Why John McCain lost the White House

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Republican John McCain lost Tuesday’s presidential election because he could not overcome a hostile economic environment, distance himself from an unpopular president or convince voters he could lead them out of the crisis.

As the blame game began, analysts also said McCain’s choice of inexperienced Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate raised doubts about his judgment. It ultimately may have alienated more voters than it attracted.

McCain’s attempts to portray Barack Obama as a tax-raising socialist with friends who were terrorists drove away moderate voters, who handed the Democrat a decisive victory on Tuesday.

An extremely unpopular Republican president coupled with a sputtering economy made for a tough political climate for McCain. Even if he had run a perfect campaign, it may not have been enough this year.

After eight years of Republican White House rule, the party had turned off racial minorities, young voters and more educated voters. The final blow was the large-scale defection of working class whites devastated by the economic crisis.

But the Arizona senator’s response fell flat. He did not distance himself early or forcefully enough from President George W. Bush, party strategists said, and his lack of a coherent economic message loomed large as the issue trumped the Iraq war in voters’ minds.

In a gracious concession speech late on Tuesday, the former Vietnam prisoner of war reflected on his campaign and took responsibility for its failures.

“I don’t know what more we could have done to try to win this election,” he told supporters at a somber post-election rally in Arizona. “We fought as hard as we could. And though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours.”

Republican strategist John Feehery said McCain’s association with Bush was a key stumbling block that could have been addressed more decisively.

Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain speaks during his election night rally in Phoenix, November 4, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Blake

“He did not break from Bush early on and he should have,” Feehery said. “He hired a lot of Bush advisers and they were just as loyal to Bush as they were to McCain.”

McCain added a line to his campaign speech in mid-October saying “I’m not George Bush” but it was too late.

The financial crisis that erupted in September was a turning point, reversing McCain’s temporary lead in the polls. He never recovered.

“The economic meltdown restructured the entire race and made it difficult for McCain to compete for those undecided independent voters,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed.

McCain’s decision to suspend his campaign and return to Washington to broker a Wall Street bailout deal turned out to be a “strategic and tactical mistake,” he said.

McCain asked for the first presidential debate to be postponed, but Obama calmly responded that the candidates could focus on more than one thing at a time -- forcing McCain to climb down. When the debate took place, Obama won.


McCain wounded himself with other economic gaffes. He said the fundamentals of the U.S. economy were strong and then tried to paint the mistake as a defense of the American worker.

He championed himself as someone who largely opposed regulation in the financial industry but reversed course when banks started failing and the Wall Street crisis spread.

The financial crisis also put McCain’s “maverick” image into a harsher light. Voters viewed Obama’s response to the crisis as cool and McCain’s as unsteady.

Aides said the economic and political conditions in the country severely hampered their candidate’s electoral chances.

“It is highly doubtful that anyone will ever have to run in a worse political climate than the one John McCain had to run in this year,” McCain’s top strategist Steve Schmidt told reporters a few hours before polls closed.

Feehery faulted McCain for abiding by campaign finance laws and not making more of Obama’s association with his controversial former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright

What about Palin? McCain’s last-minute choice of the Alaska governor ignited conservative voters but alienated independents, who viewed her as unprepared.

High-profile Republicans such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell rejected McCain partially because of Palin.

“McCain spent the entire summer drawing a contrast with Obama over experience and the Palin decision threw that out the window,” said Reed. “”(But) you can’t blame Palin for the loss. She energized the party and the base ...”

McCain senior adviser Nicolle Wallace said the Arizona senator got a rough deal from the media compared to Obama, who already enjoyed a massive financial advantage. The Democrat vastly outspent McCain in all the key swing states.

“No objective analysis suggests that the Obama team and the McCain team have received an equal amount or a fair amount of positive and negative scrutiny or coverage,” she said.

Editing by Alan Elsner