John McCain out-planned Barack Obama. That is the summary of what happened this last week. Senator Obama apparently planned on the normal course of events as he prepared for the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. He made a number of assumptions along the way, assumptions which were apparent enough that McCain was able to use them in his own planning. Obama assumed, for example, that a few symbolic gestures would mollify Hillary and her supporters, and that in a short matter of time he would have all but a few of them under his banner, ideally working for his election but at least not working against him. He assumed that McCain would stay out his way during that week, and that he would have not only the convention time but also the weekend after to enjoy the glow of a successful run to the nomination. He assumed that the media, which has been overwhelmingly in his corner all through the year, would make sure the spotlight stayed on Obama. On all three assumptions, Senator McCain took advantage of errors by Obama and played them to his own advantage.
McCain understood that the race was close, but that Obama’s nomination would likely give him a “bounce”, in real terms boosting his lead and making it more and more difficult for McCain to look to undecided voters as someone who could win. Therefore, McCain needed to do something unexpected, something which proved him a viable candidate. Part of this was accomplished through Obama’s double-fumble in selecting his running mate. First, Obama not only did not choose Hillary Clinton for his VP spot, an understandable choice and it is quite unlikely that she would have accepted the offer anyway, but Obama failed to vet her for the short list, and in so doing displayed a lack of respect to Hillary’s 18 million supporters. While it is true that for the most part, those voters will come around and vote for Obama anyway, some will sit out the election because of the way Clinton was treated, and some had already warned they would swing support over to McCain in 2008, in order to give Clinton the best opportunity for 2012. The second fumble was Obama’s selection of Biden, a move which is tactically foolish, because it effectively highlights Obama’s own limitations while gaining nothing among undecided voters. This left the door open for McCain to make significant gains through his own choice, an opportunity which would have been far smaller if Obama had handled his side of the aisle better than he did.
The selection of Sarah Palin is brilliant to a far greater degree than it is risky. Analysis of her credentials has already shown Palin to be strong in many areas, and what areas of weakness she has is matched to a more serious degree on the Democrats’ side. Choosing Palin will probably not win over additional Clinton supporters, but that was not the object – what matters is that McCain has not lost any ground with the Clinton supporters he already held, something the Obama camp is not mentioning, indeed he may not yet understand that fact. The timing of the Palin selection is also significant, having destroyed the Obama publicity campaign intended for this weekend. All the talk is about Palin. And the media, while it leans left most of the time, is now as it always was, about the big story, and Palin is simply a much bigger story than Biden ever could be.
The move is not yet complete, however. McCain gambled a bit of his own attention this week. Hurricane Gustav could steal some attention away from the GOP convention, especially as there is no suspense left about who will be in the VP slot. Having played the first half so well, it remains to be seen how well McCain has planned the second half of the convention operettas.