Sarah Palin delivered her acceptance speech tonight as the vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party. As expected, the Republican audience inside the arena were overjoyed. But she – and the McCain campaign who wrote the speech for her – made two mistakes that will contribute to a Republican defeat this November.
This was her first big opportunity to introduce and define herself to the American public. After 5 days of negative press and the series of revelations about her that has marred her rollout, this was her chance to tell her story. She needed to introduce herself not as the hockey mom that she and McCain like to push, but as a person who is qualified to be the president of the United States in the event the president were to become incapacitated. She failed. To be sure, she spent a long time introducing her family in her speech, but she did not fill in her political biography. What we were left with was the same impression we had going into the speech – that she was a mayor of a small town and is now serving her first term as Governor of Alaska. That was not enough before the speech, and that will not be enough going forward – especially since she is running on the ticket with a 72-year-old man with a history of cancer.
Her failure to add meat to her political biography in the first part of the speech secured the failure of the second part of the speech. She spent much of her speech attacking Barack Obama – sometimes personally – for lacking the gravitas to be president of the United States. Such attacks coming from a candidate with a pitifully thin political biography were eaten up by the Republican base, but probably seemed a little hollow, a little too sarcastic, and way too negative to the American public at large. If her task was to go after Hillary voters, this was not the speech to get that job done. Instead, this speech will bring out the base against the "angry left". The base, if they can keep the enthusiasm up for the next few months, will flock to the polls to make the red states redder. You will hear the term "culture war" a lot for the rest of the campaign. The Republicans apparently have decided to one more time go to the well – the Republican base – to squeak past to victory.
Sarah Palin has now defined herself as the campaign attack dog – a role that is traditional of the vice presidential pick. However, the attack dog role only works when the attack dog is a known quantity and has force of experience behind the attacks. With her light political biography – and the missed opportunity to have filled it in – the attacks seemed petty. She may now be a "culture warrior" and a darling of the right, but the rest of America was not sold tonight.
The McCain campaign has made a strategic error. This election is not going to be a base election. Although, given the state of the race, McCain may have had no choice. The man who is known to enjoy gambling made the only gamble available to him. He launched a culture war. It will get very ugly, but it will not work.
This election will be won by the candidate that sways the independent voters in states like Virginia. The demographic trends in the years since the 2004 put states like Virginia – usually reliably red – in play. This election will be won in the suburbs of Northern Virginia and with the voters voting their pocketbooks out West. This is 1992 once again. The culture warriors may be energized but they are fewer in number in the states that will matter. In those states – the ones that have turned purple from red – its the economy, stupid.