The temptation to compare to John McCain's 2008 campaign and Bob Dole's failed 1996 White House bid is natural, if not always illuminating. After all, both Dole and McCain are septuagenarian war heroes whose great sacrifices for their country are rightly honored and respected across the political spectrum. But despite the clear differences in the political landscape then and now, a new poll from the Pew Research Center suggests that John McCain '08 is in important ways following in the footsteps of Bob Dole '96.
Here's the good, the bad and the ugly of the Pew data for John McCain.
The good news for John McCain is that he's faring better than Bob Dole at the same point in the 1996 campaign. By mid-July 12 years ago, Bob Dole trailed Bill Clinton by 17 points (50% to 33%) in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. In contrast, John McCain trails Barack Obama by only 48% to 40%, and enjoys a clear edge among voters ages 65 and over (44% to 37%).
The latter number reflects Americans' apparent growing comfort with John McCain on the age issue. Whereas 31% of Americans felt then 73 year old Bob Dole was "too old" to be President back in 1996, Pew reported only 21% of respondents say the same about John McCain now, a 5 point drop since February.
But the bright spots largely end there.
The bad news for the McCain camp is that their man is encountering an "enthusiasm gap" potentially as damaging as the one that undermined Dole's '96 bid. In a nutshell, Republicans aren't excited about John McCain. And for all of the hype about disappointed supporters of Hillary Clinton, women in general and her backers in particular are lining up behind Barack Obama:
- Only 49% of Republicans surveyed are satisfied with the candidates, compared to 74% of Democrats. The figure for GOP supporters is even worse than in 1996, when 50% were content with the Clinton-Dole choice.
- Worse still, only14% of McCain backers "strongly support" their man, compared to 28% for Barack Obama. In 1996, Bob Dole claimed a similarly anemic 13%.
- Contrary to the hype of a Democratic rift, Hillary Clinton's supporters back Barack Obama over John McCain by a whopping 69% to 17% margin. Women overall back Obama by a 14-point margin, greater than that enjoyed by either John Kerry or Al Gore.
- Pew reported record high engagement in the 2008 race, with 72% of those polled saying they've given "quite a lot" of thought to the election.
- In a final grim omen for McCain and the GOP, that skyrocketing interest comes at a time when party identification is moving quickly to the Democrat's advantage. While Bob Dole faced only a three-point deficit (35% to 32%) in 1996, John McCain is encountering a 9% handicap as Democrats outnumber Republicans 37% to 28%.
It comes as no surprise that John McCain's "Dole-drums" are especially pronounced when it comes to 2008's most important issue, the economy. McCain, after all, lags Barack Obama by a 20 point spread (51% to 31%) on the economy, and despite his promise to extend the Bush tax cuts, by 11% on taxes (47% to 36%). McCain's performance is even worse than Bob Dole's in July 1996, when those polled said President Bill Clinton could do a better job handling the economy by 11 points.
And to be sure, the McCain and Dole campaigns display eerie similarities when it comes to their stale economic proposals - and Americans' dismal reaction to them. In 1996, Bob Dole's across-the-board 15% tax cut was seen as a budget-busting pander. As Stephen Roach, then chief economist for Morgan Stanley put it:
"There is not one shred of credible evidence on how Dole will pay for his plan. Fully 65% of the revenue breaks are to be financed by nothing more than wishful thinking. This is as vague as it gets."
Fast forward 12 years to John McCain's tax plan and his almost comical promise of a first-term balanced budget through "victory" in Iraq and Afghanistan, unspecified cuts to entitlements programs and trimming earmarks, which is being panned in almost identical language. Even the 300 economists who signed a letter backing John McCain don't believe it.
As for John McCain's gas tax holiday, a gimmick designed to help Americans with an economic downturn he deemed "psychological," even that was cribbed from Bob Dole. As McCain senior adviser Charlie Black put it in April, "I don't think it's different." Of course, in 1996, a gallon of gas cost $1.36; in April it averaged $3.39. Now it tops $4.10.
Of course, just when the Bob Dole parallels couldn't get any worse for John McCain, there are the events of the past week. John McCain topped a calamitous five day stretch, one in which he labeled Social Security "an absolute disgrace" and his chief economy adviser proclaimed America a "nation of whiners" over the "mental recession," by stumbling and bumbling over a question about insurance coverage for contraception and Viagra.
And if nothing else, Bob Dole was comfortable talking about Viagra.