How did the lackluster John McCain draw more popular votes (59,934,814) than the better-liked Mitt Romney (58,159,408 as of today)? The answer: Sarah Palin. Whatever her detractors say, Palin possesses star quality, with huge, widespread appeal; as Thomas Sowell has noted, the only time McCain led Obama in the 2008 race was shortly after Palin joined the GOP ticket. She’s the reason Obama’s victory in 2008 wasn’t a Reagan/Carter-type blowout.
The lesson is this: in US politics charisma and biography matter enormously, possibly more than credentials or competence, definitely more than experience. Romney was a plainly decent and able man, but too few people felt connected to him; Obama’s a disastrous president, but enough people like his story that he managed to sneak out a win. Republicans must choose nominees who inspire passion in voters, even if other candidates have better résumés. Luckily there are several young conservatives with the requisite talent and charisma. For 2016 the best of them is Marco Rubio. We need to start fighting for him now.
Later: John Fund writes that when all ballots are counted Romney will have earned more votes than McCain. I believe him, but I stand by my argument. The electorate is bigger than in 2008, Romney was a more attractive candidate than McCain, yet the nominees' vote totals basically matched. Palin's appeal explains the lack of difference and shows the way ahead for the GOP.
Later still (11/14/12): Romney's total is now 59,133,398.
And (1/16/13): Romney's total has reached 60,931,959.