The strategically erratic strategist

The Los Angeles Times profiles top McCain adviser Steve Schmidt.

Published October 7, 2008 3:09PM (EDT)

Say what you want about John McCain and his campaign, but if Barack Obama wins by seven or eight points, or fewer, we may legitimately conclude that Obama lost the campaign but won the election.

What do I mean by that? For one, we all know it’s a Democratic cycle (hard for a incumbent party to win three in a row, incumbent president extraordinarily impossible, economy in tank, Americans believe country is on wrong track). Second, Obama is a dynamic politician with plenty of money, a top-flight campaign staff, and a better ground game. Polls consistently show Democratic policy positions are more popular than the Republicans’. All advantages, tangible and intangible, are his.

In the end, Obama may win by dougle digits. But if he doesn’t -- if this race is closer than the underyling dynamics would predict -- some of that will be chalked up to the fact of Obama’s race. (And rightly so: We know the Bradley effect is disappearing, but this is true at the subpresidential level and we won’t know for sure until November 5 if there will be a Bradley effect in the first ever presidential election with a black nominee.) But such closeness can also be fairly attributed to the sometimes successful, sometimes failed gambits that McCain took, from the Sarah Palin’s selection (successful) to the suspending the campaign before the first debate only to show up anyway (unsuccessful).

The architect of most of this strategic erraticness is Steve Schmidt, who is profiled in today’s Los Angeles Times. One national reporter who has watched the McCain campaign closely told me recently that the basic assumption of Schmidt and the McCain team all along is that the 2008 election would inevitably and ineluctably progress toward an Obama win, and they only chance they had to derail that progress was to introduce repeated shocks to the campaign environment, which is what they have done.

Please don't misunderstand: I'm not justifying some of the crap the McCain team has thrown against the wall. I'm not saying the Republicans don't deserve to be in the position of overwhelming disadvantage. What I am saying is that for guys like Schmidt, give the underlying dynamics of the 2008 campaign, they are running a strategically erratic campaign because it's the best strategy -- perhaps the only strategy -- available to them.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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2008 Elections John Mccain R-ariz.