10) Money: I do not put the stock in the "buying an election" theory many do. I remember Ross Perot and Steve Forbes, who spent far more than their opponents only to lose, and badly. In Freakanomics they analyze data from election rematches that suggests money means little. Nonetheless, while I think the claim that Obama bought the election is about as accurate as the claim he palls around with terrorists, Obama's money, impressively earned as low as $5 at a time, allowed him to force McCain to have to defend too much territory. Who would have guessed Obama ads in North Dakota and Arizona? McCain was stretched extremely thin, and it showed.
9) Intelligence: It's not that Obama is more intelligent than McCain, but that he respects intelligence so much more. McCain/Palin and their supporters consistently played to the lowest intellectual common denominator. Whether it was the gratuitous emphasis on Obama's middle name, or the insinuations that formal educations don't really matter, or the constant use of scientific programs as examples of wasteful spending, the message was clear: it's OK to be stupid, vote for us. Obama is a thinker, not a brilliant one, but a decent one. His vocabulary dwarfs that of the other side, and his respect for science and the knowledge of the modern world was very appealing to the intellectuals, which are not as insignificant in number as the GOP would have us think, and their influence is often considerable.
8) George Bush: McCain will likely rank the "hug" photo as his most regretted. While McCain's efforts to separate himself from George Bush's basement level approval ratings were laudable, and somewhat effective, the GOP brand was tainted this year. When you've got Republicans being sued to be forced to call themselves Republicans on the ballot, you know the party is in trouble. The "90% agreement" argument cost McCain. They called him "McSame" in those quarters.
7) Class: Over and over again, McCain would get into scraps with Obama and come out looking like a bitter old man. His venomous stares in the last debate are legend, horror flick quality. His unwillingness to look at Obama in the first debate won him no friends, ranking right up there with Al Gore's impatient sighs as the most vote costly nonverbal events. Calling Obama "that one" didn't help matters. And while McCain did little, until the very end, to curb his nastier constituents, Obama from the beginning discouraged mean-spirited attacks on McCain personally. "We don't need that, just go vote" was a constant retort to boos for McCain at his rallies. Obama displayed a certain statesmanlike quality that McCain simply lacks.
6) Aesthetics: Ever since the Nixon/Kennedy debate, when political races first started being fought mainly on television, appearance and general aesthetics have held great sway. The taller candidate almost always wins, as does the one who is more charismatic, and the one deemed more attractive on average. Obama had every advantage here (except obviously, for his race), being young, tall and graceful, making McCain look like a gnarled little gnome by comparison. Granted, this is especially unfair, and in McCain's case particularly tragic, since the events leading to his appearance deserve and receive praise from all political quarters. Nonetheless, it matters in the nasty real world.
5) Organization: The Obama team ran circles around McCain's. They were in the right places at the right times, like taking up airtime with an infomercial at exactly the time McCain needed attention. They were in constant communication with their supporters. They had attorneys out there to help with problems at polling places. They had a consistent, coherent message, rather than the position-of-the-week from McCain (I gave up trying to figure out where he finally ended up on the bailout). In some ways, it looked like a modern army with night vision and smart bombs fighting one from WWII. They were the Borgama, and they were relentless. McCain's much ballyhooed inability to use email was a metaphor for the organizational disadvantage he had. As one commenter put it, McCain is playing checkers and Obama is playing three-dimensional chess.
4) The Shrinking Base: The GOP base has four major, somewhat overlapping, somewhat contentious factions. Largest is the Jerry Falwell/James Dobson faction, who'd rather vote for a monkey than admit they're descended from one, or allow gays to marry, or allow abortions. Smaller is the Milton Friedman faction, to whom every economic problem has the same answer: lower taxes, let the free market solve everything. Not as small as we'd like to think it is, is the David Duke faction, still fighting the civil war, and refusing to learn any language except 'Mercan. And lastly comes the tinfoil hat brigade, fighting against world government, hiding their social security numbers, and resisting immigration as if it were an invasion from Mars.
Karl Rove saw that this amounted to about 53% of the population, and mastered winning appealing to little else. However, that base is getting smaller, and is too small to win with alone. There is no place for blacks in there, or Hispanics, homosexuals, atheists (which make up abut 30% of people below 30), those who value science, or who think abortion should be legal.
3) The Internet: The basis of the Big Lie Technique is a sound one. Many people, unable to get at the facts themselves, and faced with a seemingly unbelievable claim, will tend to believe it on the grounds that no one would say such a foolish thing were it not true. The Gish Gallop is also an effective debating technique. Simply make as many assertions as one is able as quickly as possible. Since it takes much longer to refute a claim than to make it, many of the claims will inevitably go unaddressed, and will count in the minds of many witnesses as points won.
These were two techniques that McCain/Palin used ad nauseum, firing salvo after salvo at Obama: he's never done anything, he's a Muslim, lipstick on pigs, William Ayers, ACORN, and bridges to nowhere, none true, but all potentially damaging. There was one thing in their way though: the internet. The internet muted these techniques by allowing any interested voter to get at the truth themselves. In time, so many were shown to be false that McCain's credibility dropped to near bottom for all but his loyal base.
2) The Economy: It is tough to run a campaign when your party finds itself with the biggest economic disaster in decades on their hands. It is even worse when that disaster was caused by the very thing (deregulation) that your party suggests as the solution to everything. In the end, the nuances don't matter. When Reagan asked "Are you better off then you were four years ago?", he saw what Mark Twain saw when he said "morals only have force when one is well fed". In the end, people will vote their pocketbook when they perceive a big difference between the candidates on the finances.
1) Sarah Palin: Sure, she energized the base, and alienated everyone else. Sure, as people like Pat Buchanan never tire of reminding us, the announcement of Palin's candidacy gave McCain a big boost in the polls, and then the financial collapse came. Except that isn't the way it happened. After the boost came the Charles Gibson interview, after which Palin's favorability ratings, and McCain's poll figures, started dropping like a stone.
By the time the financial crisis showed up on the average voters radar (when the market crashed), and McCain raced to Washington to save the day, he was already well behind in the polls. That's why he went to Washington in the first place. Once people got a good dose of Palin's strident hateful ignorance, it was all over. You don't attract independent voters by implying that anyone who doesn't agree with you isn't a real American.