When the media began to portray Senator John McCain as the presumptive front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, many in the blogosphere scratched our heads and wondered what brand the punditry had been drinking. Later, as McCain’s numbers started to drop during the immigration debate, the media published a series of political obituaries for McCain, even though he raised nearly as much money as Mitt Romney in Q2 and outperformed John Edwards. Some predicted that the media would shortly begin to write comeback stories, painting McCain as a courageous underdog, sometime in the fall.
Those predictions turned out to be incorrect — in their timing:
John McCain has been campaigning in New Hampshire for months, but when he took the stage last week at a town-hall meeting in Keene, it felt like a reunion tour. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” pumped on the sound system, and when the onetime GOP presidential front runner arrived, many of the 200 people packed in the room leapt to their feet, cheering. McCain railed against partisanship in Washington and attacked the free-spending ways of his own party. “It’s getting harder to do the work of the Lord in the city of Satan,” he said, prompting laugher and applause. A few feet away, a handmade campaign sign hung on the wall: THE MAC IS BACK! …
A friend, who declined to be named while discussing private conversations, says the senator is in “better spirits than I have seen in months.” The scrappy war vet was never very convincing as the Anointed One anyway. Now he’s reverting to the formula that helped him win New Hampshire in 2000: a lean, insurgent candidacy heavy on retail politics and promises to take on Washington. (It’s the same underdog storyline the media, which McCain used to call “his base,” once found so appealing.) He’s left the pricey Straight Talk Express bus at home. And when he flies, he’s going commercial. “I’m starting from scratch,” McCain tells NEWSWEEK. “But I believe we can do what we were able to do in 2000.”
McCain never left. As Mark Twain once remarked, rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. Without doubt, his campaign has more than its share of problems, but the media managed to explode them into a catastrophe that lacked only McCain’s ignominious withdrawal to cap the meme. And when that was not forthcoming, some pundits questioned his sanity.
They should question their own sanity. The life, death, and rebirth of McCain’s presidential campaign has been almost entirely a media delusion. McCain had serious obstacles to the nomination at the beginning, and while Rudy Giuliani’s resonance with the GOP base is surprising, no one expected McCain to gain the trust of the party without serious struggles. Those intensified during the immigration debate, and will remain with McCain throughout the rest of the primary campaign — and no one knows that better than McCain himself.
However, he still holds a significant place in the polls, and he still can raise funds His $11.2 million in Q2 put him behind only organizational juggernaut Mitt Romney and Giuliani, the former by less than $3 million. His 16% puts him third in most polling, while Romney only garners half of that. He outraises and outperforms John Edwards, the #3 candidate for the Democrats, who has not had the political death watch applied to him.
And now, the media apparently has started its new meme, although one which McCain’s campaign will welcome enthusiastically. Instead of trying to provide overarching narratives, perhaps the media should take a deep breath, gain some perspective, and leave the rest for retrospectives in 2009.