (Reagan won big, of course, even though the press disliked him.) And that was in the era when the mainstream media really did dominate — pre-cable, pre-Internet, and pre-You Tube. Now, "the mainstream media" finds its numbers of readers and viewers dwindling. Every quarterly report brings more bad news — or, as a friend once put it, "Every time someone dies, the print media and network television lose another customer."
The real reasons John McCain is in trouble are our current president, George W. Bush, and the economy — with a little help from the candidate’s own ineptitude (but only a little).
The press likes to focus on the day-to-day campaign. That's what sells papers (or at least used to, in the days when people actually bought papers). But larger trends determine most elections. Bush's favorability ratings continue to sit in the mid 20s. That alone should have informed us of the chances of any Republican who sought to succeed him.
Despite this, McCain managed to keep the race close until September, when the dam of the credit crisis broke and reminded many voters why they dislike Bush, and by extension, the GOP.
Blasted by the past
This year, a Republican's only real chance was to hope the electorate would find Obama unacceptable — and that wasn't an idle desire. Only one Democrat has won more than 50 percent of the popular vote since 1964. Obama was far more liberal and far less experienced than the average Democratic candidate. And McCain was the most experienced and arguably the most centrist candidate the Republican Party could have nominated.
Given that making Obama unacceptable was the best path to victory, McCain ran a rather tame negative campaign — despite howls of protest from the mainstream media about how over the top he's been. (Again, not that anyone really cares what reporters and pundits say.)
McCain’s problem is that Obama has come off as the more temperate figure in the general election to date. Beginning with McCain's selection of Sarah Palin — the Hannah Montana of American politics — the GOP fall campaign has been a roller coaster, punctuated by three debates in which the standard bearer somehow couldn't articulate a coherent argument as to why his opponent was unqualified for the presidency. When “Joe the plumber” does a better job of critiquing your opponent than you do, you probably don't have the rhetorical skills to be a good candidate.
Could another candidate who wasn't a lifelong Capitol Hiller — that is, obsessed with earmarks — and knew how to run against a Democrat have done better? Well, perhaps, but no candidate who fit that bill was available this time around. Some of the candidates who lost to McCain — say, Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney — might have made better arguments against Obama, but they weren't as centrist or as experienced as him, which would have granted Obama the advantage anyway. Rudy Giuliani might have mounted an effective challenge, but we've learned that the Republicans will never nominate someone that liberal on social issues.
So McCain might have been his party’s best option under these very difficult circumstances. And, on Tuesday night, we'll know very early on how that worked out. Unless McCain can somehow pick up a large state he's not expected to win (Minnesota or Pennsylvania), he must sweep North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Florida, Missouri, Colorado and one or two other small states, to boot. It’s possible, given a last-minute surge, but still an uphill struggle. (Hail to the new chief.)
To read the “Presidential Tote Board” blog, go to thePhoenix.com/blogs/toteboard. Steven Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Odds: 1-5 │ this past week: 1-3
Odds: 5-1 │ this past week: 3-1