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Change Vs. Experience

The recriminations have begun among Republicans about why John McCain has done so poorly. I don’t think the real answer will become clear until we get a better idea what happened in the McCain campaign during August. But one thing already stands out: the campaign’s  insistence last August that it couldn’t win on the issue of change vs. experience. The latest article in Politico about the recriminations says:

One current senior campaign official gave voice to this “Law of the Jungle” ethic, defending the campaign against second-guessers who say it was a mistake to throw away his experience message in an attempt to match Obama’s “change” mantra.  “Everybody agreed with the strategy,” said this official.  “We were unlikely to be successful without being aggressive and taking risks."

Running as a steady hand and basing a campaign on Obama’s sparse resume was a political loser, it was decided.  “The pollsters and the entire senior leadership of campaign believe that experience versus change was not a winning message and formulation, the same way it was no winning formula with Hillary Clinton.”

I have a different take on this. I don't think Hillary Clinton lost to Obama because she stressed experience versus change. She lost because, initially, she didn’t offer anything else--like a strong economic message--and because her campaign made huge tactical errors in handling the caucus states and in planning for a protracted campaign. When Clinton's campaign got going in the big states (where the economy superseded the Iraq war among voters), her experience was an important factor in her victories.

Initially, weeks or months before they actually vote, poll respondents look well upon “interesting” candidates who may not have experience, but when they actually vote, they want to be reassured that the candidate can do the job. That’s why McCain’s nomination of Sarah Palin has proven so fatal to his campaign. Voters aren’t stupid. They eventually take the question of experience seriously.

Would McCain be poised to win if he had chosen someone else? He would be doing better in the swing states if he had chosen Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty or former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge or Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (even if the nuts on the right would have created an uproar at the convention), but he would probably still be trailing Obama, because he has not shown himself capable in talking about the economy. His daffy performance in September during the start of the financial cancelled out his own “experience message," while Obama’s response and his steady performance in the debates (like Ronald Reagan’s performance in the single debate in 1980) convinced voters that he could do the job.

So it’s probably a moot point in this election. But it’s worth considering if you’re thinking about what American voters care about. They might watch E!, but when it comes to voting, a goodly percentage think about whether the candidate is really ready to do the job.

--John B. Judis