As we slog through the seemingly unending mire of the Democratic primaries, a meme has taken hold: the longer Obama battles Clinton, the more likely it is that McCain will win the election. Nonsense. McCain is a weak candidate in a year when Republicans are running against their own party. Barring some unforeseen catastrophe, there will be a Democrat in the White House come January. Take heart, ye who have suffered under Republicans for too long: change is coming. Here's why McCain can't win.
1. The economy
In 2004, the war and terror dominated people's priorities. When asked, 42% identified it as their number one concern. The economy was important, but substantially less so--only 26% thought it was the burning issue. In 2008, those numbers are reversed; 37% cite the economy, and only 29% cite Iraq and terror. Add the 20% who cite health care and gas prices as the paramount issues, and you have 57% of the public worried about pocketbook issues. McCain's response? A lame summer holiday from the gas tax, more privatization as the cure for health care, and making Bush's tax cuts permanent. His argument that cutting government waste can make up for lost revenues is poignant for being so wrong--and it's hardly convincing. McCain has said he doesn't understand or care about the economy. That ignorance will be fatal.
Women vote in greater numbers than men and they typically lean toward Democrats. In 2000, women voted in favor of Gore 54-43%. And though they were a larger bloc in '04 (54-46%), women voted almost evenly for Bush and Kerry. Bush managed to swing this by appealing to evangelical women and the so-called "security moms." It is difficult to imagine a repeat of that pattern in 2008. Even if Hillary isn't the nominee, her election has brought a large number of women into the process. The issues this year are economic, not security, and the evangelical coalition is weakening, leaving women without a compelling reason to cross over from their natural allegiance. In current polling, Obama enjoys a 13-point advantage over women against McCain, and Hillary a 14-point lead.
3. Democratic demographic shift
Even before this primary process, which has been a remarkable tool for bringing in Democratic voters, there was a huge shift in party identification. Four years ago, Dems had only a slight advantage, with a 33-29% edge. Last year, when Pew polled people again, that advantage had swollen to 50-35%. And if the primaries so far have been any measure, the GOP are not winning the crossover battle nor the turnout battle, and Dems will consolidate this lead at election time.
First of all, let's start with intensity. Take a couple of battleground states from back when the GOP race was still competitive. In New Hampshire, roughly 52,000 more people voted Democratic than GOP. In Missouri, a whopping 235,000 more turned out to vote Democratic than Republican--and that's in a state that voted for Bush by a 7-point margin. The pattern repeats itself even in states like Alabama (2004 result, Bush by 26%) where total votes on the Dem side were only 23,000 fewer than the GOP out of 1.1 million cast.
And the numbers of crossover voters isn't even close. In New Hampshire--the state that twice made McCain--125,000 independents voted Dem while only 86,000 voted GOP. In Missouri, 180,000 indies voted Dem, and only 135,000 voted GOP.
4. Splintering coalitions
The factions that kept Bush in the White House are not going to elect to put John McCain there. Bush's most reliable voters were Christian evangelicals. He picked up 61% of frequent church-goers, and won 79% of evangelical voters. Even more importantly, these were the foot-soldiers who got out the vote and gave Bush the largest total in American history. McCain has never been appealing to evangelicals, and his John Hagee debacle demonstrates how out of touch with this constituency he is. He may still win a majority of these votes, but in a year not animated by social issues, they won't be his free labor source and far fewer will show up to vote. (There's reason to believe he's got a closet full of skeletons that will further erode this faction.)
While Democrats don't understand why Republicans chafe at McCain's "maverick" ways, it's clear that his stand on immigration and campaign finance have put him in poor stead with two other reliable constituencies. These will further dampen the intensity of the base, a beleaguered lot who aren't excited about the election in the first place.
5. McCain's faults
The press loves to talk about what "flawed" candidates Obama and Clinton are, but the negatives for McCain are worse. For starters, he's 72, and that bothers more than a quarter of voters. In a year of change, a dinosaur is not the horse the GOP should be riding. His tendency toward anger, should it flare up in the debates again, will exacerbate fears about his age. Comics are already ridiculing his age, and if he turns into a cranky old guy, he could become a caricature by November.
And there are more substantive faults, too. His squeaky-clean image will be badly tarnished when more people learn about his history of marital infidelity and corruption. Cindy McCain earlier this year fiercely scolded Michelle Obama, but her history with John makes her a bigger liability:
McCain was still married and living with his wife in 1979 while, according to The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, "aggressively courting a 25-year-old woman who was as beautiful as she was rich." McCain divorced his wife, who had raised their three children while he was imprisoned in Vietnam, then launched his political career with his new wife's family money.
Cindy is, moreover, the heiress to a beer distributorship, and her money and family connections helped launch McCain's political career. He has kept his finances separate from hers, but in the general election, her wealth will become a major factor. What was the relationship between a powerful senator and a wealthy family? The calls for Cindy to release her tax records have begun, and they will only intensify.
Finally, there's the issue of corruption. McCain's history with the Keating 5 may be old history, but it will be brandished like a club whenever the GOP try to smear Democrats. There may be further evidence of double dealing; a recent example in Harper's Magazine, which detailed the money and people behind McCain's Reform Institute. And these kinds of stories will only increase in frequency.
6. The 45% barrier
All of these lead to a situation we can already document. Despite having the field to himself, with no scrutiny whatsoever, and a heated, poll-denting battle between Obama and Clinton, McCain still can't break 45% in the polls. These are McCain's salad days, before America hears about the scandals, starts thinking about his age, watches him melt down in debates, and sees constant attacks from the right and left. If he can't break 45% now, when exactly is he going to?
McCain is this year's Bob Dole, a loyal soldier the GOP have honored by nominating as their candidate. And he will surely suffer Dole's fate in November.