Not long ago, many observers were speculating that presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain would have trouble uniting his party because of the antipathy that much of the Republican establishment and its right wing had long had for the Arizona maverick. Those days are pretty much gone.
McCain now fairly consistently wins high percentages of Republican voters when matched against either Barack Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton in general election trial heats. And McCain’s numbers are pretty close to the Republican cohesion level that President Bush enjoyed in 2004.
Let’s stipulate for a moment that McCain will be able to win precisely the same number of votes—both nationwide and state by state—that Bush won in 2004. Would that be sufficient to win in 2008? If I were a GOP strategist, my fear would be that even if McCain replicated Bush’s 2004 numbers, Obama, the almost certain Democratic nominee, or even Clinton, could surpass the number of votes that John Kerry received nationally and in each state.
Back in 2004, the two parties were basically even in party identification. Since then, Republican identifiers have fallen so much that Democrats now sport an advantage of 8 to 14 percentage points. Yet, even if the number of Republicans had remained as high as in 2004 and were still even with Democrats, the GOP still might have a problem. Let’s call it “electile dysfunction.”
Quite simply, Democrats are really energized this year, but Republicans are not. Even if Republicans turn out to vote at normal rates, that might not be enough to win in November. When NBC News and The Wall Street Journal asked 1,012 registered voters in their March 7-10 poll to say on a scale of 1 to 10 how interested they were in this year’s elections (10 being most interested), 73 percent of Democrats said 10. Only 62 percent of Republicans were 10s.
Likewise, when the Gallup/USA Today poll asked in February how enthusiastic people were about voting, 79 percent of Democrats said they more interested than usual, and just 15 percent said less interested. Among Republicans, 44 percent were more interested but 48 percent were less interested.
We’ve seen a similar enthusiasm gap in everything from campaign contributions to sizes of political rallies to voter turnout for primaries and caucuses. On some measures, Republicans were down, but on almost every measure Democrats were way up. While the GOP nomination was still up for grabs, Republican voters turned out in respectable numbers, breaking records in some states. Meanwhile, virtually across the board, Democrats blew the ceiling off their own records.
My point isn’t that Republicans might not turn out in November. My assumption is that they will, just as they did in November 2006. (The GOP’s problem in that midterm election was that independents broke for Democrats by an 18-point margin, not that Republicans didn’t turn out or defected.) Rather, my point is that Democrats might turn out at much higher levels than normal and than they did in 2004.
The main reason that McCain is running basically even with Obama today is that McCain is doing far better among independents than a garden-variety Republican could in this challenging political climate. In that NBC/WSJ poll, voters preferred by 13 points—50 percent to 37 percent—that a Democrat win the White House.
This is McCain’s challenge. Normally, if a Republican needed to jack up turnout among Republicans and conservatives, that candidate would shift and throw red meat at the Right. If a Republican, or a Democrat for that matter, needed to goose up performance among independents, the candidate would move to the middle and push process-oriented reform measures that appeal to them. But what if McCain needs to do both? He has to move to the right and to the center, simultaneously. That’s a very difficult straddle.
This election is layered like an onion. Just as one party seems to have a tiny advantage, peeling off another layer seemingly tips the contest back to the other side. And in the end, the presidency might well hinge on something unexpected.