Steven Waldman

A debate is raging about whether the financial collapse (beginning with the fall of Lehman brothers) killed McCain’s election chances. Many conservatives are arguing that, given circumstances beyond his control, McCain’s defeat was inevitable.
Andrew Sullivan and others have pointed out that McCain’s polls started slipping before that, around the time of the Sarah Palin interview with Charlie Gibson.
But I’d like to make two broader points.
1) Long before the financial collapse, it was clear that the economy was the key issue.
2) Though challenging, McCain was exactly the sort of Republican that could have won in this climate.
If you look at the University of Akron polls that comprised Beliefnet’s Twelve Tribes survey — conducted this summer — you see that values issues had already plummeted, and the economy had risen to the top of the list — even among the most religious voters.
In particular, crucial swing groups listed the economy as most important. 48% emphasized the economy in 2004; 61% in the summer of 2008. The pattern was repeated with other “swing tribes” such as Convertible Catholics and Moderate Evangelicals.
It’s ahistorical to assert that public despair about the economy began with the financial crisis.

Well, you might say, that means Lehman wasn’t the culprit but McCain was doomed from the start. I don’t believe it for this reason: the “swing tribes’ had a conservative view of the role of government. Most of them had actually become more conservative since 2004 about government spending, while becoming more socially liberal. The percent saying they wanted more government spending and services:

• Convertible Catholics: 2004: 26%, 2008: 38%
• Whitebread Protestants: 2004: 31%, 2008: 37%
• Moderate Evangelicals: 2004: 23%, 2008: 39%
In other words, their natural proclivities were toward a liberal Republican type.
It would have been hard but I think McCain would have had a real chance — even after the collapse — if he had:
a) broken with Bush much earlier and far more aggressively
b) chosen a VP who could have helped with the economic message
c) created a plausible economic plan early on and made THAT the centerpiece of his campaign for many months (no, fighting earmarks doesn’t count)
d) showed steady leadership after the financial crisis.
The more I think about it, the more I think that the “hail mary” that might have gotten McCain elected would have been picking Michael Bloomberg as his running mate. Mccain obviously figured that if he did that, the social conservatives would revolt, and maybe that’s true. But if that’s the case, the fault can’t be laid just on Lehman Brothers but rather on McCain’s choices and the views of the Republican Party base.

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