Home | Opinion | Columnists | Mark Mellman

Republicans' McCain problem

While the gaze of the commentariat has been firmly fixed on the Clinton-Obama contretemps, implicating as it did a former president and issues of race — subjects too juicy to ignore — another, more important story has gone unnoticed by many. Whatever limited divisions exist among Democrats, they pale in comparison to the GOP’s McCain problem.

Simply stated, John McCain is winning the Republican nomination without the party’s base and in the face of the publicly expressed antipathy for important leaders within that base.

McCain is winning the nomination without carrying conservatives, without carrying Evangelicals and without even carrying Republican identifiers. While that will almost certainly have changed on Super Tuesday, McCain became the putative nominee of the party without convincing its base that he should carry its banner.

In 2004, six voter segments gave 20-point margins or better to George Bush — Republican partisans, ideological conservatives, white Evangelicals, weekly churchgoers and gun owners. By any construction, that is the base of the Republican Party, and in the early contests, McCain was mostly unable to win these segments.

In South Carolina, McCain lost conservatives by nine points, Republican identifiers by seven points and weekly churchgoers by a huge 14-point margin.  Though he won Florida, McCain lost weekly churchgoers and white Evangelicals to Romney by two points, while losing conservatives by eight points. One group McCain did manage to rally to his cause were those GOP primary voters who disapprove of George Bush — hardly the party faithful.

None of this is by chance. It is the result neither of some geographical quirk, nor of some particular organizational failing. Rather, it reflects serious ideological and political fissures within the Republican Party.

Senate colleagues dislike him. One of those, Thad Cochran (Miss.), told The Boston Globe that “the thought of [McCain] being president sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me.”

Conservative columnist David Limbaugh took a more ideological tack, writing of McCain, “He is the anti-conservative. He instinctively sides against conservatives and relishes poking them in the eye.”

Leading conservative activists consider him a “traitor” and the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity pound away at him regularly. They argue he opposes core Republican values, labeling him anti-free speech, pro-taxes and supportive of illegal immigration. Whatever the truth of these allegations, they reflect clear differences over principles within the GOP.  
The conflict between Clinton and Obama has a fundamentally different character — two candidates facing off against one another throwing some elbows, even a punch or two. It’s natural; both want to win and they stand in each other’s way.  

Nonetheless, both are capturing elements of the Democratic base and no element of the party has declared either unacceptable. Indeed, most Democrats would be happy with either of the two candidates and more dread the choice than the outcome of the contest.

Hence, Pew reports 80 percent of Democrats are satisfied with their party’s candidates, compared to only 60 percent of Republicans who can say the same about theirs. Democrats are demonstrating their enthusiasm with open wallets and high turnout, while Republican ambivalence is reflected in lower relative turnout and a much less generous donor base.

To hold the conservative base going forward, however, McCain will have to genuflect ostentatiously to the far right, compromising his image of independence and alienating the very moderates he needs to win in November. Among Republicans, the price of unity will be high; while among Democrats, though unity may arrive later in the calendar, it will be achieved with much greater ease.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.