(I want to preface this by stating quite clearly that I am not implying that this presidential election is "over." My comments refer to the position in which McCain finds himself right now and does not suggest that no change can take place before Election Day)
While many commentators have opined that this election is fascinating, unprecedented, and unique in numerous ways, I believe that twenty years from now we will still be studying what happened to McCain in the short time between the GOP convention and the second presidential debate. Republicans' heads must be spinning right now. Electoral fortunes rise and fall, but rarely so rapidly.
The most basic of questions will suffice here: what in the hell happened? McCain emerged from the convention on even footing with Obama for the first time. It felt like a race. It gave every indication of being an eight-week dogfight until Election Day. For a moment it even looked like Obama would be the underdog. Now, just a few weeks later, adjectives like "pathetic" and "desperate" seem a lot more fitting than "strong" or "energetic." How did McCain go from possible front-runner to worrying if he could hold Montana? I will suggest three answers.
First, there is a portion of the electorate that does not pay any attention to the races until after the conventions. They have a limited interest in politics and, if you'll forgive the metaphor, they don't turn the ballgame on until the 9th inning. I will go to my grave convinced that "Undecided" responses in pre-September polling are proxies for "I have paid no attention whatsoever." Part of what happened recently, in short, is that some of that 10-15% of undecided/no-answer respondents in the polls we've been seeing all year have finally decided to pay a little attention to the race. Once they put some thought into it, many apparently realized that they don't like this McCain fellow so much.
Second, these voters began to pay attention at the height of the latest installment of our financial distress. Economic trouble is always the harbinger of doom for incumbents and the incumbent party.
Third, the turning point in this entire race: Sarah Palin talked. The second she opened her mouth, non-Republicans found it nearly impossible to take the McCain campaign seriously. The campaign, which invested so much capital in McCain's wisdom, experience, judgment, and professionalism, suddenly felt like a PTA meeting in a trailer park. McCain had it right in January – in these difficult times Americans are looking for someone serious, someone in control. His decision to try to sell "folksy" and "Main Street common sense" could not have been more poorly timed. This economic crisis is a moment at which Americans don't want to look across the table at their candidate – they want to look up to someone, someone who seems like he or she knows what the fuck is going on and is prepared to handle it. We're not interested in someone who "shares our values." We're interested in someone who can fix a potentially catastrophic problem.
Post-Palin, the McCain campaign has sputtered and my hunch is that he's going to regret this decision until he dies. If his appearance in the last few days is any indication, that may be soon. He looks tired, angry, and desperate.
I do not know what miracle McCain can conjure at this point, but unless the polls are wrong – utterly, completely, historically wrong – he had better think of something fast. His recent efforts to right the ship landed with a thud; his ads are terrible, the Ayers/terrorist thing only stuck with people who weren't voting for Obama anyway, and he's burned a lot of his credibility and veneer of dignity by resorting to rolling around in pig shit in the desperate hope that he'll find a diamond buried in the pile. Emily Dickinson famously described hope as "the thing with feathers." McCain 2008 is starting to look pretty bald.