As the architect of Ohio’s ballot measure against gay marriage, Phil Burress helped draw thousands of conservative voters to the polls in 2004, most of whom also cast ballots to reelect President Bush. So Burress was not surprised when two high-level staffers from John McCain’s campaign dropped by his office, asking for his help this fall.
What surprised Burress was how badly the meeting went. He says he tried but failed to make the McCain team understand how much work remained to overcome the skepticism of social conservatives. Burress ended up cutting off the campaign officials as they spoke. “He doesn’t want to associate with us,” Burress now says of McCain, “and we don’t want to associate with him.”
That meeting and other run-ins with conservatives, some Republicans say, have revealed the depth of the challenge facing McCain: mollifying Republican constituencies that have distrusted many of his policy positions, in order to build the machinery needed to push voters to the polls in November.
If McCain tried to gather his volunteers in Ohio, “you could meet in a phone booth,” said radio host Bill Cunningham, who attacks the Arizona senator regularly on his talk show. “There’s no sense in this part of Ohio that John McCain is a conservative or that his election would have a material benefit to conservatism.”
Were McCain running on Bush’s 2004 strategy, fractures like these might be devastating. Bush and his chief political hand, Karl Rove, built their winning plan on exciting conservatives with hard-line, often religious-themed rhetoric and policy proposals, such as backing the same-sex-marriage ban and giving churches federal funds to perform social services.
But as the 2008 general-election campaign begins, it is clear this year will be different. Both McCain and presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama hope to energize core party activists, but each also hopes to win votes in the political center -- from the independents, moderate women, blue-collar whites and Latinos who tend to swing from one party to the other, and who are turned off by highly partisan rhetoric.
For McCain, who has spent four months since securing the GOP nomination stockpiling money and planning the fall campaign, these tasks may prove difficult to balance. As his run-ins with some conservatives here show, burnishing his image as an independent-minded Republican has sometimes left bruised feelings among reliable friends in the GOP base, who in the past have helped the party as voters and volunteers.
On the ground
Some Republicans say they are also troubled that the McCain campaign has not been faster to build a get-out-the-vote operation in Ohio, a state that is again expected to be a key battleground. These Republicans, who have a close-up view of events, worry that McCain will be overpowered by Obama’s ability to motivate activists.
“I’m going to be very honest with everyone in this room,” said Hamilton County GOP Chairman Alex Triantafilou as he threw his hands in the air during a speech last week at a Republican club dinner in suburban Cincinnati. “We are a little bit frustrated with the ability of the McCain campaign to get going.”
This time four years ago, Triantafilou recalled, he had already taken leave from his county government job to work full time for Bush’s reelection. “By June 1, we were humping hard on the presidential campaign,” he said. While waiting for the McCain team, the county party has launched a voter registration drive of its own.
Volunteers such as Triantafilou were crucial to the Republicans’ 2004 strategy, which entailed sorting through voting histories, church affiliation data and consumer information -- such as magazine subscriptions and grocery store purchases -- to identify millions of potential new conservative supporters. Then volunteers would visit or call these people and urge them to vote.
Many political analysts say the strategy played a large role in Bush’s reelection. Bush won Ohio, for example, by about 120,000 votes -- roughly equal to the combined margins of victory in the GOP-leaning communities around Cincinnati, where the voter-identification plan was used heavily.
This time, Republican officials say, they are preparing to use these “data mining” techniques to reach voters, but will point the strategy at an additional segment of the electorate: the independent and swing voters whom Obama is targeting too.
For McCain, the challenge is to win enough of these voters to make up for a potential lack of passion among conservatives, and he is betting that his image as an independent and his moderate views on issues such as global warming will help. McCain is positioned to “find a new layer of voters . . . that’s probably not available to the average Republican,” said Mike DuHaime, a McCain campaign advisor.
In Ohio, McCain will target blue-collar workers outside Cleveland and Youngstown, and in the state’s Appalachian counties in the southeast, who turned their backs on Obama in his primary contest with Hillary Rodham Clinton.
GOP officials also say that new voter-identification technology will help them make up for any falloff in conservative zeal. For example, volunteers will survey voters on special Internet phones that automatically insert their answers into the party’s massive database, called “Voter Vault.” The phone calls are used to identify potential new supporters by asking a series of questions about issues and candidates. In the past, volunteers and party staff would have spent hours typing information into the database.
Officials said the system was tested in a number of local elections last year, including the Canton, Ohio, mayoral race.
A new angle
The net that Republican officials are casting for potential supporters is wider than in the past. Party leaders in recent weeks have met with evangelicals, hunters, African Americans and Latinos, as in the past. But they have even started conversations with representatives from the gay and lesbian community.
“These meetings have been fascinating,” said Ohio GOP spokesman John McClelland, “and we’re getting new views.”
And Republican officials say that they have in recent days begun installing state and regional directors, and that offices are beginning to open this month in Ohio and other battlegrounds.
Democrats, too, are adjusting their strategy in Ohio and elsewhere, as they examine how to shape the general election around the unusual biography of the country’s first black presidential nominee.
The state Democratic Party last year conducted a major poll on voter attitudes that included questions on race and gender, in anticipation of a black or female nominee. Party officials said those results have helped them create a plan to target independents and conservatives, which entails recruiting neighborhood-level volunteers with local credibility to make the case for Obama. That means finding white volunteers to help in rural and exurban counties that went for Bush in 2004 and for Clinton in the primary.
In addition, about 10 Obama staff members are at work in Ohio registering voters, with an emphasis on African Americans and other core supporters. And the campaign has begun talks with a top strategist for Ohio’s popular Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, who was an early Clinton backer.
But as both campaigns aim for voters in the less ideologically driven center, McCain may have the tougher challenge in retaining voters in his party’s base at the same time. A falling-out he had with Cunningham, the radio talk show host, shows the problem.
Cunningham’s anger traces back to February, when he was asked to introduce McCain at a rally in Cincinnati. In warming up the crowd, the talk show host repeatedly mentioned Obama’s middle name -- Hussein -- in a way that some found disparaging.
When he learned of Cunningham’s introduction, McCain apologized and said: “I absolutely repudiate such comments.”
McCain’s move left some hard feelings, and Cunningham is now attacking him regularly on the airwaves. “I think he was doing what he needed to do for his national audience, but it didn’t do much to endear him to local people, how he treated Cunningham,” said Republican activist Christa Criddle, who volunteered for Bush in 2004 but has decided to focus her time this year on local elections.
She added: “A lot of people were not very happy.”
Burress, who led the successful campaign for a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage, said he would vote for McCain, largely because he said an Obama victory would lead to new liberal Supreme Court justices and more emphasis on abortion rights. And he suspects that McCain’s coolness toward conservatives could be a calculated gamble to win centrists.
But he will not work directly for McCain, and he suspects that many conservatives will stay home on election day.
“They think we have no place to go [other than the Republican Party], and in some respects, that’s true,” Burress said. “But it’s going to take a whole lot more than that for him to win.”
Wait and see
Unlike Bush before him, McCain might be forced to build his campaign without volunteers like Lori Viars, who lives in exurban Warren County and runs the Family First Political Action Committee. Four years ago, she spent months working on the Bush campaign. This time, she’s holding back, waiting to see if McCain picks a “strong pro-family, pro-life conservative” as his running mate.
“In 2004, it was six days a week. I didn’t see my family,” she said.
“I’ve got to be really motivated to do that again.”