Why John McCain Should Be Nervous

Hillary Clinton's primary win in Pennsylvania last night more or less ensures that the Democratic primary campaign will go on at least to the North Carolina and Indiana contests on May 6. Unsurprisingly, Republicans who were despondent about their party's … Read More

By / April 23, 2008

Hillary Clinton's primary win in Pennsylvania last night more or less ensures that the Democratic primary campaign will go on at least to the North Carolina and Indiana contests on May 6. Unsurprisingly, Republicans who were despondent about their party's chances of holding on to the White House this year are feeling elated. Even those who detest John McCain are coming around to the recognition that his idiosyncrasies make him one of the only Republicans who (at least on paper) can make the fall contest competitive. Add to that the poisonous tone of the Democratic race and the chances it could drag on into the summer, and McCain supporters are beginning to sound giddy about the outcome in November.

They shouldn't be. (Nor conversely, should Democrats get depressed.) Confidence that McCain will trot to the presidency because of his personal appeal, because of the mutually destructive extended campaign for the Democratic nomination, and because Barack Obama has already been fatally wounded by the freak show issues of the primary, rests on two pillars of poor judgment: innumeracy and amnesia. Usefully demonstrating both qualities, McCain supporters point to national polls showing their man approximately even with either Democrat in a hypothetical match-up, despite the fact that the same surveys show a generic Democrat clobbering a generic Republican. Doesn't that prove, as they claim, that despite a propitious background environment for the Democrats, their candidates are exceptionally weak, the Republican candidate is exceptionally strong, and as the Democratic primary meanders along McCain's prospects grow better and better?

No, it proves nothing beyond the fact that the background environment is propitious for Democrats. (It suggests more than it proves, but not what McCain supporters think or hope; more on that later.) Present national polls represent a snapshot of the electorate at a time when the two Democrats are furiously campaigning against one another, the Republican is campaigning against the Democrats, and no one is campaigning against the Republican. Eventually the Democratic primary will end, and the losing candidate's disaffected supporters will come around to supporting the winning Democrat by huge majorities. How do I know? Because that is what always happens after primaries. Traditionally, Republicans have a marginal advantage over Democrats in retaining the votes of their rank-and-file, but this year that's likely to be outweighed by increasing Democratic solidarity and the Republicans' hemorrhaging share of the overall electorate — two secular trends that have deep socioeconomic roots and will proceed apace even if obsessive day-to-day coverage of the Democratic primary paints a different picture.

So what happens the day after (presumably) Hillary Clinton finally throws in the
towel, whether on May 6, June 3, or as Howard Dean hopes, by July 1 when all the superdelegates have cast their lots? Overnight, the election reverts to superficial symmetry: a united Republican party against a united Democratic party. Except that in every non-superficial respect, the election is profoundly asymmetrical, and its asymmetries uniformly favor the Democrats.

Here are some (and only some) deep structural advantages for the Democrats: The electorate is split 36 : 37 : 27 Democrats : Independents : Republicans, compared to rough parity in 2004, and even that observation understates the Democrats' edge, as independents have moved from splitting their votes approximately evenly in 2004 to supporting Democrats by a huge margin in 2006. Of the ten most salient issues in the election, voters prefer Democrats to Republicans on the top three issues and eight total, backing the GOP only on national security and taxes, by modest margins of 5 and 4 percent, respectively. (By contrast, voters in 2004 preferred George Bush to John Kerry on "terrorism" by 18 points; the comparison is inexact, but a 5 point Republican lead on national security, coupled with its decline in relative importance, is not cause for Republican optimism.)

Furthermore, the underlying state of the nation augurs poor results for the incumbent party, both objectively, in terms of economic data (which continue to trend downward), and subjectively in terms of public perception (81 percent of Americans believe the country is on the "wrong track"). Asked whether they are better off now than five years ago, 41 percent of voters answer affirmatively, 31 percent negatively. Which, out of context, sounds like a promising result for the incumbent party; in context, that is the most pessimistic appraisal, by a wide margin, since public attitudes on the question were first measured in 1964. Ray Fair's famous equation, which estimates the incumbent party's share of the vote based on regression analysis of economic data and election results from 1918-2000, and which correctly called the 2004 election (though it overestimated Bush's performance), predicts a Republican defeat — and on the basis of January economic numbers, which have since declined and are likely to continue declining.

Here are some (and only some) comparatively shallower advantages for the Democrats, on the simplifying assumption that Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee: No one is running against John McCain, media scrutiny of him is minimal, the vast majority of voters who are not especially well-informed Republican partisans have scarcely heard an ill word said about McCain, whereas Barack Obama is facing a relentless multilateral assault on every feature of his character; and still, on the day of Obama's speech on race, after the Jeremiah Wright videos had aired on a non-stop loop for the better part of a week, McCain still only barely edged Obama in favorable/unfavorable perception ratings. While Obama has built the most formidable fundraising machine in American electoral history, raising $236 million, $130 million just since the beginning of the year, much of it from small quantity donors with the means and inclination to keep giving and giving — not to mention that as the nominee he will tap into a significant proportion of Hillary Clinton's fundraising machine, which would itself have comfortably set all-time records were it not for Obama — John McCain's fundraising has been comparatively anemic, and he has finally bowed to reality and agreed to accept public financing. The only remaining question about the contest for resources between the two campaigns is precisely what fraction of Obama's treasury McCain's treasury will be. (Again, to compare to 2004, George Bush had a significant fundraising edge over John Kerry and still only managed to win narrowly; Obama's edge over McCain will dwarf Bush's edge over Kerry.)

The upshot of the prince versus pauper financial disparity is that the Obama
campaign will be able to put together a vastly stronger ground-level operation to get out votes than John Kerry's, while the McCain campaign's GOTV will be significantly weaker than Bush's. And even after massively outspending McCain on electoral infrastructure, Obama will still have the resources to blanket the country in ads, and to the extent any candidate can do so, tilt public perception of himself, of his opponent, and of the election, essentially at will — for example, through a relentless, overwhelming, and devastating campaign to transform McCain into a clone of the president with the highest disapproval rating ever recorded.

This is not to say that Democrats should immediately break out champagne (who knows what scandals may be lurking?), or that the costs of the extended primary to Obama are negligible. More problematic than the content of Clinton's attacks on Obama is simply the time wasted closing out an already-decided primary that he could have spent putting McCain away early. But the unfounded pessimism of some Democrats and unfounded optimism of many Republicans bespeaks a profound myopia. Presidential elections are not static. The superficial day-to-day conditions of the campaign are at a nadir for Obama, and will only get better when Clinton drops out and the Democratic party — its members and its institutions — unite behind him. Conversely, the day-to-day conditions of the campaign are at a zenith for McCain, and can only get worse.

Those are the background conditions for the approximate 45-45 tie between McCain
and either Democrat that the last few months of polling has produced. (In the poll of polls, Obama is narrowly ahead.) In other words, under circumstances unrealistically favorable to McCain, the best he can do is produce a statistical draw — and only then, by ignoring the 10 percent of voters who are undecided. Will the undecideds go to McCain? No: not unless they break the long-established tendency of undecideds to go against the incumbent, as well as the secular trend of the middle of the electorate moving away from the Republicans. So even estimating support for Obama among undecideds conservatively, if the election were held today, he wins the popular vote. (Don't take the word of an Obamaphile like me, by the way; the decidedly non-Obamaphilic, but honest and incisive Ross Douthat makes the same point.)

That is, with the Clinton campaign, the McCain campaign, and the bulk of the Republican machine already committed to a full court press against him, and with bored political media fixated on the freak show; and without the backing of his own party institutions or the practical ability to pivot decisively towards McCain, Obama still wins.

How would a smart campaign respond to results like these? Step one, presumably, would be to recognize that a draw or narrow deficit to an opponent currently enduring an unyielding negative campaign, before that opponent has even begun to campaign against you, is cause for alarm. Instead, many McCain supporters take it to be cause for celebration. If such arrogance is the dominant attitude inside the campaign as well, McCain will lose badly, and deservedly so.

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