The reasons why Obama beat McCain

Friday, November 7, 2008

Now that the election is over and Americans have made an undoubtedly historic, if not correct, choice for president, it's time for the postgame show.

If you've cared much about the election, you've probably heard two dozen post-mortems on the election. But I want to chime in, basically because I think presidential elections are some of the most fascinating competitions we have in this country.

Full disclosure: I am a Tennessee democrat, but voted for Gerald Ford once and Ronald Reagan twice in schoolroom presidential elections and used my first "real" ballot to vote for George H.W. Bush. I also love analysis of all things athletic and political.

In my mind, there are five reasons Barack Obama will be the next president and John McCain is the one returning to the U.S. Senate:

HISTORY: Any discussion of this election has to include the fact it's very difficult for a political party to hold on to the White House 12 straight years.

Only once since World War II has a party won three straight elections: that's when Reagan won in 1980 and 1984, and his vice president won in 1988. Before then, you'd have to go back to World War II, when Franklin Roosevelt won four straight times and Harry Truman came from behind to win in 1948.

Since then, we've gone: GOP, GOP, Democrat, Democrat, GOP, GOP, Democrat, GOP, GOP, GOP, Democrat, Democrat, GOP, GOP. And now: Democrat.

So right from the get-go, McCain was fighting an uphill battle.

THE ECONOMY: Americans vote with their pocketbooks. It's an axiom that will be around until the end of democracy itself.

The recent economic crisis certainly didn't help McCain. Nor did it help that top economic adviser Phil Gramm said that the country's woes were "a mental recession."

But in the end, it goes back to old question Reagan asked during his 1980 race against Jimmy Carter: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" And when the answer is "no," voters usually prefer a change of party in the White House, even if the incumbent isn't running.

YOUTH VS. EXPERIENCE: In sports parlance, Obama was a bad matchup for McCain.

On the athletic fields, a time-tested gambit is to try and exploit your opponent's weakness. Obama's weakness seemed to be his inexperience, especially on matters of foreign policy. But the Illinois senator seemed very adroit and had a good grasp on the material. Inexperienced politicians are supposed to be flappable. Obama didn't appear that way.

Obama's other vulnerabilities, so some thought, were his ties to William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. But these never stuck, partially because it was mostly innuendo and partially because McCain, himself, never seemed comfortable with such an attack.

SUGAR SARAH: McCain's vice-presidential pick of Sarah Palin proved to be a sugar rush for Republicans. But everyone knows what happens when that rush is over.

Palin's presence on the ticket energized the conservative base like no one else possibly could. She was bright, charismatic and plain-spoken as long as she was reading prepared text.

But what's the flip side of energizing your base? You also energize the opposition. Democrats eagerly pounced on Palin's shortcomings and quickly used those weaknesses to point out McCain had been rash in naming her the vice-presidential nominee.

STEADY AS HE GOES: If the Obama campaign were a football team, analysts would gush over how well-coached it was. There were very few mistakes made by this campaign, and it was very good at attacking McCain without seeming to be mean or personal.

Sometimes in sports, a team won't be necessarily better than its opposition, but will wait for that opponent to make mistakes. That's what happened this time around.

McCain's fumbling during the economic crisis opened the floodgates during a crucial point in the election. Those errors, along with the comedown off the Palin euphoria, allowed Obama to open up a lead that McCain couldn't overcome.