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What Can Political Campaign Strategists Learn from John McCain?


Cancer-stricken Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) returned to the Senate floor July 25 and cast a deciding vote to debate the repeal and replacement of Obamacare.

He was blasted from the left. Of course aggressive brain cancer wouldn’t stop a career Republican from taking health care from the poor, liberals thought. He was praised from the right. How brave for this terminally ill war hero to forsake his own well-being by jetting across the country to fix health care, conservatives thought (until the failure of the “skinny repeal” early July 28).

McCain addressed the Senate that day, stitched above his left eye from his recent surgery. It was a gutsy move whether you call him a “warhawk” or a “maverick” or whether you feel his rhetoric has consistently rung hollow. As the curtain likely closes on his career, what can political campaign strategists learn from the successes and failures of a former POW who nearly ascended to the presidency?

‘Straight Talk Express’

John McCain emerged victorious from the crucial New Hampshire primary in 2000.

“George Bush is out there raising money,” he said on the campaign trail. “I’m going to be out there raising hell.” That year’s campaign promptly lost steam in the South Carolina primary.

The senator’s grit attracted a strong conservative base, which became enamored with his famous refusal to leave his fellow servicemen behind while imprisoned 5 1/2 years in the torturous “Hanoi Hilton.” During his presidential bids in 2000 and 2008, he traveled in a campaign bus called the “Straight Talk Express.”

Some chalk the losses up to poor timing. Had he won in 2008, then 72, he would’ve been the oldest president to ever enter the White House. Meanwhile, others claim his stances never completely aligned with the Republican party’s. He’s been hawkish on the tax code and seemingly ceaseless Middle Eastern conflicts, but also gives concessions for bipartisan deals when the juice is worth the squeeze.

Some, however, regard his talk as disingenuous bluster. Did that hurt his wooing of swing voters in ’00 and ’08? As an academic question, consider how a great campaign strategist could solidify the message to sound and feel more sincere?

‘The Man Will Run Across the Street to Get in a Good Fight’

So said McCain’s good friend and political ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) in this New York Times article before the 2008 election. Indeed, from Hanoi to the halls of Congress, the former U.S. Navy pilot is no stranger to giving and getting bloody noses. McCain will figuratively drop bombs on members of his own party with whom he disagrees.

Following the announcement of his cancer diagnosis, McCain tweeted thanks for support and added, “... unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I'll be back soon, so stand-by!”

McCain was a collegiate boxer while at the Naval Academy. The torture he endured after being shot down over Vietnam and taken prisoner left him permanently injured. (He can’t lift his arms higher than his shoulders.) He readily admits his own “cockiness” caused that mission to become a catastrophe. His stubbornness kept him in prison after he refused early release because the Americans captured before him would not also be freed.

He acknowledges the “McCain temper.” He’s been known to fire staffers on the spot when enraged. Close associates say he often tells himself “game face on” when facing a challenge.

McCain is also known for stepping over party lines to forge deals and was good friends with the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, who also was diagnosed with brain cancer and died in 2009. “Ted and I shared the sentiment that a fight not joined was a fight not enjoyed,” McCain once said.

Yet, McCain has been criticized for not fully engaging President Donald Trump’s misdeeds and rhetoric. Political campaign strategists, take note: Detractors say that while McCain does fight, he’s been branded as tougher than he truly is. As another academic question, how could your candidate’s brand fall victim to hyperbole and how could you fix it?

McCain: ‘Rely on Humility’ -- Opponents: ‘Die Already’

His return to the Senate floor, smattered with applause, roused some inward and outward reflection. He criticized both Democrats and Republicans for not “producing much for the American people.” He admitted he’s sometimes “let my passion rule my reason.”

“I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other, to learn how to trust each other again, and by so doing, better serve the people who elected us,” added McCain.

You recall McCain taking the mic from a woman at one of his 2008 campaign rallies for calling Barack Obama an Arab. “No, ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent family man; a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

Eight years later, political bombast is more commonplace and sometimes even embraced. Shortly after McCain’s diagnosis, a Nevada Republican National Committee member apologized for sharing a story about him titled “Please Just F---ing Die Already.” Some have condemned McCain’s primary rival Kelli Ward for indelicately calling for him to step aside.

How will that affect their future political prospects?

A political campaign strategy should strive for balance in tone and fairness in fighting. Demographic research can get you started.

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