As he tried to jump-start his flagging campaign earlier this week, John McCain uttered a new rallying cry: "We've got them just where we want them." But even his die-hard supporters had to question that assessment. According to countless public polls, McCain's campaign has been losing, not gaining ground. No candidate wants to be down about seven points nationwide with no clear momentum and less than three weeks to go.
The numbers are likely to shift before Election Day as voters are forced to make their final commitments. And McCain still has a shot at victory, if the Bush states that have swung away from him in recent weeks, like Florida, Virginia and Ohio, swing back. But it is an uphill climb, and it beings up the question, Why is he so far behind this late in the game?
Without a doubt the two main factors are the financial crisis and the presidential debates. When Lehman Brothers collapsed on Sept. 14, McCain still led the national polls by about two points. For McCain, the subsequent fallout proved to be a triple whammy, reminding voters about the benefits of government regulation (a traditionally Democratic argument), highlighting the failure of leadership of the current White House and accelerating the nation's collective sense that it has been heading in the wrong direction.
The debates, for their part, largely acquitted Obama of the biggest question mark against him: Does he demonstrate presidential mettle? McCain's performance varied, with high points and low points, but no matter what he did on the debate stage, he never forced Obama to lose his bearings. After each contest, polls showed that independent voters clearly decided that Obama came off as neither scary nor an amateur. In most polls, swing voters said Obama won all three debates, by margins as large as 2 to 1.
There was, of course, nothing McCain could do to prevent the financial crisis, or even much, most observers say, he could do to blunt Obama's strong debate performance. But that doesn't mean the Republican nominee didn't exacerbate those and other situations this fall. Four decisions the campaign made over the past two months in particular have heavily contributed to its current woes.