A flood of recent polls suggests the 2008 election will once again display the "Iron Law" of 21st century Republican presidential politics. That is, with Americans showing an overwhelming preference for Democratic positions across virtually the entire spectrum of issues, the GOP has to make the race about something else. This year as in 2000 and 2004, the Republicans will try to turn the race into a presidential personality contest. And to win it, they need to manufacture a "character gap" between John McCain and Barack Obama.
Two surveys in the past week show the Republicans' dilemma. First, a new Rasmussen poll revealed that voters trust Democrats more than Republicans on each and every one of the 10 issues measured. Democrats enjoy double-digit advantages on the economy (50%-36%), government ethics (45%-26%), health care (54%-33%), Social Security (49%-36%), education (50%-35%), Iraq (50%-39%) and immigration (45%-35%). The GOP lags by smaller margins on national security, taxes and abortion.
Meanwhile, an ABC News/Washington Post poll similarly reflects the devastating impact for the GOP of Americans' record-setting disapproval for President Bush and the direction of the country...With 82% of respondents now believing the U.S. has gone off the rails, Democrats have built a massive 21 point cushion (53%-32%) as the party Americans trust to "do a better job in coping with the main problems the nation faces over the next few years."
Those lopsided results are consistent with an April poll from Rasmussen which found that "election 2008 is creating record numbers of Democrats." The results showed a 10-point Democratic advantage in party identification (41.4% to 31.4%), almost double the margin one year earlier. That delta is unprecedented:
"In fact, the Democrats now have the largest partisan advantage over the Republicans since Rasmussen Reports began tracking this data on a monthly basis nearly six years ago."
The calculus is simple. If Americans vote the issues, Republicans lose. Which is why character matters more than policy to the Republican faithful.
In early May, yet another Rasmussen survey showed that by a 52% to 36% margin, Americans contend that a candidate's policies on the issues matter more than his or her character. Unsurprisingly, given Americans' clear support for Democratic positions and priorities, Republicans instead responded that character counts most.
The Rasmussen findings show a sharp partisan cleavage over the importance of candidate's policies versus character. By a two-to-one margin, Democrats said policy positions matter most. But Republican respondents argued the reverse, with character trumping issues by 49% to 43%. Among independents, policy proposals rank as more important, by 49% to 32%. As a result, the Rasmussen poll like the later ABC/WaPo survey showed a dramatic advantage for the Democratic Party in a generic presidential match-up:
"The survey found that 48% of the nation's adults are inclined to vote for a Democratic Presidential candidate while 34% prefer a Republican."
Which is precisely why the Republican Party cannot let the 2008 election be about the issues.
As Rasmussen suggests, thus far the GOP has been very successful in converting the White House race into a personality contest in which the supposed maverick John McCain is amazingly competitive at a time of almost universal disdain for his party and its policies:
"In fact, one of the most significant stories so far in Election 2008 is the way that John McCain significantly outperforms the Republican brand. On a series of key issues, the Democrats are trusted more than the GOP but McCain is trusted more than either Democrat."
As I noted recently, John McCain has been the beneficiary of both the bitter (and endless) Democratic race and the seeming imperviousness of the media's McCain maverick myth. For example, on the economy, Americans prefer Democrats over Republicans by 48% to 40%. Yet in head-to-head matchups, voters say they trust John McCain over both Hillary Clinton (47% to 42%) and Barack Obama (46% to 39%). Despite John McCain's repeated admissions that "the issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should," right now Americans trust him more than his Democratic rivals on the issue they consider most important in 2008. On Iraq, national security and taxes as well, McCain is also seen as more trustworthy. Even with the albatross of a disrespected Republican president and a discredited GOP brand, John McCain may be winning the character war.
Sadly, we've been here before. The 2000 and 2004 exit polls clearly show the Republican Party succeeded both in portraying the presidential contest as being about character and in defining the accepted media narrative for candidates Bush, Gore and Kerry. Eight years ago, 24% of voters claimed being "honest/trustworthy" was the quality that mattered most; among them, George W. Bush trounced Al Gore by 80% to 15%. In 2004, Bush walloped the supposed flip-flopper John Kerry by 70% to 29% among those claiming honesty was the most important presidential attribute. Among those wanting a "strong leader," Bush swamped Kerry by a staggering 75 points.
In his 2007 book The Big Con, Jonathan Chait described how Republicans consistently win elections despite almost universal disdain for their policies among the American people. In a nutshell, Chait argues that Republicans must convert elections into contests of character because they simply can't win on issues. While their man, be it George W. Bush or John McCain, is the "authentic" guy you'd "like to have a beer with," the GOP drives the media conventional wisdom that paints the likes of Al Gore, John Kerry and now Barack Obama as effete, out-of-touch elitists whose positions change with the wind:
"Media outlets functionally affiliated with the Republican Party have been able to create news that makes its way into the nonpartisan media. It is a kind of machine that manufactures images of character.
The Republicans' seminal insight was that the random process by which small events come to wield great symbolic insight into the character of presidential candidates didn't have to be random. It was possible to prime the pump, in a way." (p.169)
The data is clear. If the election is about the economy, health care and Iraq, John McCain cannot become the 44th president. Only if the GOP succeeds once again in transforming the race into a media medley about lapel pins, angry ministers and Muslim-sounding middle names can the Republicans hope to maintain their hold on the White House.
The right-wing media machine is already hard at work on producing the 2008 version of the character gap. The supposed elitism of Barack Obama (and not the perpetually out-of-touch John McCain) has already emerged as an indispensable, if demonstrably false, conservative story line. In Monday's New York Times, Bill Kristol extolled McCain's "exceptionalism." Meanwhile, uber lobbyist and McCain senior adviser Charlie Black now labels his man "slightly right of center" after just weeks ago airing a McCain television spot titled, "True Conservative." No doubt, McCain's move to the center and away from his president and his party is well underway.
All the more reason why the Democratic Party needs to move beyond its interminable nominating process and begin the demolition of John McCain's maverick myth. To win the war for the White House, Democrats need to win the battles for Americans' hearts - and minds.