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The McCain/Bush Effect on Red States

07/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When John McCain clinched the GOP nomination, it was widely believed that his relative popularity among moderates and independents may well save the party from a Bush-caused bloodbath in November. Things, however, do not quite seem to be working out like that: Texas, Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina, Alaska, Mississippi, and South Carolina are toss-ups or barely leaning to McCain, and dozens of House and Senate races in even the reddest of states are in play.

The horror of George W. Bush's presidency pushed away voters in the political center and now McCain is finishing the job, causing shrinkage at the far-right of the GOP while compounding the losses among independents. Rather than rallying disaffected Republicans and unaffiliated voters, McCain's candidacy is turning off the few remaining GOP loyalists. The result: a party with which only 25% of voters identify.

Much was made this week of the positive reviews McCain received from some right-wingers for his stance on judicial appointments ("Conservatives Warm to McCain," claims one headline.) That the GOP and the media are grasping at such straws at this point of the game says more about Republican desperation than it does about McCain's conservative appeal. The Arizona Senator's bizarre general election tack to the right does not exactly make him look confident that he has the GOP base covered, which is understandable considering the loathing directed at him as recently as this year's primary. And of course it further alienates independents just as Barack Obama is moving to the center (an expected and presumably necessary irritant.)

By nominating McCain, GOP voters perhaps thought that they got the best of both worlds: an elder statesman AND a maverick, one who could win over the party faithful and reach out to more independent-minded voters. Instead, they got Bob Dole, just older, less consistent and even more disliked by conservatives. Republicans voted in a man who they thought would lead to victory the very party he spent most of his career pretending to distance himself from. It could have been a genius move in a year such as this, but it would have also required a candidate who was truly independent, clear-headed and endowed with basic campaigning skills.

When a Republican spokesperson recently said that "there are no safe Republican seats in this election," she was talking about Congressional races, but she may as well as have been describing the presidential election. It is increasingly clear that the Arizona Senator can rely on very few safe havens (perhaps even including his own state.) At this point, McCain can only count on 56 (!) electoral votes as being solidly in his camp (ie, those where he leads in most recent polling by more than 10 points). By contrast, Obama can count on close to 200 (270 are needed.) It is hard to exaggerate the difficulty of the task ahead for McCain, even this long before the election. He is running 15 to 20% behind Bush in a whole series of red states where independents have not jumped back on his bandwagon, and where many of Bush's core supporters appear to be planning to sit it out (or vote for Bob Barr, the Libertarian candidate). McCain will not win by relying on reluctantly loyal GOP support in Wyoming, Utah, Nebraska, Kentucky, Kansas (barely), Nebraska, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Idaho, the only states where he is comfortably ahead. Meanwhile, Obama has basically already closed the deal in the entire Northeast and large swaths of Midwestern and Pacific ex-swing states.

Much will happen over the next few months but there is nothing that McCain can do to rectify the situation. There is no reason for anyone to vote for a Republican in 2008, let alone for the party's current presidential candidate, except for those voters who hate abortion and gay people more than war and recession. They exist, sadly, but not likely in numbers large enough to make a difference. Bush has made a laughing stock of those who favored Republicans' foreign and economic policies only to see a GOP administration get the US mired in nation-building and expanding deficits, and create a bigger, more powerful, more expensive and more intrusive Federal government. McCain is hardly the man to put the country back on the track where 78% thing it belongs: the Iraq war is as much his as it is Bush's, and he is equally as inept on economic issues.

McCain will have to count on some dreadful mistake by Obama, just as Hillary Clinton did, clearly not a winning strategy for her, and she is an incomparably better politician and campaigner than McCain could ever hope to be. And so, as Obama pumps millions of dollars of campaign money into Alaska, Georgia and Mississippi, states that Bush won by an average of 20+% in 2004, McCain will be in a penny-pinching, friendless and desperate quest to recapture some of that maverick magic that could have served him so well right about now.