Wednesday, February 13, 2008

McCain and the Conservatives: A Look at the Numbers

Gallup's Frank Newport examines the polling data surrounding John McCain's conflict with the conservative base, over at USA Today.

McCain's got some problems, to be sure, although one can quibble with Newport's analysis:

McCain's percent of support among national Republicans has been going down over the last several days rather than up (in our Gallup Poll Daily Tracking). This suggests that he has yet to "close the sale" and move to the point where the vast majority of Republicans say they support him as their party's nominee. Right now that number is just about the 50% mark -- and, as noted, going down, not up.

Second, just 51% of Republicans in the weekend USA Today/Gallup
poll say they would be satisfied if John McCain ended up the winner in the Republican race. Almost as many say they would have preferred to see one of the ohter Republican candidates win.

Third, a tepid 34% of Republicans say that McCain is the best presidential candidate in 'your lifetime" or better than most candidates in your lifetime. I say that's tepid because the comparable number among Democrats about Barack Obama is 60% and among Democrats about Hillary Clinton is 62%. The Dems are in love with their candidates; the Repubs appear to be "in like" with theirs.

This all suggests that the problem for McCain may not just be that he displeases high profile conservatives. It may be that he displeases too many Republicans period.

Still, to some degree conservative Republicans are the Republican Party. Sixty-one percent of Republicans in the USA Today/Gallup poll call themselves conservative (the rest all almost all moderates; there are very few liberal Republicans). So it would be very difficult for McCain to be enjoying the relatively large lead that he has – 26 points over Mike Huckabee in the weekend Poll – if he didn’t have the support of a good number of conservatives.

Indeed, the facts of the matter are that McCain gets 53% of the support of all Republicans and 50% of conservative Republicans. Not a big difference. Among that smaller percent of Republicans who are moderate (and the few that are liberal), McCain’s support jumps to about 60% support.

So there is a slight tendency for conservative Republicans to be somewhat less likely than moderate Republicans to support McCain, as expected. Conservative Republicans haven’t abandoned McCain by any means. But their support is not overwhelming, and is below the level of moderate Republicans.

So McCain's standing obviously would go up if he made conservative Republicans happier. It would also go up if he made moderate Republicans happier. In general, it seems that McCain at the moment has the challenge of convincing any and all members of his party that he's an exciting candidate they should rally behind. Whether frantically focusing on attempts to burnish his bona fides as a conservative is the right (or only) way to do it is unclear.
Now, for the quibbles:

For one thing, it's an exaggeration to say that "conservative Republicans are the Republican Party." Hell, if that's the case, why do we call party fundamentalists the "conservative base."

Besides, if the conservative cohort is truly "the party," they've been taking an extended vacation this primary season! Somehow a RINO's stormed the gates of "the establishement" to snag the mantle of "presumptive nominee."

(And don't forget Nicholas Confessore's analysis last weekend, "
The Vanishing Establishment," where he notes that the hardline conservative movement's overestimated its own importance.)

Not only that, Newport's sticking with his own Gallup data, which offer a limited view of the total opinion environment. Recall that Pew's new survey shows a plurality of respondents seeing McCain as a genuine conservative.

exit polling from the Maryland and Virginia primaries last night found just one-third of voters identifying as "very conservative," and the Arizona Senator's decisive victories yesterday cast further doubt on the claims that McCain's not conservative enough for the Republican electorate.

Base conservatives will come around to McCain's ascendency in the party.

Rush Limbaugh's already
backing off his McCain attacks, amid growing evidence that far-right talk radio's got little power after all.