Would John McCain Win If He Ran Against President Barack Obama in the 2012 Election?

In 2008, then candidate Barack Obama defeated Senator John McCain 53% to 46%, with 365 Electoral College votes to McCain’s 173. Though a race between the two in 2012 would possibly be closer, McCain would ultimately lose again. Here are four reasons why:

1) The Economy – In the summer of 2008, some voters believed that McCain would be a stronger manager of the economy than Obama. McCain’s advantage, however, evaporated within weeks. As the bottom fell out of the economy, McCain was seen as unprepared and ill-equipped to handle it. With the economy in free-fall, McCain insisted that the “fundamentals of the economy are strong.” Voters found his explanation that he was talking about American workers unconvincing. As the election got closer, and the economic outlook worsened, McCain’s popularity declined. Once elected, Obama’s approval rating took a hit as the economy suffered for the first three years of his presidency, but now the economy is showing real signs of improving and Obama’s approval rating is at 50%. McCain would be hard-pressed to defeat Obama as the economy continues to improve.

2) National Security – Since 1972, Republican have enjoyed a presumed advantage in national security. In 2012, however, after killing Osama Bin Laden, keeping U.S. ground troops out of Libya while supporting the mission to oust Muammar Gaddafi, and winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama basically owns the national security narrative. Even if McCain could have claimed an advantage on national security issues, it is not clear that it would matter this year. The economy is the biggest issue in 2012, and Republicans rarely talk about national security as it pertains to the presidential election this year. Of the 19 Republican primary presidential debate thus far, only one focused on national security.

 3) Lack of Enthusiasm for McCain – Republicans were not enthusiastic about McCain in 2008 (though they were more enthusiastic about the Republican ticket after he selected Palin as his running mate), and it is unlikely that Republicans would be enthusiastic about him in 2012. Throughout 2011, as several Republicans flirted with running for President, McCain was not high on anyone’s list. Republicans flirted with Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Haley Barbour, and Mitch Daniels. Nobody was begging McCain to enter the race.

4) McCain’s Age – McCain’s age in 2008 was on everyone’s mind. He was 72 in 2008. He seriously contemplated pledging to serve only one term, partially as an attempt to neutralize the age issue. McCain is now 75, and being president is a stressful, around-the-clock job for four or eight years. Americans are unlikely to elect a senator in his mid-70s to a job that requires the stamina, endurance, and energy of a much younger person. 

2008 was not the year for John McCain, and neither is 2012. He does not have the economic expertise the country craves right now. He is not beloved by Republicans, and there are legitimate questions about his age. He was smart enough not to enter this year’s race. It was a no-brainer.

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Zaid A. Zaid

Zaid A. Zaid is lawyer in Washington, DC. Zaid was formerly a political officer in the Foreign Service, serving in Iraq, Egypt, and Tunisia, as well as the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York. He is a member of the American Constitution Society, and the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project.

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