How the Conservative Base Learned to Stop Hating McCain

There’s a conventional view that John McCain faces an impossible political balancing act.

He badly needs his party’s conservative base to stand with him in November, but that base doesn’t particularly like or trust him. However, if he reins in his more moderate instincts and caters to these activists with the purity and intensity they demand, he’ll do irreparable harm to his standing with independent voters. And, especially with the number of Republican-identifying voters dwindling, victory this fall is unthinkable without substantial independent support.

But is McCain’s predicament problem with his base actually as dire as all that? The most recent data from Gallup, whose daily tracking poll has shown McCain within a few points of Barack Obama for weeks now, has him winning conservative Republicans – that is to say, the Republican base – by a 90-6 percent margin. That’s basically identical to the 92-5 percent spread that Obama enjoys among liberal Democrats. Both candidates, it seems, are faring just fine with their party’s truest believers.

The right’s embrace of McCain probably has little to do with anything he’s actually done. Sure, he’s taken some steps – particularly with his about-face on off-shore oil drilling – that have moved him more into line with prevailing conservative opinion, but it’s not as if the activists who have viewed McCain with suspicion and hostility for the past decade have suddenly decided that he’s one of them. Polling seems to confirm this, too: another recent survey found that just 13 percent of conservatives are “very enthusiastic” about supporting McCain.

The combination of this low enthusiasm and the high number of conservatives who say they will vote for McCain anyway speaks to the powerful force that has united the right behind McCain: deep and passionately-felt personal animosity toward Obama.

It’s become customary for the base of one party to treat the other party’s national leaders with personal contempt and disdain. In the ‘80s, the left relentlessly attacked Ronald Reagan as a senile and racist war-monger. In the ‘90s, the right pushed all sorts of ghastly and baseless rumors about Bill Clinton – including those that tied him to drug trafficking and murder. And the left’s animosity toward George W. Bush this decade is well documented – and has, in many ways, been transferred to McCain.

But there is something altogether different – something almost primal – about the hostility Obama seems to be provoking from the right. Encouraged by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and all of the usual suspects, right-wing activists have convinced themselves that Obama himself is a fundamentally anti-American and anti-Western figure. They seem motivated not merely by the usual personal distaste for a political opponent but by outright fear and hatred.

“It terrifies me – the thought that he might be our commander in chief, might be in the Oval Office, might be the leader of the free world,” James Dobson recently said on Hannity’s radio show. He added: “The man is dangerous.”

What is said on the air, as harsh as it is, is tame compared to what can be found on the internet, where Obama is referred to by conservative commenters as often as not with his middle name, Hussein. He is usually portrayed in some combination of the following ways: as a Muslim, as terrorist-sympathizer, as a Socialist or a Communist, and as a black radical or separatist.

Here’s one fairly typical attack, from a Catholic-themed blog: “Barrack Hussein Obama bin Laden (I know that’s not really his full name, but I am making a point) is even worse in that he does not show ANY hints of Christian notion in his voting records. His views do not even line up with the natural law, regardless of religion. Therefore, he and the other politicians who condone abortions ARE terrorist.”

On a different site, a commenter wrote: “I can’t imagine why Obama doesn’t want us in Iraq/Iran or where his brothers are killing those that aren’t believers, and we would try to stop them.”

When someone stepped in to note that Obama is not actually a Muslim (never mind the presumption of an automatic link between Islam and terrorism), another commenter offered this retort: “Obama a christian? I’m sorry. He took his oath on the Quran. A book that says, ‘Death to all infidels at whatever cost’. This is the guy you want to be in charge? Sure way to fail in our beliefs, our customs, and our way of life.”

“Obama is a socialist as everyone knows,” wrote a commenter who called him or herself (appropriately enough) “Obama is very socialist.” Another offered that: “Well, socialist is too mild a word — communist maybe! Islamic Jihadist? Black Power radical? Do Nothing? Empty suit? Arrogant ******* (yes, he is — his mother was not married to his father).”

Granted, picking out a handful of inflammatory, anonymous online quotes can be a deceptive exercise.Not all conservative activists who are opposed to Obama are motivated by the animosity evident in the above comments. And certainly, there are plenty of hateful anti-McCain comments on the web.

A few things stand out about the anti-Obama comments, though. One is their volume. Check out any online news story– whether it’s posted on an ideological site or a traditional news site – and you’ll almost certainly find the comments section littered with highly personal attacks on Obama himself – not his politics. Also noteworthy is that the crudest and most overtly racist comments seem to flow too easily from the themes that right-wing media personalities have been pressing against Obama: The journey from Hannity’s obsessive focus on Obama’s “radical friends” and Coulter’s obsessive mentioning of his middle name to the vitriol printed above isn’t far at all.

What’s most remarkable about the comments is the timing of their emergence. Six months ago, the same comments sections that are now awash in Obama hatred were havens for McCain-haters from the right – the conservative true believers who wanted desperately to deny him the G.O.P. nomination. Obama came in for his share of attacks back then, but the volume was nothing like it is today.

Now, though, the most prominent anti-McCain voices online come from the left. The right’s primary season antipathy toward McCain has mostly vanished. But it’s been replaced not by love for McCain, but by hatred of Obama. It’s a trend that seems to explain why conservatives are so unexcited about McCain – and yet willing to vote for him overwhelmingly.

The potential implications of this are significant.

If the McCain concludes that these conservatives are locked in, it would liberate the candidate to pursue moderate and independent voters more aggressively. No matter how much this might irritate conservatives, it would still pale in comparison to their fear of Obama.

It could cut into the enthusiasm gap. Since few Republicans tell pollsters they are excited about McCain – while many Democrats say they’re enthusiastic about Obama – analysts have been speculating that much of the Republican base will simply stay home in November and not vote. But have they been looking at this the wrong way? If conservative hatred of Obama is as palpable and deep as it seems, that’s motivation enough for the base to show up and to vote Republican this fall – even with McCain at the top of the ticket.

How the Conservative Base Learned to Stop Hating McCain