The near-annihilation of John McCain by the Bush clan in the 2000 presidential GOP primary left him with one critically important asset: his reputation as an unconventional and principled Republican. This, of course, was precisely what the hard-core conservative crowd wooed by George W. Bush disliked about him. But it was what appealed to independents and moderate Democrats, and so the McCain brand was successfully launched nationally despite the stinging defeat.
The brand thrived over the next eight years, even as McCain himself moved ever-closer to Bush and to mainstream conservative Republican politics. The perception of McCain as a non-conformist straight shooter endured even as he adjusted his muddled positions on the war in Iraq, immigration, the environment, among others. The McCain brand even survived this year's Republican primary, thanks to a crowded field of clowns that included Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, both of whose views were even more unintelligible and even faster-changing. McCain's supposed "independence," bolstered by a media drunk with adoration for him (and sometimes just plain drunk), became even more valuable, and not just in New Hampshire, his political home away from home. It also helped elsewhere, as Bush's popularity was hitting historic lows in early 2008, including in South Carolina, where McCain's 2000 campaign had ended in a racist flame-out orchestrated by Bush associates. McCain narrowly won this year's primary in that state.
But now, the McCain brand is showing signs of disintegration and is at risk of a meltdown. Barely a few weeks after the end of his primary, McCain finds himself trailing Barack Obama by all measurable standards. National polls giving Obama the lead tell some of the story: McCain is at his lowest point against Obama since last Thanksgiving, a dark time for the Democrat himself (he was way behind Hillary Clinton.) In addition, John Kerry never lead Bush in 2004 by this much and for this long after the primaries had ended.
However, it is in the media coverage, the fundraising, and state polls that the cracks are most visible and surely frightening for a McCain campaign that hasn't exactly been humming along to begin with.
While the mainstream media hasn't quite caught up to the real world, it has had little choice but to report both McCain's inanities on the campaign trail, and the Obama camp's constant, hard-hitting attacks. Even still-enamored journalists cannot fail to notice that it would be difficult to find a candidate less suited for the times or the office than McCain right now. On Iraq, he is ueber-hawkish, confused and nearly demented in his denial of the reality, years after the American public has soured on its folly of a war. He admits understanding little about the economy at a time when it is the biggest concern of US voters. He has found a way to alienate both the anti-immigrant majority and immigrant-friendly voters by shifting a fairly reasonable position mid-campaign. He has been in Congress for 26 years at a time when everyone wants change. He is so completely technology-illiterate that he would be unqualified to apply for a single job in the United States that pays in the double-digits hourly. He is embarrassed, uncomfortable and inconsistent when talking about same-sex relationships in a country that has seen a sea-change in its attitudes towards gay people and diversity in general. His cultural references are mysterious to 90% of the population, except for his love for Abba (a group that disbanded in 1981) thanks to a third of fourth revival and a new movie.
In short, McCain's time came and went. The fact that he succeeded in the Republican primary is a testament to the weakness of the field, the desperation of GOP voters and insiders, and plain luck. His campaign overcame near-bankruptcy thanks to his wife's generous contribution of her private jet (and to the loophole created by McCain in the campaign finance law to allow for just such generosity.) This should be of little comfort to him (besides the affirmation of his wife's love and ambition), as the same problems that plagued McCain in the primary are undermining his general election fundraising. He hates asking for money, doesn't know the Internet exists, and can't manage finances except when he is broke (and then there is nothing to manage: you just fire everyone.) And it shows in the grotesque discrepancy in funding between him and Obama, which, in turn, will mean that as his brand is crumbling, McCain does not have the resources to bolster it.
In early polling, Obama is a stronger candidate than Kerry was: in only one state, Tennessee (??), does Obama currently perform less well than Kerry did against Bush. But the problem is deeper than that for McCain: his popularity has peaked among independents (he now lags Obama in that group by 46% to 39% in a recent Gallup poll). This means that a previously unimaginable group of states are now in play. In the most recent polling, Obama is tied with or leads McCain in Virginia, North Carolina, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska (in two Congressional districts) and North Dakota. Obama leads McCain, often comfortably, in Colorado, New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Oregon, Minnesota, Washington, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, among perceived "swing" states. There are only half a dozen states in which McCain leads Obama by more than 10% (Bush won 22 states by that margin), and they do not include Alaska, Indiana, Kansas, or Montana, all sites of 20+% Republican blowouts in 2004.
Until the end of the GOP primary, McCain was plagued by the true maverick in the race, Ron Paul, who was still getting one in five votes well after the race was settled. Paul is not done, promising to wreak havoc during the convention in Minneapolis, rallying legions of anti-war, anti-government Republicans in an attempt to influence the platform and, collaterally, to embarrass McCain. In the general election itself, McCain will have to contend with former GOP Congressman Bob Barr, running on the Libertarian ticket. This means that conservative voters and libertarian-leaning independents will not lack for choice, right at the moment when McCain is struggling to capture the magic of his sixties, when HE was the one running against the system. Or at least when he managed to con many of us into thinking he was.