The selection of Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska, as his running mate tells us a great deal about John McCain. But it tells us even more about how he and his advisers see this election shaping up.
First, it demonstrates how strongly his campaign believes that Hillary Clinton's supporters will decide this election. The pundit-ocracy has talked endlessly over the last several months about the importance of white working-class voters in this election and the difficulty that Barack Obama has had in securing their support.
Stirring up resentment
McCain's campaign did their best to stir resentment among Clinton's backers over the last several days. Now they're making a full frontal effort to win them over, particularly the 35-to-44-year-old women who they see as a particularly important voting bloc.
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McCain's advisers will go to great pains to point out that the 44-year-old Palin drives to work every day in her family Jetta, and hope that she can establish an emotional connection with these voters that neither Obama or their own candidate has been able to accomplish.
Second, it shows that McCain's criticisms of Obama's lack of experience are having no more impact on undecided voters than Hillary Clinton's attacks on him did last spring. Palin is a first-term governor with little experience in elected office. Sarah Palin's selection makes it almost impossible for McCain and his allies to continue to denigrate Obama on this front.
By Monday morning, assume that every Republican in the country who believed that experience was important will no longer think so, and that every Democrat who didn't think it was a big deal will now decide it is absolutely critical.
McCain and his team have probably concluded that suffering through the stature gap in a vice presidential debate is a sacrifice worth making given Palin's other potential advantages.
Third, it motivates the conservative base of the Republican Party. Although McCain has made steady strides in shoring up his support from conservative voters, that support has appeared more dutiful than heartfelt. Strains of that conservatism may not wear well with some swing voters, but the working class in Ohio and Michigan tend to be economically populist and socially conservative.
McCain is gambling that support from these voters will offset losses among socially moderate and economically upscale suburbanites.
Fourth, it suggests that McCain's advisers are not that confident about the current trajectory of the race. When their candidate was running 10 or 12 points behind, it seemed likely that McCain would be forced to take a gamble by naming a moderate like Tom Ridge, a former Pennsylvania governor; Joe Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent senator; or a woman or a minority like Palin or Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana.
As the polls tightened, a more conventional alternative like Mitt Romney appeared to be a safer choice. But even with their candidate running even with Obama, McCain's senior staff must have decided that a more dramatic selection was necessary.
The maverick returns
And finally, it reminds us how much John McCain enjoys his reputation as a maverick. As he's made his way back in the polls over the last several weeks, McCain has been running an effective but very conventional campaign.
But this type of surprise and such a sizable gamble illustrates how badly McCain misses being seen as an unconventional politician. Palin is the first female vice presidential nominee of one of the two major parties in almost a quarter of a century. McCain obviously couldn't make as much history as Obama did last week, but he did make some of his own.
Thursday night, Barack Obama effectively made the case for change. Friday morning, John McCain did the same.