12/01/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Keys to the Fall: Obama Leads, McCain Stumbles

These days, with Barack Obama's poll numbers above 50 and more than 33 million viewers watching his primetime 30-minute spot, it's hard to remember that John McCain came out of his convention ahead and with momentum and a fresh life. It really looked liked it would be a close general election, or that McCain might have a shot to pull this off. So what happened?

Their Reactions to the Financial Crisis - At moments of crisis, leaders are tested. Obama passed this test, looking steady, strong, engaged. McCain stumbled, "suspended" his campaign, changed his message, and in general, looked a little desperate and out of it. He failed this critical test of leadership, which of course, significantly undermined the entire McCain narrative of "proven, tested, ready."

The Debates - Based on post-election polls, Obama and Biden each overwhelmingly won their debates. As Robert Kaiser argues in today's Washington Post, the debates became critical for Obama, for they allowed to fill in the gaps, address the very real concerns many had about whether he was up to the job. Again, he looked in command, smart, steady, ready. McCain, on the other hand, while showing flashes of effectiveness, again came across as a slightly addled and occasionally an angry old man, struggling to keep up with his younger, smarter and more compelling opponent.

All About Sarah - It was her rise that lifted McCain, and with her collapse, came McCain's fall. I predicted in a pre-convention post that McCain would pick a vibrant, telegenic running mate to help make up for his not-so-appealing grumpy old man persona. Well he did, but man, when that teenage belly bump arrived on the scene, it became clear that the Palin vetting was, let us say, a little "mavericky." They clearly had no idea what they were getting into with her. Tina Fey then gave the nation permission to start saying what they were sensing with her, that seeing Russia from her front porch was not really adequate prep to be VP for a man unlikely to finish out his time in office. The comparison between her vacuousness and Biden's experience became a true black mark on the McCain campaign while doing a great deal to undermine his brand.

A Superior and More Modern Campaign - There can be no doubt now that the Obama campaign is the best run and most innovative Presidential campaign of the modern era, and clearly the model for a new 21st century era of post-broadcast, people-based advocacy and politics. Their commitment to this new Dean/Trippi inspired Internet model gave them the resources to overwhelm McCain these last few months on the airwaves and on the ground in the battlegrounds, and to produce a primetime video seen by an amazing 34 million viewers in the final week of the election. For more on this new political model and the emergence of what we've been calling a virtuous cycle of participation, see this recent post.

The Issues - Obama has stayed relentlessly focused on the most important issue facing Americans today - the struggle of every day people to make ends meet. McCain and his campaign have seemed weirdly preoccupied with peripheral issues, political issues - Paris Hilton, Bill Ayers, sex ed and baby killing and now Jeremiah Wright - rather than focusing on the stuff that really matters to people. These divisive, distracting ads - straight out of the Southern Strategy GOP playbook - reinforced the very things that the public has come to dislike about Republicans - their willingness to put politics above solving problems. These ads and attacks helped undermine McCain's brand, and suggested instead that McCain was just another one of "those" Republicans after all.

Finally, incredibly, McCain's economic plan has been so similar to the approach Bush took in his years in office that it has been stunning to watch. The GOP's economic strategy this decade has left the average American making less money while giving huge tax breaks to the most privileged among us. The inability of the Republicans to come to terms with this outcome of their years in control of government has been central to their dramatic fall from power. That John McCain did not understand this, and did not offer any real proposals to deal with the struggle of every day people, is what allowed Obama to successfully tie him to President Bush and his failed Presidency. I think McCain never really believed that the Democrats would pull off making him a Bush clone because of his own hatred for Bush. But the ideological blindness of the modern GOP to the struggle of every day people is what drove the GOP from office in 2006, and will likely be the central cause of their defeat once again in 2008.

In early September, John McCain led the race. In the weeks that followed, both candidates were given a series of tests. Clearly, the American people believe Senator Obama passed his tests. Senator McCain, on the other hand, did not. And it was this disappointment with McCain that gave Obama his opening, an opening that he and his focused, disciplined campaign successfully exploited.

7:30 am Update - DemFromCT's morning poll roundup shows no real change of the closing dynamic we've been describing these last few weeks - a slight uptick for McCain but Obama holding steady and retaining a commanding lead.

A version of this post is cross-posted on the NDN Blog.