Editor's note: The author was a political director for the presidential campaigns of Republican Sen. Bob Dole and his wife, Sen. Elizabeth Dole. Tuesday, Dave Rettig sent an e-mail to friends as fuel for discussion about Republican presidential candidate John McCain's motivation for picking Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate. Here is the e-mail, published with permission.
Here's my take on why McCain picked Palin.
His first goal had to be to kill the potential lift Obama would get after the Democratic National Convention. There are only a few inflection points in a campaign where numbers can really shift. A big VP pick from the Republicans had the magnitude to change the story of the election. Picking Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge or Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman wouldn't have changed the story.
McCain wants to win over lower-middle class, middle class, social conservatives, and married women in places like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. In other words, he wanted to get the winnable Hillary supporters in contested states. Those states matter if the election is close. But if the election is more than 3 to 5 points apart, the state-by-state won't matter, nor will his VP pick.
The next goal is to package McCain as a maverick, a change agent — willing to take on his party, and different from Bush — so Obama can't wrap him into a Bush-McCain ticket. McCain doesn't need to win the "change" debate. He just needs to blunt it and not get tagged as a Bush clone. You'll see McCain talking a lot more about being a maverick, straight talk, type of guy in the future. As for Palin, the atmospherics around her — taking on a sitting governor, taking on a corrupt state government, taking on big oil, etc. — are good.
Finally, McCain wants to package himself as someone who "gets it" — he gets the middle class, gets the struggling economy — which could be tough due to McCain's occasional lack of eloquence on economic issues.
Those are the big things he wanted to do — and although Palin presents many risks — could do with this VP pick. Ridge or Lieberman, on the other hand, didn't fit the ticket. If he was 5 points up in the election, he might have considered either, but I think the underlying structure of this race has McCain trailing by 5 to 10 points.
But here's why this election is close: It's a referendum on Obama. Given the war, weak economic numbers, a president with Nixonian popularity, and 80 percent of the populations say the country is on the wrong track, the Dems should be 10 to 15 points up at this point. It should be a Democratic landslide. But after you inject candidates' personalities into the race, it's a 0- to 5-point race. Why? I don't think it's McCain's strengths (although he has few). It's Obama's weaknesses. If Obama can close the sale on himself, he will win regardless of what happens on the Republican side. If he can't, he'll lose.
In my opinion, Obama needs to:
Get real with working class people, especially women. He's a great orator, and smart as heck, but you don't feel like he "feels your pain" — especially if you're a white, working class woman. Many of the lower middle class Hillary supporters will vote for Obama, but some, mainly female social Independents, are at risk of heading to McCain. If Obama can figure this one out, he'll win. He needs to feel their pain as well as provide the cultural cues that show he is not against their way of life.
He also needs to continue showing competent judgment. You are going to see Republicans attack Obama on personal issues because he has such a thin resumé. They'll play up his ties to Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Tony Rezko to show a lack of competency. Still, Obama's lack of political history is great — it allows him to stay above the fray and not get pigeonholed on issues — but it also makes his personal judgment all the more meaningful in voters' minds.
Obama also has to stay middle of the road when it comes to taxes and national security. Continuing to highlight a hawkishness for Agfhanistan is good, as Republicans would love to get him pigeonholed as a tax guy, weak on defense. Meanwhile, liberals are already over the top for Obama — just because of who he is — as well as for their hatred for Bush. (Turnout will reach records in this demographic regardless of his issue positions.) Ultimately, Obama won't need to motivate his core constituency, though perhaps McCain will.