The most basic conservative defeat narrative assigns blame to liberal bias in news coverage. McCain senior aide and biographer Mark Salter complains that the press failed to act like a neutral referee in reporting the race to the White House, but instead “had a thumb on the scale.”
Other conservatives go on to attribute defeat to interaction between liberal news media bias and the pusillanimous pulling of punches by John McCain. Writing in the neoconservative Weekly Standard, Stephen F. Hayes describes McCain as unwilling to make tough attacks on Barack Osama’s for his connection to William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright.
Writing in Front Page Magazine, an online news source for xenophobes serious about their Islamophobia, Jacob Laksin complains that the journalists and commentators at MSNBC, CNN and even Fox News acted as cheerleaders for Obama and were unwilling to focus attention on his connection to Wright. The remarkable frequency with which the names ‘Ayers’ and ‘Wright’ were mentioned by Republican speechmakers, by Fox News reporters and anchors, and in McCain campaign television spots must have escaped their notice. If they could miss that, then it was also possible for them to overlook the old-fashioned red-baiting in the references to 'socialism' and 'redistribution of wealth' in speeches made by McCain and his running mate. Expecting them to detect the racist subtext in news coverage of the voter fraud issue would have been asking the impossible.
Market conservative, a.k.a. economic libertarian, Republican elites are apt to attribute John McCain’s defeat to the second Bush administration’s failure to adopt policies consistent with the limited government dogma of the GOP. Arizona Sixth District Republican U.S. Representative Jeff Flake recommended that, “Republicans needed to act like Republicans again and get back to the core article of faith of limited government.” Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist complained that, “Bush deviated from the Reagan Republican vision in spending, regulation and in empire.” That McCain campaigned ferociously on the promise of low taxes and budget-cutting undermines the plausibility of this narrative. The reality is that too few voters were willing to exchange their votes for promises of limited government.
Although not offered as an explanation for defeat, the most entertaining of the narratives takes on the form of criticisms from McCain’s campaign staffers that temper tantrums, runaway spending and ignorance of international affairs made Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin a poor choice for running mate. The problems within the campaign are symptomatic of more than mere personality conflicts. The nominee and his running mate drew support from different factions of the GOP. For all his efforts to re-brand himself as a social conservative, McCain was always perceived as a market conservative. Palin was a social conservative and chosen as running mate precisely for that reason.
The likelihood that a disunited Republican Party would lose the 2008 presidential race was explained as early as Spring 2008 by DePaul University political scientist Wayne Steger. While all of the leading Democratic candidates could be located in the approximate ideological center of their party, noted Steger in a presentation at Berry College, their Republican counterparts were distributed around their party’s ideological periphery. As a consequence, whoever claimed the Democratic nomination would be able to focus their campaign on winning the votes of independent and undecided voters. Whoever claimed the Republican nomination confronted the burden of first uniting their party before focusing their attention on winning the votes of independent and undecided voters. That was borne out by McCain’s decision to select Palin as running mate.
Steger was not alone. Other political scientists also successfully predicted the outcome of the presidential contest. An October 16th press release form the American Political Science Association noted that 6 of 9 quantitative models of the election pointed to Barack Obama winning a majority of the popular vote. Among them was a model developed by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political scientist Thomas Holbrook that forecast the election outcome using measures of presidential approval and average level of satisfaction with personal finances as of Summer 2008. In August 2008, Holbrook concluded that Obama would probably receive 55.7% of the popular vote to McCain’s 44.3%. Latest electoral returns indicate that the actual figures were 52.6% and 46.1%, respectively. Given everything that happened in the two months between the prediction and election, that is impressive accuracy.
One possible lesson to be drawn from this is that news media ought to begin paying more attention to the quantoids in academia and less to the political pundits. Doing so would improve the quality of both pre-election and post-election commentary.
John Hickman is associate professor of comparative politics at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. His published work on electoral politics, media, and international affairs has appeared in Asian Perspective, American Politics Research, Comparative State Politics, Contemporary South Asia, Contemporary Strategy, Current Politics and Economics of Asia, East European Quarterly, Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans, Jouvert, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Political Science, Review of Religious Research, Women & Politics, and Yamanashigakuin Law Review. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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