Barrack Obama won the election, John McCain lost. That was always expected. The surprise is that McCain did as well as he did. Examining this is important for figuring out how to win future elections.
First, Obama had lost of advantages. He has a golden tongue. He also had the golden touch for fund raising. He raised several times as much as the federal funds that McCain used. In addition, the public is sick of President Bush. Finally, Obama's race helped him. I'm tired of hearing that Obama won in spite of his race. He gained a lot of votes from blacks and hispanics who voted on the basis of his race. He also gave whites the chance to feel virtuous by voting for someone with dark skin.
McCain never came up with a convincing narative. He had a great rapid-response team but little long-term message.
Despite all of this, the election was not a blow-out. Obama led in the polls for most of the Summer but his lead was within the margin of error. McCain pulled ahead after the conventions only to fall behind in mid-September. Had things gone differently he might very well have kept his lead and won the election.
So what happened?
One thing that didn't happen was Sarah Palin. It is true that the left piled so much muck on her that some stuck. Regardless, the people who think that she was a mistake overlook the alternative. Palin added a lot of excitement to the election. If McCain had gone with a conventional approach like Mit Romney the electorate would have gone to sleep.
Really, three things happened that cost McCain a shot at the White House.
The first was the war in Iraq. It went from unwinnable to victory. This happened too soon for McCain to take advantage of. Yes, he was right about the surge and Obama was wrong but the war had fallen out of the news cycle by mid-August. By the election it was low of voters' priorities.
The same thing happened with gas prices. McCain was for increasing domestic oil production. This might not produce results for years but Obama's renewable energy proposals will not produce for decades. As long as gas was above $4/gallon McCain had a winning issue. With gas back to $2/gallon, no one cared.
These were McCain's strong points. If they were still relevant at the election he stood a good chance of winning. Instead, we had the third event, the economy.
Obama never announced a plan to fix the economy beyond some more government stimulous checks and bail-outs. He didn't need to. All he had to do was to run ads linking Bush, McCain, and the economy. McCain had lots of plans - too many - and as a Congressman he couldn't distance himself from failing institutions.
So what can we learn from this? The economy gave Obama the presidency, not his progressive agenda. Voters want change but Obama was vague enough during the campaign that his idea of change is probably radically different from the voters'. His main promise was for tax cuts for nearly everyone (paid for by the remainder). He also promised to fix the economy. He didn't talk about the rest of his platform much.
This gives Obama a very clear and specific mandate - fix the economy and hand out money. Fixing the economy is beyond a president's powers and he is already backtracking on the tax cuts.
The rest of Obama's adenda is outside his mandate. He might get some form of health care passed. This will be tricky since it affects so many people. If he get it wrong he will lose the electorate.
A lot of Obama's primary promises will hurt the economy in general even if they help targeted portions (unions). Unless the economy is booming in 2010 Republicans will be hitting him hard on anything that hurts the economy.
All of this gives Republicans a shot at retaking Congress in 2010 without doing anything on their own. They can build on this but they have to take the right path. Bush-style big government Republicans will not have a message to use against big government Democrats. They have to go back to being the party of limited government. In 2008 limited government sounded outdated. It will make a comeback after Obama expands (or tries to expand) the government.