A couple of days ago, my mother asked me if I thought that Powell's endorsment of Obama was the final nail in McCain's quest for the presidency. I said "no, it was too early blah blah blah".
However, the more I reflect on the past 24 hours, I think there are TWO developments which, taken together, put a McCain victory out of McCain's reach. One of these is strategic; the other, cosmetic.
1. The Pennsylvania Gambit
Fox News (of all places) explains it this way:
John McCain is neck-and-neck with Barack Obama in Republican strongholds Missouri and North Carolina, and he is trailing in Virginia, according to most polls.
And without victories in all three of those states, most electoral maps show it will be almost impossible for McCain to win the White House. So why is the Republican presidential candidate in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, staging three rallies in a reliable blue state where he trails Obama by an average of 11 points?
Nobody really knows the answer, but the most likely one is that McCain doesn't have any choice but to try to yank Pennsylvania from the blue column and pray that he pulls off a victory in Missouri, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, etc. — all states where he has diminished his presence (or completely abandoned). (On the other hand, this theory is plausible, if not revolting)
What McCain ought to do is try to raise his numbers nationally. Let the rising tide lift all boats, and the maybe he can pull Pennsylvania out of the bag, and hope for other battleground states to cut his way. That's a tall order, and I don't profess to know how McCain would do it, but the emphasis these next several days in Pennsylvania is going to amount to time wasted. It's the equivalent of throwing in the towel.
The problem with Pennsylvania strategy is this, as explained by Nate Silver:
Those are the current numbers of registered and active Democrats, Republicans and independents in Pennsylvania. Democrats make up more than half the total — 52 percent, in fact — well outdistancing the Republican's 33 percent. Suppose that McCain were to split Pennsylvania's independents with Obama and win Republicans 92-8. He would need to carry 23-24 percent of Pennsylvania's Democrats to win the state; George Bush carried 15 percent.
Simply put, whatever McCain thinks he can do in Pennsylvania, he really really won't.
The Palin/clotheshorse story, not even 24 hours old, is absolutely killing McCain. Granted, it's not McCain's fault, or even that of his immediate staff. Nor is it the kind of substantive issue that voters should care about in these tough economic times.
But it IS the story of the day, and maybe of the next several days.
And the electorate is latching on to it because it is simple to understand. It goes to hypocrisy. Palin, who was thought by many at one time to be McCain's smartest strategic asset, has been slowly going down in the polls. Even before "Evitagate" (my term, must give credit) happened, her unfavorables had, for the first time since her selection, outweighed her favorables.
With the disclosure that Palin spent $150,000 in one month on clothes for herself (RNC money), gone is her greatest supposed strengths: that she is just an average hockey mom, that she's from "real America" and identifies with "real Americans" from small towns, etc.; that she has the temperment and discipline to cut wasteful spending in D.C.
It may be admittedly unfair that she loses those strengths simply because she wanted to dress nice, but that's the nature of the political beast. Hypocrisy kills.
And already, she's getting hit hard for it — not from the "liberal" media or Obama supporters, but from Republicans. As Mark Ambinder reports:
Republicans, RNC donors and at least one RNC staff member have e-mailed me tonight to share their utter (and not-for-attribution) disgust at the expenditures.
Furthermore, there hasn't been any effective damage control rapid response from the McCain campaign yet. The first response only made things worse:
“The campaign does not comment on strategic decisions regarding how financial resources available to the campaign are spent"
Oh. It was campaign strategy, was it?
Nobody bought or liked that excuse, so the McCain campaign tried again:
"With all of the important issues facing the country right now, it’s remarkable that we’re spending time talking about pantsuits and blouses… It was always the intent that the clothing go to a charitable purpose after the campaign."
I agree that with all these important issues facing the country right now, we shouldn't be talking about pantsuits and blouses. But I would hasten to add that while Americans are facing economic hardships and loss of jobs, "we" (meaning the McCain campaign) shouldn't be dropping tens of thousands of donors' money at Saks either. I mean, how can Palin talk about regular Americans like Joe the Plumber, while wearing a Vera Wang, and expect to have her message resonate?
And while it is nice (if one believes it) that the McCain campaign is donating Sarah's silky bras to charity after the campaign, I somehow don't think that will mollify RNC donors who really didn't give that money to the RNC for that purpose.
From hindsight, it would have been great for the McCain campaign if Palin (assuming she needed nice clothes, which I don't) had spent a couple thou at Walmart, and campaigned in those clothes. At least she would have been consistant with her rhetoric. But her spending sprees have put her, and John "Eight Houses" McCain, out of the grasp of the very "middle America" that they need to woo in the next 13 days.
In any event, fair or not, Evitagate has taken the McCain campaign off-message at a time when they simply can't afford to look like the Keystone Kops. IF it were possible for them to succeed at all (with the Pennsylvania strategy, or any other strategy), they simply couldn't afford, in the 13 days remaining, any slip-ups — cosmetic, substantive, or otherwise.
Evitagate, a simple story that has "legs", represents such a slip-up.
Nail, nail. Coffin.