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Why McCain is still in it

Nate Silver is the founder of FiveThirtyEight.com, a political website.

Barack Obama seems to enjoy some enormous advantages over John McCain in their pursuit of the White House. Polls show that more than eight out of 10 Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. The Republican brand is in tatters because of the Iraq war and the economic slowdown. And Obama is on pace to raise more money than any presidential candidate in history.

But since clinching the Democratic nomination June 3, Obama has consistently held only a four-percentage-point lead, on average, over McCain in national polls. The website Pollster.com lists 72 such polls conducted since June 3, and in only four of them -- including the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll in June -- does the presumptive Democratic nominee have a lead of 10 or more points.

That’s led some reporters to conclude that Obama is underachieving. “Why is he not doing better?” Adam Nagourney of the New York Times recently asked. “Why hasn’t Obama closed the deal?” echoed columnist Linda Chavez in the New York Post.

This perception chiefly exists because of the Democrats’ substantial advantages in party affiliation. Across several different polls asking registered voters to identify which party they align with, Democrats have about a 10-point edge. Democrats also maintain about a 12-point edge in polls that ask whether respondents intend to vote for the Democrat or the Republican in their local race for Congress. These numbers represent a significant improvement for Democrats from 2004, when the electorate was more or less evenly split between the two parties. In comparison with these double-digit advantages, Obama seems to be underperforming.

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Perhaps there should be nothing surprising about this. Other Democratic presidential nominees have done even less with similar partisan advantages. In 1980, for instance, Democrats had a 15-point edge in party identification over the Republicans -- yet Ronald Reagan crushed Jimmy Carter by 10 points. Likewise in 1988, Michael Dukakis lost substantially to George H.W. Bush in spite of a slight edge in partisan identification. Although Democratic disloyalty in these races could in part be traced to the weakness of the party’s candidates, overall, since 1976, only 80% of Democrats, on average, have voted for their party’s presidential candidate, compared with 87% of Republicans.

Why does this Democratic loyalty gap exist? One possible reason is that in a party made up of multiple interest groups, differences of opinion are more likely. The breadth of the Democratic Party base was revealed during the primary campaign, when more than 35 million voters split their votes between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama across every conceivable racial, religious and socioeconomic line. Coal miners in West Virginia are, by and large, still Democrats, but so increasingly are hedge-fund managers in Virginia.

In congressional elections, this isn’t a problem. The candidate can set his pitch to his or her district. But presidential elections are one-size-fits-all events -- what works in Wheeling, W.Va., may not work in Whittier, Calif. Ironically then, the more diverse and broad-based a party is, the more likely its members are to split their tickets.

For a party to represent a broad coalition of supporters is a nice problem to have. But it does mean that a Democratic nominee, who will appeal to some segments of his party but not to others, will tend to underperform his party’s advantage on the generic ballot question of Democrat versus Republican.

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But neither McCain nor Obama can be considered a generic candidate, because both enjoy strong appeal among independent voters. This is particularly the case for McCain, who has largely managed to avoid the stigma attached to the tarnished Republican brand. In a recent poll conducted for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, only 31% of voters had a favorable view of the Republican Party, compared with 48% who held a negative one. But McCain’s numbers were nearly the reverse: 42% viewed him positively, against 30% unfavorably.

How has McCain done it? It has mostly to do with his reputation as a moderate. In that same NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 21% of voters said they viewed McCain as “very conservative,” while 34% pegged him as a moderate. As long as he maintains his moderate brand, McCain will seem acceptable to some large number of independent voters and some smaller number of Democrats.

This is predicted by something known as the “median voter theorem,” which essentially holds that as the electorate shifts ideologically -- that is, to the right or left -- the candidates will tend to shift along with it to narrow their ideological differences with the average voter. Over the last several years, the electorate has shifted leftward -- and the two parties have responded accordingly in this year’s presidential race. The GOP will nominate a candidate who is widely perceived as being to the left of the party’s conservative base, whereas the Democratic Party will again pick a standard-bearer more authentically liberal than centrist.

In terms of party principles, the Democrats have already won the election. The party’s liberal base didn’t have to compromise on its candidate, whereas a substantial number of conservative Republicans did.

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But the Republicans seem wise to have compromised, because polling showed that Obama was headed for a landslide victory if his opponent was an identifiably right-wing candidate.

According to polling averages compiled by the website RealClearPolitics, at the time they discontinued their respective presidential bids, Fred Thompson trailed Obama by 12 percentage points, Mitt Romney was behind by 15 and Mike Huckabee by 17. For that matter, a recent poll from Rasmussen Reports showed Obama leading President Bush by 20 percentage points in a hypothetical matchup.

McCain has managed to retain his reputation as a moderate and thereby avoid the fate of his conservative former rivals of falling far behind Obama. And so Democrats will aim to undermine McCain’s perceived moderation -- by possibly highlighting his rightward shifts during the Republican primaries and by attempting to tie him to Bush. The problem for Obama is not so much that he’s underperforming a generic Democrat. It’s that he hasn’t yet been able to re-brand McCain as a typically conservative Republican.


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