Conventional wisdom has it that McCain’s only hope to win in the general election is for Hillary to undemocratically wrest the nomination from Obama, which would depress Democratic turnout in the general and provide McCain with an unpopular opponent. A Obama nomination would have too much emotional momentum, too much excitement, and contrast all-too-favorably against McCain’s angry-old-man candidacy. Just look at the turnout! Democrats are heading to the polls in twice the numbers of Republicans in many states, and that’s due to the historic nature of the contest — an enthusiasm inextricably attached to Obama, and that will undoubtedly carry over into the fall. What’s more, the conservative base hates McCain and would just as soon stay home than vote for “Amnesty John.”
I am familiar with this argument because I have espoused it.
But conventional wisdom has turned out to look pretty stupid this entire cycle, so I paid attention when a Republican adviser called to make a counter argument. Allow me to paraphrase. First of all, he argued, Republicans are not going to stay home. A core group may not like McCain, but the guy has favorability ratings within the GOP in the high 80s; the people that don’t like him, well, they REALLY don’t like Democrats. And they HATE the press; the more the media tells them how divided they are, the more likely they’ll show up just to stick it to the MSM. But that’s not how McCain will win a general anyway. He’ll win a general against Obama because independents will wind up coming back to him. They’ll come back to him because Obama is an orthodox liberal Democrat who has been able to run as someone who is “above politics” because, compared to Clinton’s partisan-vote-grubbing, he looks noble and pure.
In a general, Obama won’t be running against Clinton, he’ll be running against McCain, a politician that has actually taken political risks and endured the wrath of party hacks in order to make progress on real issues: “What has Obama done? Show me a single issue or piece of legislation where Obama has done something politically unpopular in order to move forward toward a greater goal.” I pointed out that this argument hasn’t made much of a difference so far. Ah, replied the adviser, “That’s because Clinton can’t show that she’s done it, either.” What’s more, he said, the press will stop giving Obama a free ride in the general. McCain will be out there, holding court on his bus or his plane, providing unfettered access to both reporters and voters, and journalists will no longer be able to ignore Obama’s lack of access and lack of interaction with real people. In fact, it’ll be the only thing they talk about.
This latter part of this argument puts a lot of faith in reporters eventually turning on Obama, and on stemming what is — all together now — a “movement,” which I don’t necessarily see happening. (Also depends a lot on continued “success in Iraq,” or at least it staying off the front page.) But the first part may have more purchase in historic reality. David Freddoso has pulled together turnout data going back over 20 years and it turns out that Democrats are, in general, more enthusiastic than Republicans about their primaries — and it hasn’t helped them in general elections:
In the open election of 1988, 23 million Democrats voted in primaries, as did 12 million Republicans. Yes, you’re reading that correctly. Nearly twice as many Democrats voted. That was a precursor to President Michael Dukakis’s election.
In 1980, Democrats actually had an incumbent president, who was challenged by Ted Kennedy. Republicans, meanwhile, had a competitive primary between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Democrats cast 16.1 million votes in their primaries that year, compared to just (corrected) 12.7 million for Republicans. We all know what happened in Jimmy Carter’s second term, don’t we?
My adviser pal’s theory has almost nothing to do with policy or debating actual issues — it’s almost entirely a function of narrative and character. One could argue that’s how Obama has gotten this far himself.
In any case, presented for the sake of an alternate take.
UPDATE: Headline typo fixed. Yipes.