Why McCain Lost, The Short Version
From the beginning, I believed that the path for a Democratic victory in 2008 was fairly secure and straightforward: Obama (or Clinton) would retain all of the Kerry states, and pick off 1-2 Bush states for the win. It was just difficult to imagine any Republican candidate winning any of the Kerry states. And given the epic failure of the Bush presidency and the toxicity of the Republican brand, all they could hope to do was somehow keep the 2004 map intact.
McCain had a very slim chance to do that, but it evaporated. Here’s how.
1) Iraqi government insists on timetable, endorses Obama’s withdrawal plan. This effectively killed the McCain candidacy. McCain’s brand — even his campaign logo — is national security. Iraq was the reason he won the primary. Iraq was the central and really, only justification of his candidacy ("I know how to win wars."). Even more damaging, he’d been railing against timetables for months, equating withdrawal with "surrender." At the time, I wrote, "I don’t see how he recovers," and he never did. His entire campaign message shifted away from national security and Iraq, where his only advantage was, and made the Palin pick possible.
2) Sarah Palin. The worst veep pick in modern history absolutely dragged down the ticket, as every poll indicates. If McCain picks Crist, he wins Florida and maybe he keeps NC. If he picks Pawlenty, perhaps he gets MN and keeps OH. Sure, still not enough to reverse the final result, but not the blowout it turned out to be — and maybe the greater competitiveness at the end forces Team Obama to play a little defense. Remember, the Palin pick only happened because McCain had already abandoned national security as his central theme, and clumsily shifted to "reform." McCain, who’s been in the Senate for two decades and shares his party with George W. Bush, simply was never a credible reformer.
3) The financial crisis. The banking meltdown not only exposed the disastrous Republican policies of financial deregulation — of which McCain and his chief economic adviser Phil Gramm were champions — but McCain’s response to the crisis was erratic and weird. He looked panicked, indecisive and out of his element — and it set up the worst quote by either candidate of the entire campaign. It didn’t help that he spent the previous couple of years talking about how little he knew about the economy. And he felt comfortable doing so all that time since he assumed 2008 would be a national security election.