Biden: Without Economic Collapse, McCain Would’ve Won In 2008

John McCain's problems in 2008 went far beyond an economic crisis.

Obama Election Night 2008

Vice-President Biden advanced a theory that I’ve heard from many people in the years since the 2008 Presidential campaign:

(CNN) - Vice President Joe Biden said Friday that if not for the economic collapse surrounding the 2008 presidential race, Sen. John McCain might have beat President Barack Obama.

“The truth of the matter is, Barack knows it, I know, had the economy not collapsed around your ears, John, in the middle of literally, as things were moving, I think you probably would have won,” Biden said during the annual Sedona forum at the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University.

“It would have been incredibly, incredibly, incredibly close. You inherited a really difficult time,” Biden said to McCain, R-Arizona.

It’s certainly true that the McCain/Palin ticket’s fortunes began to decline precipitously when the economic meltdown began in full force on September 15th with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, but it’s worth noting that the post convention bounce that the Republican ticket experienced in the wake of the Republican Convention in Minneapolis was already beginning to level off well before the economic meltdown began in earnest. Given the fact that Obama had led McCain in polling for weeks prior to the back-to-back party conventions, it’s quite probable that the race would have returned to its pre-convention state as debate season got closer at the end of September. Additionally, it’s likely that the Republican ticket would have been just as negatively impacted by the disastrous mid-September interview appearances by Sarah Palin, and that the lackluster McCain campaign operation would have still proven itself to be no match for Obama’s well-organized ground campaign. Finally, regardless of the impact of the economic downturn, there’s no denying that then candidate Obama was a far more charismatic candidate than McCain, a skill that would have aided him well regardless of the state of the economy in the fall of 2008.

There’s no denying, of course, that the economic downturn had a major impact on the 2008 race, most of it to McCain’s detriment. Part of the reason for that, though, wasn’t so much because of the fact of the downturn itself but because of McCain’s disastrous response to it. The stunt in which he supposedly suspended his campaign mere days away from when he and Obama were scheduled to meet in their first debate, for example, made him look like an idiot. When he appeared at the White House along with Obama and the Congressional leadership for a meeting with the President about the crisis, he contributed absolutely nothing and essentially made Obama seem like a leader while he was flailing around. According to some accounts that came out after the election, after this meeting Bush and other Administration officials concluded that McCain was likely to lose the election based just on his performance at that meeting.  So, yes, the economic crisis of the fall of 2008 did have a negative impact on McCain’s campaign, but that was largely because of McCain’s own mistakes, mistakes he was likely to have made under any other circumstances.

Playing “what if” games is always interesting, and perhaps there is some version of reality under which McCain could have won the 2008 Presidential campaign, but they strike me as being few and far between. He was a lackluster candidate running in an environment in which his party’s brand was damaged thanks to a President whose approval ratings had fallen below 30%. Under the circumstances, he was lucky he didn’t lose by a wider margin.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Environment, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Blue Shark says:

    Ah! Joe being Joe.

    …In totality, Barack Obama was an infinitely more attractive candidate in 2008 than John McCain.

    …All things being equal, Obama wins 9 times out of 10 regardless of the Great Recession.

  2. Gustopher says:

    Joe being Joe, you also have to wonder if he added “of course, picking that idiot Palin didn’t help you either…”

  3. CSK says:

    I don’t suppose there’s any reliable way to calculate it, but I wonder to what extent Palin damaged McCain. Her most rabid acolytes will tell you that without her, he would have lost by at least 20 points. But they’re also the people who still think President Palin will be inaugurated in January 2017.

  4. angelfoot says:

    The 2008 Republican Convention was held in St. Paul.

  5. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    @Blue Shark: @Gustopher: @CSK:

    Agreed, on all counts. I think Joe was being polite to his host and former Senate buddy. Nothing wrong with that.

    Threat-clearing done, I’ve always hated this line of thinking. To me, it translates as “Candidate X would’ve won had not real life intruded.” Well, we play the games in real life.

    Trivia: The reason this forum was held in Sedona (other than it’s very pretty) that because Johnny’s summer home is a short drive away. It’s where Palin trained for her debate (against Biden, ironically) and, had votes broken different in ’08, would’ve been the Western White House. The infamous campaign-trail BBQ for the reporters, complete with tales of tire-swinging? Here.

  6. edmondo says:


    I think that Joe Biden is just trying to drive the crazy old man over the edge.

  7. Kylopod says:

    It’s also worth noting that even before the financial collapse in the fall of 2008, the economy wasn’t doing exactly well. That’s not the sort of condition that is ever good news for the incumbent party, even one that isn’t also suffering from the impact of an unpopular.war. Without the collapse, Obama may well have gotten less than the 7-point lead he enjoyed, and maybe he would have picked up fewer states, but I doubt he was ever likely to lose the election.

  8. James Joyner says:

    My sense is that @Gold Star for Robot Boy has it right: Biden is attempting to be self-deprecating and buttering up McCain, not serving as a political analyst.

  9. KariQ says:

    I predict that for years to come, we will hear Republicans tell us: “Even Joe Biden admitted McCain would have won that election if …” followed by some misstatement of Biden’s actual comment.

  10. labman57 says:

    Several factors contributed to the Obama victory over McCain.

    Certainly the state of the economy during Bush’s last 1 1/2 years in office played a major role, but McCain’s response to the onset of the major recession was equally significant — he admitted a complete ignorance about maco-economics and made several other inane public comments regarding the national economy which convinced the American people that he was not the main for the job.

    In addition, the public was becoming increasingly aware of the ignorance and ineptitude of McCain’s running mate, and it called into question his judgement in selecting Palin in such an apparently flippant manner.

    Furthermore, many undecided voters were put off by the callous nature of the RNC’s mudslinging efforts via robocalls in the final weeks leading up to the election.

    Combined with the increased participation in the voting process by minority, college-aged, and socio-economically disinfranchised members of electorate who overwhelming cast their votes in support of Obama … well, there you have it.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    I did enjoy McCain going to DC saying you couldn’t just phone in a response to the crisis, then spending his time in his DC apartment making calls. He wouldn’t have had to go if modern technology had somehow made long distance calling practical.