In August McCain was on track to lose the race, and to lose it rather badly. Obama was picking up steam and with the conventions on the horizon, McCain couldn't depend on gradually coming from behind. He had to do something to shake up the race and to grab every bit of press coverage over the upcoming news cycles, so he did what he always does when he gets himself into a corner; he did something rash.
By picking Palin he gave the press several stories to talk about. As the first woman on a Republican ticket she represents a change in attitude in the conservative base. They could always talk a lot about disaffected Hillary voters (a group which has been radically overrepresented) switching to McCain because they wanted to vote for a woman. They could also use her as a way of highlighting Obama's supposed inexperience. The press talked about all of these angles, at least for a couple of weeks.
They quickly became bored of these stories and started trying to set up interviews and press conferences with Palin, but they were denied until the campaign grudgingly allowed her to talk to Charlie Gibson. He's always been a friend of the McCain campaign and could be trusted to give her a softball interview. This was ensured because the campaign insisted on a two-day interview format, which is usually reserved for celebrities who fear direct questioning. If the first day doesn't go well then the campaign can always cancel the second day in retribution.
The lack of press access to Palin was initially assumed to be some sort of grand GOP tactic to keep the press talking, but it now looks like it was an immediate reaction to mock press conferences and debates the campaign started putting her through. According to Ed Rollins, these were "disastrous" and they're still saying this as of
The Couric interview was a real turning point in the press perception of Palin and was the entire reason that McCain flipped out the same day the footage was supposed to air, supposedly suspended his campaign (a blatant lie) and had to immediately fly to DC (he didn't leave until the next day) to "fix the economy". He granted an interview to Couric in the hopes that it would get more attention than the Palin interview, which didn't work at all. He also called for moving the first debate from last Friday to this coming Thursday, conveniently the same day as the VP debate, and wanted to move the VP debate to "a later date".
Everyone thought last week was about McCain trying to appear more "presidential", but it wasn't. It was all about the VP debate and the Couric interview.
I think there's still a possibility that they're overstating Palin's ineptitude to set expectations unbelievably low for the VP debate. At this point, if she's able to string two coherent sentences together then everyone's going to be talking about her "comeback".
The problem with this is that the press smells blood in the water and every interview between now and the election day is going to be an attempt to trip her up. Couric was amazingly fair with her questions but once she realized she wasn't getting answers to very straightforward questions she started pressing harder and Palin completely crumbled under the pressure. Other interviewers won't be so kind and I think that we're going to see more and more interviews like this, assuming that McCain ever lets her talk to the press again.
Also, her approval rating is now in freefall, along with, to a lesser extent, McCain's. Tracking polls show her approval rating dropping 15 points *in the past week*. That's going to become the story pretty quickly, and will cause further drops as more people hear about it.
There's a rumor this morning that CBS News is sitting on other segments of the interview that are even worse than the Russia and Bailout questions, and as these clips trickle out this week I expect we're going to see some interesting maneuvers by McCain.
So what's a McCain to do? Well at this point he needs to run a different kind of campaign, but with Schmidt in charge I don't see that happening. He's going to go more and more negative against Obama, which is a huge gamble, since his "angry white man" shtick in the debate went over so poorly. He's going to need to suppress overall
voter turnout, especially among Obama's young supporters, and negative campaigning might help, but he's really fighting an uphill battle.
I suppose he could also come out against the bailout, but the Senate and House leadership aren't going to let him get away with this.
He could also drop Palin, but Nate Silver has a good argument
why this would be a bad choice.
Another interesting wrinkle in the story is that the Bush administration is trying it's damnedest to kill Osama bin Laden, and is on the brink of provoking a shooting war with Pakistan in the process. If Osama ends up dead before the election I could imagine that would shake up the race, but I only see the result as being a positive for Obama. It's going to look like Bush only cared about getting Osama when it meant his party wouldn't maintain control over the presidency. The Obama campaign's line would be if it took Bush 7 years to get bin Laden, why should we elect another incompetent Republican president.
We still have 30-something days until the election, and a lot of things could happen, but at this point it looks like Obama wins with 300-something electoral votes and a narrow win in the popular vote.
The election is Obama's to lose, and he's a smart campaigner who hasn't made any major mistakes yet, and who isn't likely to screw this up.