GREAT ELECTION HYPOTHETICALS, PART 1 – McCAIN'S VP

One of the great things about using politics as a hobby is that it is structurally identical to being a fan of comic books, Star Trek, football, KISS, Harry Potter, or anything else. Something happens and then fans endlessly debate questions that cannot be answered except subjectively – whether Team A would have won if it had started the other quarterback, which Star Trek series is the best, whether the Lord of the Rings film trilogy was sufficiently faithful to the book, and so on. This is a roundabout way of inciting a debate about inherently unanswerable questions. We know it's pointless; we do it because we enjoy it.

Here's the setup: Sarah Palin was in fact the most logical and best choice as John McCain's running mate. This has become obvious to me now that strategic decisions can be analyzed with the benefit of hindsight.

The key to this conclusion is the assumption that McCain knew he was going to lose before most of us on the left accepted or admitted it. This is a solid assumption based on post-election tell-alls from McCain campaign insiders (see, for instance, Newsweek's Special Election Project issue). Overpowering pessimism might not have reigned, but the campaign was certainly well-aware that it was not the favorite.

McCain believed he was behind – possibly by a lot – and he needed to choose someone who could potentially put him on top. That is no easy feat. It's really difficult for a VP nominee to rescue a failing presidential campaign. If there was some magical person who obviously and definitely could have closed a 10-point poll gap, McCain would have picked him or her. Duh. But real life doesn't work that way. Getting the big payoff requires accepting a lot of risk. Think about it like an investment.

Let's say John Doe is 60, nearing retirement, and in excellent financial health. He knows he has plenty saved for retirement as long as he doesn't screw anything up. How will he invest his money? Low risk, low return – bonds, savings accounts, and so on. Fred Doe is 60 and nearly penniless. His math is much different. He knows that the only way he'll have enough to retire at 65 is a miracle short-term investment with a huge return. So he takes his $10,000 life's savings and invests in penny stocks or takes it to Caesar's Palace. We'd call that kind of risk-taking foolish from John, but Fred can justify it on account of his dire straits.

McCain's choices fell into two categories: safe ones who wouldn't help and huge risks who could help but probably wouldn't. He could have made a "common sense" pick like Romney, Pawlenty, Huckabee, or Lieberman. We all know that his preferred choice was Holy Joe. But do you honestly believe that McCain/Lieberman would have won? I sure as hell don't. The election might have been closer – McCain may have won Florida, perhaps North Carolina or Virginia too. So what? He lost by 100 Electoral Votes. Does anyone sincerely believe that Joe Lieberman would have been worth 100 EV? Romney? Huckabee? Pawlenty? Doubtful.

Best case scenario: McCain limits Obama to about 290 EV by choosing Lieberman, and that's being very generous. It would have accomplished nothing, in short, except making the "final score" closer.

Palin and Jindal are examples from the second category. With them on board McCain was either going to win by a hair or get blown the hell out. He chose Palin not because he finds her brilliant but because there was no other choice. He was backed into a corner and had to choose the only nominee who might, under some remotely plausible scenario, put him on top. It was a 100% chance of defeat with Lieberman and a 95% chance of defeat with Palin. Which would you choose?

Palin was the only option who could fulfill the 5% victory scenario the campaign constructed. They needed someone new, young, exciting, likeable, and to the right of Falwell on social issues. Palin likely got the nod over Jindal based on her gender and the (unlikely) chance that it could attract some old, bitter Hillary die-hards. The odds are that someone – some insider, some consultant – told McCain that Palin was a complete idiot before he chose her. He knew it. But he had no choice, so he picked her and clung to the hope that she could be polished, trained, protected, and stage managed just long enough to get him past November 4. He knew we'd find out how stupid she is, but he hoped to delay that revelation for eight weeks.

It didn't work, of course, but what would have? Palin was a monumental "blunder" like betting it all on one number in roulette is a blunder – everyone criticizes it, but if you win, who cares? The odds of winning are tiny. There comes a time in a campaign, though, when one realizes that any chance of winning is better than zero. Palin was probably the reason McCain lost so badly but the margin of defeat is irrelevant. He could lose by 30-40 with Lieberman or, with Palin, he could squeak out a win or lose by 100.

Tell me where I'm wrong. Was there anyone McCain could have chosen who would have altered the outcome? Did anyone offer better odds of success – not winning odds, mind you, just better ones – than Palin? My answer is negative on both counts.

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10 Responses to “GREAT ELECTION HYPOTHETICALS, PART 1 – McCAIN'S VP”

  1. FMguru Says:

    No, you're right.She turned out to be a disaster, but the decision to pick her was reasonable. They looked out at the field in mid August, saw the poll numbers, saw Obama's fundraising, saw the lack of effect that their expensive summer-long negative ad blitz had had, and saw the issue landscape tilting away from them. They realized that if they did the sensible thing (picking a solid, popular Midwestern governor from a swing state like Pawletney (sp?), they would cruise to a soild but honorable loss. So why not shoot the moon and roll the dice on a promising unknown? They needed a game-changer (ugh, that phrase), so they picked Palin. At the time, I took it as a tacit admission that were on the track to losing the election (just as the famous lime-Jello speech, with its feeble "That's not change we can believe in – eh hehh eh" refrains, signaled that they had no message of their own.

    When her campaign started flailing, and the skeletons started tumbling out her closet, and she revealed herself to be profoundly ignorant of everything outside of the Juneau-Wasilla corridor, I reminded people that, you know, there was a reason she was considered a dark-horse candidate that wasn't on anybody's short list. Long shots are long shots for a reason. But your point – better a long shot than no shot – is well taken.

  2. Shane Says:

    One could almost argue the same about McCain. The GOP was facing an phill battle with a much greater chance of losing than winning to begin with. Someone bet McCain would be able to appeal to the moderates and independents. The major problem I see with this strategy is that they bet against themselves. The real hard core neocons hate McCain and were not likely to show up for him no matter what, independents and moderates that would have voted for McCain in 2000 were completely repulsed by the Palin choice. Having said that though, could any GOP candidate have won this election?

    Another thing that strikes me as similar between McCain and Palin is that they were both people the GOP was willing to let take the hit for them.

  3. mike Says:

    My 2 cents: if McCain had picked Kay Bailey Hutchison and revamped a coherent approach to the economic crisis, it would have been closer to 50-50ish and a loss of EV of around 40. Still a higher chance than Palin, though marginal.

    The higher-risk higher-reward is a good metaphor, but another that is important are those signaling games where someone has to burn something important to keep everyone on board – net loss, no gain. McCain had to throw his cherished Experience Card onto the bonfire to keep social conservatives on his side. Both practically (volunteers, rallies, fundraising) and from a legitimacy point of view (rumors of a convention breakdown if Lieberman was nominated), he needed a pro-lifer, hence no Kay.

    Alienating moderates to appease a base is a sign of an unhealthy party, but we of course know this (and delight in it).

  4. Dustin Says:

    You are wrong. Here is why: You guys are forgetting that when McCain picked Palin he was not yet behind. It was a dead heat at that point. It was only after he picked the Alaska hillbilly that his numbers started to dwindle…

  5. Ed Says:

    Dustin, show me a poll that didn't have Obama in the lead before the end of the GOP convention.

    The only moment at which this race was a "dead heat" was at the end of the GOP convention, immediately after Palin's speech. Here is a pretty picture:

    http://www.pollster.com/polls/us/08-us-pres-ge-mvo.php

    So no, I'm not wrong unless I accept a fabricated version of history.

  6. FMguru Says:

    @Shane: No, McCain was the default choice only after every other movement-enthusing candidate (Giuliani, Thompson, Huckabee, etc.) failed. Hard-core neocons loved McCain – in the late 1990s Kristol et al tried to build their National Greatness Conservatism around him.

    @mike: KBH is pro-choice, so she couldn't have been picked for the same reason that Ridge and Lieberman were non-starters.

    @Dustin: McCain didn't eke out a lead until after he selected Palin and had his convention (it lasted less than two weeks). Obama had a small lead going into the DNC, and a big lead coming out of it.

  7. Jason Says:

    Absolutely agree, but you missed the upside for McCain in a loss.

    Regardless of what he attempted to portray himself as in the preceding 18 months, McCain is a moderate. Palin's failures during the campaign have succeeded in ridiculing the side of the party that has haunted him for decades. The intellectual Republicans abandoned him in droves, and the kooks and racists came out of the woodwork embarrassing anyone in the party with at least a middle school education.

    If the Republican party expects to be competitive in the future it will have to, at least temporarily, abandon the far-right. Not only did she give McCain a slight chance of victory, in defeat she re-centered the party in a place that will be much more comfortable for him.

  8. Dustin Says:

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/110416/Gallup-Daily-Presidential-Contest-Remains-Dead-Heat.aspx

    REMAINS dead heat.

    Ed, even you said that McCain "would probably win" a little bit before the conventions, and he certainly had more than a 5% chance of doing so at that point… If it wasn't exactly even, Obama was ahead by only a very little bit. McCain didn't need to pull a drastic move at that point. I'm not saying another VP candidate could have won it for McCain, but at that point the campaign wasn't in desperation phase.

  9. Jason Says:

    Take another look at your own poll Dustin, it "remains a dead heat" from a week previous (about the time of the Republican convention). A week before that Obama had a 7 point lead, with a similar situation in the preceding months.

  10. Dustin Says:

    Refer to the following paragraph:

    "In essence, the race is back where it was before the flurry of political activity that began Aug. 25 with the Democratic National Convention and continued through the Republican convention, which concluded on Sept. 4. The candidates were dead even at 45% in Aug. 22-24 tracking, the last report of interviews conducted entirely before the beginning of the Democratic convention."

    It was a heated contest before the conventions. Even Ed predicted a McCain victory at that point.