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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Doomed Campaigns

There are a ton of stories today about the travails of John McCain’s presidential campaign. He’s sinking in the polls almost everywhere; the second quarter fundraising haul is going to look bad; he’s down to $2 million in cash; and now he’s laying off sizable numbers of staff, asking others to work for less or for nothing, and placing his fundraisers on a strict commission-pay diet.
I’m sure many readers have at some point had the experience of working or volunteering for a doomed political campaign. It’s a bit like watching the slow death of a family member, except that it’s very public. McCain’s campaign has all the classic signs of the long plunge before the final crash, including the brave official statements of eternal optmism contrasted with blind quotes from campaign sources admitting failure, and the money-driven decisions that just don’t make sense as anything other than dire damage control (e.g., McCain is said to be now concentrating on the early states, beginning with Iowa; yet he laid off half his Iowa staff yesterday). The campaign does have the option of extending the agony by accepting public matching funds (sadly, a sign of terrible weakness in this cash-drenched cycle). But as Sammy Youngman points out in The Hill, the spending restrictions that would come with that decision would make it largely self-defeating.
McCain’s downward trajectory hasn’t reached the point where craziness and desperation break out. I was involved in one campaign down in Georgia where the campaign manager, convinced one last ad buy could stop the bleeding, accepted some big checks post-dated until after election day. It didn’t work, of course, and the donors stopped payment on their checks, leaving the candidate with a large personal debt and the campaign manager out of politics.
But strange turnarounds have been known to happen. The absolute worst campaign atmosphere I’ve ever personally witnessed was during a trip to New Hampshire at the beginning of December of 2003, when I spent a weekend hanging out with friends in John Kerry’s operation. The smell of death was everywhere. Kerry was not only running far behind Howard Dean in the Granite State; the Doctor was trouncing him in polls in Massachusetts. I had lunch with some young Kerry staffers, and their supervisor, a friend of mine, had to warn me to stay upbeat. It was exactly like being told “not to upset the kids” during some family tragedy. Sure, everyone knew Kerry had thrown everything into Iowa in a last-ditch effort to jump-start the campaign there, but it seemed at the time like a desperate fantasy. Just a few weeks later, of course, Kerry won Iowa, then won New Hampshire, and was off to the nomination.
There’s nothing about John McCain’s candidacy that would lend much hope for that kind of miracle. His whole gambit of making himself acceptable and then inevitable to a hostile conservative base has been blown up by the immigration fiasco and by the campaign’s very weakness. Maybe he’ll grimly hold on, straining for oxygen as the field winnows out the Tommy Thompsons and the Sam Brownbacks, and praying for a major gaffe by Giuliani or Romney or that other Thompson. Maybe his underpaid and overworked staff will hang on as well, like gamblers so invested in the game that they don’t think twice about maxing out the credit cards and returning to the table with a sick grin.
But with speculation rampant (e.g., at The Corner) about the shape of the “post-McCain” Republican field, it can’t be much fun to be aboard the Straight Talk Express these days.

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