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.
To be sure, McCain can come back. After all, his candidacy had been written off once before, about a year ago, and look where he is now. Given that events and his own behavior have hurt his candidacy, though, McCain probably needs some kind of event — a foreign-policy crisis, an Obama gaffe, a truly memorable debate performance, or better yet, some heroic leadership to forge a compromise that ends the Capitol logjam — to help move things back his way. He also has to hope that Sarah Palin doesn’t embarrass the ticket in her prime-time debate.
What’s intriguing is that McCain seems to relish beating the odds. It’s almost as if he’s happier coming from behind. And, in the last 10 days or so of the campaign, McCain may benefit from a closing rush, as voters weigh both their fear of the known versus their fear of the unknown, and the prospect of a complete Democratic takeover of government. But one suspects it didn’t have to be this way.
Some pundits have praised McCain’s fighter-pilot mentality in this campaign: the way he shifts and turns on a dime. Yet those qualities aren’t necessarily what the electorate is looking for in a president. To use another well-worn metaphor, voters want their ship of state to sail smoothly, without incident, so they can go about living their lives and pretty much ignoring their government. With McCain at the helm, the voyage may be exciting, but everyone gets seasick. The risk for him now is that on November 4, the reaction is: thanks, but no thanks. We’ve booked this trip with another captain.
To read the “Presidential Tote Board” blog, go to thePhoenix.com/blogs/toteboard. Steven Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Odds: 2-1 | this past week: 5-6
Odds: 1-2 | this past week: 6-5