In theory, Wednesday’s fifth anniversary of the launch of the Iraq war should serve to reinforce the many reasons why the Republicans are doomed to lose the White House in 2008. The war already cost the party both houses of Congress less than 18 months ago, and even though a recent drop in violence has relaxed some of the urgency of their opposition, polls still find voters are against the war by a better than two-to-one margin.
And yet: John McCain is remarkably well positioned to overcome the war and just about every other liability that has so poisoned the Republican brand.
First, consider in numerical terms just how grim state of the G.O.P. is right now. George W. Bush’s approval rating, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this week, sits at 32 percent, a figure that tracks almost perfectly with the number of voters—33 percent—who say they like how he’s handling the Iraq war. And on a personal level, only 34 percent of voters view Bush positively, compared to 55 percent who don’t.
Moreover, just 20 percent of voters believe the country is on the right track, only 34 percent have a favorable view of Republicans in Congress, and by a 49-35 percent margin, voters say they’d prefer that Democrats control Congress.
In theory, this should add up to a lopsided, almost hopeless deficit for whoever runs at the top of this year’s G.O.P. ticket. The numbers bear this out, too: By a 50-37 percent spread, voters say they’d support an unnamed Democratic presidential candidate over an unnamed Republican candidate. The margin is even wider among those with the strongest opinions.
Which makes McCain’s standing in head-to-head match-ups with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama pretty extraordinary. The same NBC/WSJ poll found McCain trailing Obama by a statistically insignificant three points, and Clinton by just two. Just about every other recent poll has found the same result; some have even put McCain in the lead.
Granted, there may be some extenuating circumstances at work here. For instance, the protracted and contentious Clinton-Obama fight has frayed Democratic unity and might be artificially enhancing McCain’s numbers, with Obama voters telling pollsters they’d back McCain over the other Democrat and Clinton voters doing the same. And McCain, free from the attacks of his vanquished primary rivals, has basically been able to take uncontested shots at both of the Democratic candidates for a month now.
But that doesn’t really explain McCain’s surprising strength. After all, does anyone think Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee would be running even with the Democrats right now?
What separates McCain from his fellow Republicans, and what could allow him to transcend his parties massive woes this fall, is his enormous personal appeal and the respect voters have for his character and integrity—and the way these sentiments shape the public’s assessment of McCain on specific issues.
The NBC/WSJ poll pegged McCain’s personal favorability at 47 percent, to only 27 percent unfavorable—essentially a complete reversal of Bush’s numbers and basically on par with Obama’s (and significantly better than Clinton’s). And a separate Gallup poll also released this week gave McCain a 67 percent favorable rating, his best ever in that poll.
What’s more, the NBC/WSJ survey showed that 52 percent of voters give high marks to McCain for his honesty, compared to 52 percent for Obama and 33 percent for Clinton; and 61 percent rate him as someone who would be a good commander in chief, while just 43 percent feel the same about Clinton and 41 percent about Obama. McCain’s numbers are also off the charts when it comes to his experience.
Since most voters do not follow the nuances and intricacies of policy debates, it is these gut-level assessments that end up playing a decisive role in how they assess the candidates’ views on issues.
Take the Iraq war. By all accounts, McCain is on the wrong side of public opinion on this. He began agitating for a U.S. invasion back in the 1990’s and has blocked any and every Congressional attempt to scale back the war and to begin a withdrawal. Especially since last year’s troop-level increase, his position on the war has been essentially indistinguishable from Bush’s.
But this is evidently not the McCain that the masses see when they think of Iraq, because while voters tells pollsters that they oppose the war and abhor the way Bush is handling it, they also say—according to the NBC/WSJ numbers—that McCain, and not Clinton or Obama, has the best prescription for prosecuting the war. This phenomenon was apparent in the primaries, too, when McCain’s winning margin in New Hampshire came courtesy of the overwhelming support he received from antiwar independents and Republicans—the very people he accused of wanting to “surrender” in Iraq.
The power of McCain’s personal appeal and character should alarm Democrats. Sure, they’ll have every advantage in the fall on just about every conceivable issue. But with John McCain, it might not be worth much.