Two weeks ago, I suggested here that "it is entirely plausible that [John] McCain will attract as many votes as President Bush did in 2004, given that Republicans often vote out of habit or a feeling of civic duty." One reader's reaction certainly grabbed my attention: A highly regarded Republican campaign strategist called to disagree, arguing that it would be very, very hard for McCain to replicate Bush's performance.
The senior strategist pointed out that the heart of the Bush 2004 organizational strategy was a sophisticated and expensive effort to target "unreliable Republican voters," those who if they voted could be counted on to vote for Bush and other GOP candidates, but who had a spotty record of showing up on Election Day. Everyone recalls, of course, that Bush's re-election campaign was not so much about persuading undecideds and independent voters as it was about maximizing turnout within the Republican base.
Against that backdrop, let's take another look at the McCain campaign, fresh from yet another reshuffling of the deck chairs. The words of the top Republican consultant who called struck a nerve with me because my recent conversations with GOP operatives and well-connected activists have centered on their feeling that there is no McCain campaign to speak of in their states. A party that grew accustomed in 2000 and 2004 to an organizational effort of Prussian efficiency now senses that its presidential nominee's campaign is little more than a candidate, an airplane, and a small headquarters staff.
One Republican grumbled that "McCain organization" is an oxymoron. Having written McCain off as politically dead just a year ago, I am reluctant to disparage his campaign today. But precious few within his party seem to be comfortable with what is going on inside his camp.
The contrary argument may not be that McCain's campaign is well organized, but that this election isn't really about John McCain: Barack Obama will either make enough voters feel comfortable with his becoming president or he won't. The polls unmistakably show that voters are demanding change and would prefer Democrats in charge, both in the White House and on Capitol Hill. The big question is whether they feel comfortable with this Democrat in the White House.
A recent York, Pa., focus group conducted for the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center by pollster Peter Hart vividly demonstrated that although voters are hurting, are very pessimistic about the country's direction, and are using such words as "deceived," "disgusted," and "horrific" in describing Bush's performance, many still have a difficult time identifying with Obama.
Hart found that the problem was notably not among former supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton, but among others. He reported: "The challenge emerges from the rest of the group. It is not just that they oppose Obama, but rather the vehemence of the opposition; what concerns them is less about issue stances and more about race and character. The most vitriolic comments are not directed at his policies, but at him personally, criticizing him for having a 'rock star attitude,' being a 'great fabricator,' being 'inexperienced,' being someone who 'comes from a Muslim family,' and being someone who will not 'pledge to the flag with your hand over your heart.' As Tony [one focus group participant] puts it, succinctly, 'I just don't believe in his values.' He does not specify which of Barack Obama's values he does not believe in, but he has a clear sense that Obama's values are not his."
There is no question that McCain's campaign has neither the money nor the organization that Obama's has. Nor will McCain be able to match Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaigns in either category. Those shortcomings should terrify Republicans, but they won't necessarily dictate the election's outcome. It's inaccurate to say, "This election is Barack Obama's to lose." Rather, it is Obama's to win, if he can make enough voters comfortable with him as a person and with the idea of him as the 44th president of the United States.
This article appears in the July 12, 2008, edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.