For Schmidt and Axelrod, that final drive began two weeks ago, when the campaign entered a period hectic, pivotal, and historically unprecedented: Never before in modern presidential politics had the parties’ nominees named their running mates, staged their conventions, and given the most widely viewed speeches of the election in so compressed a time frame. What neither adviser expected was that McCain, in the midst of this mad flurry of events, would upend their chessboard with a move as radical as the Palin pick, turning what had seemed likely to be a bizarro replay of the Clinton-Obama fight—change versus experience—into a very different kind of contest. The kind of bitterly polarized affair from which Obama and McCain once seemed to offer a respite. The kind that feels all too achingly familiar, and thus quite terrifying.
At 37, with a 225-pound frame, a Kojak-bald head, wraparound shades, and a Bluetooth headset invariably jacked into his ear, Schmidt cuts an imposing figure. His affect, which alternates between steely, monotonal stoicism and fierce combativeness, is cultivated, designed to be intimidating. His cardinal professional virtues are relentlessness, focus, and a capacity for nearly infinite repetition. The GOP consultant Alex Castellanos says Schmidt is more purely pragmatic than Rove, less ideological, and hence even more lethal—“the perfect political killing machine.” His former boss accordingly nicknamed him The Bullet. His current one ritually refers to him as Sergeant Schmidt.
The bond between Schmidt and McCain was formed a year ago, in the wake of the near immolation of the McCain campaign in a bonfire of chaos, indiscipline, and mismanagement. Schmidt and his family lived in California, where he’d helped engineer Arnold Schwarzenegger’s landslide reelection in 2006. Even as McCain’s campaign faltered, he stuck loyally by his side. “He earned his stripes in the foxhole,” recalls McCain’s former media adviser Mark McKinnon. “He talked to McCain when no one was returning his phone calls.”
But it wasn’t until June that Schmidt assumed near-total control over McCain-land, after confronting the candidate over what he perceived as an incipient crisis similar to the one in 2007. The lack of focus. The internecine strife. The sloppy, listing message. Schmidt informed McCain bluntly that if he didn’t make significant changes in his operation, he was going to lose.
Ten days later, Schmidt was in charge—or so it seemed. For at the same time, McCain was whispering to Mike Murphy, the strategist who had run his primary bid in 2000, about bringing him back into the fold as chief strategist. Schmidt made clear that he would tolerate no such thing.
Schmidt’s victory in that power struggle proved a turning point. Imbued with new discipline—Schmidt sharply curtailed McCain’s formerly wide-open access to reporters, which was only getting him in trouble as he experienced more senior moments, and even restricted his cell-phone usage, to cut down on unhelpful kibitzing—the campaign found a groove and also a lucid message.
“Steve is a message machine,” says McKinnon. “He knows you have to distill the race down to a very simple frame. And the frame they finally found their way to was McCain equals country first, Obama equals Obama first. They struggled for a while to get their arms around it. They rolled out liberal, they rolled out flip-flopper, they test-drove various strategies. Then they hit on this idea of Obama as a celebrity who is unready to lead. It works because it has a ring of truth—and it’s incredibly hard to defend against, since you’re basically being attacked for being popular.”
Obama’s trip abroad this summer was both a catalyst for this message and a target-rich environment for Schmidt. At the end of July, the campaign let fly with a series of controversial negative ads mocking Obama for his megastar status, his alleged messianism, his placement of ambition above the good of the commonweal. Many of McCain’s former advisers from 2000, such as Murphy and John Weaver, criticized the spots. “They have a strategy, at least that’s something,” Weaver told me at the time. “But if you’re gonna make a negative charge, it has to be credible. And I don’t think these pass the basic smell test.”
Maybe so, but judging by every available metric, the charges seemed to stick. By the end of August, after a monthlong string of harsh TV spots, the national polls began to tighten, with McCain pulling almost level with Obama in most surveys and even ahead in some. Similar signs of movement were apparent in several pivotal battleground states. Meanwhile, Obama’s negatives were rising appreciably, with no discernible cost to McCain’s own favorability ratings.
The story behind this story was that Schmidt and his people had come to believe that, for all the talk of the Obamans about expanding the electoral map, there were few traditionally red states in which the McCain camp had reason for concern. Although the Obama forces were pouring money into such places as Missouri and Montana, it seemed to be having little effect. Moreover, McCain turned out to have more money at his disposal than many assumed he would. Taken together, these two facts allowed Team McCain actually to outspend Team Obama in a number of swing states.