It seems absurd to think about, doesn’t it? After all, John McCain lost in a landslide to Barack Obama in 2008, winning a mere 46% of the vote while losing the entire Midwest and Eastern Seaboard with the exceptions of South Carolina and Georgia, in which he held on by single digits. Obama even won electoral votes in three states – Virginia, Indiana, and Nebraska – in which Democratic presidential candidates had been shut out since LBJ wiped out Goldwater in 1964.
The Obama victory in 2008 had two important causes: 1) the incompetence of the Bush 43 administration, which culminated in the late 2000s financial crash and 2) the charisma and focus of Obama’s messaging. Obama knew how to work specific issues, such as opposition to Big Ag in Iowa and NAFTA in Ohio, better than any Democratic candidate since LBJ.
Wih these two drivers in mind, it’s actually not hard to imagine a situation in which McCain could have prevailed. I see three changes that could have enabled a McCain victory:
- The Democratic superdelegates, much like they did in 2016 with the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders race, decide to heavily rig the primaries by surpressing media coverage of Obama’s insurgent candidacy, arranging odd debate schedules, and disproportionately pre-aligning themselves with one candidate. Clinton wins the primary, but fails to capture the “Hope and Change” spirit of 2008 and instead treads out something of similar dubious value to “America is Already Great.”
- Meanwhile, McCain stays on message and distances himself from the Bush administration, reminding everyone of his primary challenge to the president in 2000 and his disdain for conservative institutions such as the Christian right. He picks a relatively low-profile swing state GOPer like John Kasich as VP instead of Sarah Palin, who alienated millions. Aligned against both Bushism and Clintonism, he manages to become the “outsider” despite being a member of the incumbent presidential party.
- The collapse of Lehman Brothers, which really propelled Obama’s candidacy over the top, doesn’t happen until December 2008, by which time the election is already settled. This is the hardest of all the changes to imagine, but bear with me.
So McCain defeates Clinton and enters office in January 2009. What next?
Many policies such as the stimulus bill would have still gone through on his watch, with the help of a moderate Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. Healthcare refrom probably would not have happened, though.
The biggest mystery, though, is what would have become of the mortgage crisis he inherited from Bush. The wide-reaching economic despair that the financial meltdown wrought on the entire country would likely have continued for years as it did under Obama, assuming an even quasi-typical GOP response of tax cuts and bailouts for banks. It would have, in others words, become fertile ground for various dissent movements.
Indeed, this situation could have profoundly reshaped the 2010 midterms, which in reality turned out to be a landslide for the newly formed Tea Party. Would the Tea Party have even emerged without the monolithic target of the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress of 2009-2010, both of them overseeing the reeling economy? Would a Tea Party of the Left have sprouted up instead, perhaps spearheaded by Bernie Sanders (who toyed with the idea of running for president in 2012)? Would a 76 year-old McCain have been able to win re-election with a rickety economy and potentially gridlocked Congress in 2012?
Considering the political situation in the U.S. after 2016, it’s tempting to imagine that maybe the fallout from a McCain administration – with the GOP owning the tumultous early 2010s years – might actually have forestalled the party’s descent into madness and left the country on sounder institutional footing. But the price would have come at the expense of many people’s lives and rights, especially vulnerable populations such as the poor and the LGBTQ community, who might not have seen the great particular advances of the Obama administration.
I plan to map out a few of these counterfactual scenarios about politics in future posts. This one, about 2008, is the one nearest to my heart, though, since it’s the first time I was ever excited about a presidential race, and it all happened at a pivotal moment in my life, when I was moving to Chicago for the first time. I did an absentee vote for Obama in Kentucky. However, his first term coincided with the hardest years of my life, when I struggled to find work. I don’t think my life would have been easier under a McCain presidency but sometimes I wonder about the implications.