Republicans who were depressed just two weeks ago seem to have a new lease on life. And their prospects might be rising along with their morale.
While much is being made of John McCain's rebound--catching up with Barack Obama in most polls and overtaking him in some -- something more may be going on: The party identification gap -- the 7-to-13-point advantage that Democrats have enjoyed in how voters describe themselves -- may have narrowed a bit after the GOP convention. This improvement might be just another manifestation of the McCain-Palin bounce, but it also could be something more durable.
Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, who partners with Democrat Peter Hart on the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, reports that what had been a 12- or 13-point gap in March and April had narrowed to an 8-point Democratic advantage in their joint poll released on Wednesday night, and to a 4-point Democratic edge in another poll that his firm, Public Opinion Strategies, conducted last weekend. Newhouse says that the "shift has been roughly 4 to 6 points in the margin between the two parties." One pollster's finding doesn't establish a trend, but it does seem to corroborate other recent polling by the Gallup Organization and CBS News.
Sure, Republicans are still likely to lose a bunch of Senate and House seats on November 4, and their chances of keeping the White House are still no better than 50-50. But things certainly seem less dismal for them. Every week that goes by between now and Election Day should clarify the 2008 contests a bit, but as Gallup's Jeff Jones said in his report on his organization's September 9 daily tracking poll, "The GOP convention has clearly altered the structure of the race for now, which had shown Obama consistently ahead in the Gallup Poll Daily tracking updates for all but a few days from the time he clinched the nomination in early June until the end of last week." Things had only one way to go for Republicans--up.
Polls had long indicated that McCain was drawing a higher percentage of Republicans than Obama was pulling among Democrats. Obama was encountering resistance among older and working-class whites, but he was generating enthusiasm among his voters that McCain's supporters simply weren't showing.
McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin gave the GOP ticket a shot of excitement. So, even though McCain's vetting of Palin was cursory, and journalists or Democratic opponents could still uncover something horribly damaging, Palin counts as an asset, at least for now.
But what does that mean for races down the ballot? In part the answer depends on whether you believed that Republicans had a turnout problem before Palin was chosen. There are two schools of thought. The first is that although many Republicans were not excited about McCain, a longtime maverick and, yes, irritant to the GOP establishment, the party's voters would have supported him anyway. They might not have run to the polls, but they would have voted. This theory posits that these voters simply feel better now about a vote they would have cast anyway.
The second theory is that if McCain had not added Palin or someone else capable of revving up the GOP base, quite a few Republicans wouldn't have voted. A moderate case of sniffles, an unusually busy first-Tuesday-after-the-first-Monday-in-November, or any number of other excuses might well have been seized upon. And these Republicans would simply not have felt strongly enough about their support for McCain to persevere and vote. Under this theory, Palin really helps unless her standing is damaged.
Where Palin may not be able to help is among what some Bush campaign strategists in 2004 called "unreliable Republicans," those who would vote Republican but have a history of not showing up on Election Day. These are people who have to be identified and hounded with phone calls and visits to their homes to remind them that, yes, this is Election Day and they are expected to vote. McCain has neither the money nor the organizational ability to match the get-out-the-vote efforts of President Bush's 2004 campaign or Obama's current effort.
So perhaps Palin is an asset but not quite a savior. For down-ballot GOP candidates who need all of the turnout assistance they can get, she will help some -- but probably not enough unless they were already within shouting distance of victory. Republicans won't have the masterful vote-generating machine they've grown accustomed to, but they are better off with Palin near the top of their ticket.
This article appears in the September 13, 2008, edition of National Journal Magazine.