About the time political reporters were sitting down to lunch on June 24, BlackBerries all over Washington buzzed with an unusual email. The pollsters for John McCain's campaign sent out a memo challenging the findings of a poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg. Hundreds of polls are released during a typical campaign without such a public objection. One finding in particular caught their attention. According to the L.A. Times, 22 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Republicans, 39 percent as Democrats, and 27 percent as independents. The party identification in this poll, argued McCain's pollsters, "is greatly out of line with what most other surveys are reporting."
They're right. And that fact probably helps explain why the L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll has Barack Obama beating John McCain by 15 points (in a field including Nader and Barr)--a much larger margin than most other respected polls. (The Gallup daily tracking poll, the McCain campaign eagerly points out, has McCain down just 3 points.)
McCain's pollsters point to the findings of other surveys on party identification. That they would do this suggests just how damaged the Republican party brand is heading into the 2008 general election. Although the L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll shows a larger gap between Democrats and Republicans than all others--+17 for Democrats--the news for Republicans is uniformly bad.
Among the numbers the McCain campaign highlighted: AP/Ipsos's +14 for Democrats; CBS News/New York Times's +14 for Democrats; and Democracy Corps's +12 for Democrats. The average advantage for Democrats in the ten surveys the McCain campaign cited was 9.3 points. So Republicans are clearly at a significant disadvantage.
The conventional wisdom, adopted and internalized by many on the McCain campaign, is that McCain must move to the center to appeal to independents. So that's largely what he's done. Immediately after McCain became the de facto nominee, he toured the country touting his biography. Shortly after that he spent a week on a trip informally dubbed the "Places Republicans Don't Go" tour. Not long afterwards, he traveled to Washington and Oregon talking about global warming. He has launched radio ads explicitly targeting Hispanics and last month held secret meetings with Hispanic and gay leaders. Twice in recent weeks, McCain has participated in virtual town halls targeting disaffected Democrats and moderates.
One could reasonably argue that the strategy is working. In fact, McCain made that argument himself at a fundraiser in Las Vegas last week. "It's good to see yourself running, for us to be, most polls show us frankly two, three, four points down," said McCain. "That's good for this stage of the game, particularly considering the headwind we have on our economy. And I'd like to give you a little straight talk. There was a poll last week that showed me three points down from Sen. Obama and the Republican party 19 points down from the Democrats."
Not bad. But it is a strategy that carries considerable risks. By running as a centrist, McCain risks further alienating conservatives, the voters most responsible for getting George W. Bush elected twice. The Washington Post reported that conservative turnout "soared" in 2004, climbing above the impressive level that the Bush campaign reached in 2000. McCain's campaign isn't worried.
"Where are they going to go?" asks one McCain adviser, expressing a sentiment I've heard from several others.
One possibility: nowhere. Unmotivated by a candidate who would rather talk about global warming than gay marriage, conservatives might simply stay home. This lack of enthusiasm for McCain among conservatives was evident in the Washington Post/ABC News poll taken in mid-June. Ninety-one percent of those who identified themselves as Obama supporters say they are "enthusiastic" about their candidate; 54 percent say they are "very enthusiastic." Seventy-three percent of self-identified McCain supporters say they are "enthusiastic" about his candidacy; but only 17 percent say they are "very enthusiastic." More ominous, while almost half of the liberals surveyed are enthusiastic about Obama, only 13 percent of conservatives are enthusiastic about McCain.
Republican pollster David Winston believes that McCain can close this enthusiasm gap by campaigning on issues where there are sharp differences between the candidates. "We are still a center-right country," says Winston. "And voters will still prefer a center-right candidate to a liberal one."
Data from that same Washington Post/ABC News poll support this claim. Although Democrats hold a strong advantage in party identification, more people consider themselves conservatives than liberals. The survey found that 38 percent of those polled thought of themselves as Democrats, 24 percent as Republicans, and 34 percent as independents. Only 21 percent of those polled thought of themselves as liberals, while 33 percent saw themselves as conservatives and 43 percent as moderates.
McCain, it seems, has to do two things at once to win. He has to motivate conservatives to support him (financially now and at the polls in November), and he has to woo independent voters away from a charismatic liberal. To that end, McCain might want to make this an issues election and run as a conservative, emphasizing issues--the war on terror, spending and government waste, tax reform, racial preferences, and gay marriage among them--on which large segments of independents and conservatives agree.
There are signs the McCain campaign is beginning to understand the importance of conservatives. In late June, McCain met with a group of pro-family conservatives in Ohio. And the previous week, he took a break from talking energy to pound Obama for his embrace of the Supreme Court's Boumediene decision--a decision voters opposed 5 to 1.
There is another reason to do this. As NBC News political director Chuck Todd pointed out last week, many of those who are now calling themselves independents are likely to be conservatives disappointed with the Republican party. So winning support from independents and conservatives may, in many cases, be the same thing.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.