In August 2008, a year after polling last among Republican presidential hopefuls, Arizona Senator John McCain wins his party’s nomination, having heeded campaign strategist Steve Schmidt’s advice to forget politics and “say what’s right.” But his Democratic counterpart, Barack Obama, takes a huge lead in the polls thanks to his potent charisma and dazzling speeches, delivered in exotic locales like Berlin. Convinced their man can’t overtake Obama with a mainstream Republican or Joe Lieberman (the ’00 Democratic VP nominee) as his running mate, the team decides they need a bold choice, a “game changer” to win back Independents, reach out to Republicans, and attract female voters. Charged with finding a suitable female VP candidate, fellow strategist Rick Davis suggests Sarah Palin, the charismatic though little-known Alaska governor who was elected 18 months earlier, and whose approval rating is, at 70%, the nation’s highest. Schmidt agrees with Davis’s assessment of Palin’s appeal, and she is brought to Sedona to meet with Schmidt and aide Mark Salter. Although there is little time for attorney A.B. Culvahouse to fully vet Palin and her family’s background, Schmidt convinces McCain, over Salter’s doubts, to choose her. On August 29, in front of a Dayton, Ohio audience, Palin is introduced as the VP candidate, and the crowd’s enthusiasm over the young, plain-spoken governor appears to vindicate the aides who backed her. The race now appears winnable.
However, the pressures of a high-profile national campaign begin to take a toll on the governor. Nicolle Wallace, given the task of preparing Palin for TV interviews, discovers she is dangerously uninformed about national and world affairs. The team’s relentless efforts to educate Palin, combined with a shaky interview with Charlie Gibson and a disastrous one with Katie Couric, knock her into a funk that leaves aides worried about her health and ability to finish the race. Stepping in, McCain orders a Sedona detour where, reunited with her family, Palin takes a relaxed approach to her upcoming debate with Joe Biden, as advisors prepare answers to questions for her to memorize.
To everyone’s relief, the tactic pays off as Palin delivers a strong debate performance. Emboldened by her popularity, however, she starts going off-script, publicly questioning strategy and tapping into a wave of voter anger. As a result, the campaign turns negative – a tactic McCain had been steadfastly trying to avoid. When the race ends in Obama’s victory (a result all but cemented by the recent financial collapse) Schmidt realizes that in his zeal to enlist a provocative yet inexperienced running mate, he may have reduced McCain’s margin of defeat, but in the process sacrificed principle. Tensions with Palin boil over when she suggests that she join McCain in making a concession speech – and Schmidt angrily replies that no running mate has ever done so, and she won’t be the first.
2010. In a 60 Minutes interview, Schmidt is pressed by Anderson Cooper to tell whether, in hindsight, he’d have chosen a different running mate for McCain. “You don’t get to have do-overs in life,” he answers, tellingly.