The Magazine

The Enthusiasm Gap, Part II

Conservative voters remain uninspired by the McCain campaign.

Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Belleville, Michigan

Standing on a stage at an auto-parts manufacturing facility in this small town west of Detroit, John McCain reacquainted himself with his enthusiasm gap.

Rich Keenan owns the Old Glory Flags and Flagpoles Company in Livonia, Michigan. Wearing jeans and a black buttondown with an American flag embroidered over his left breast, Keenan took the microphone and told McCain that he would not be voting for Barack Obama. But he said: "What I'm trying to do is get to a situation where I'm excited about voting for you."

Keenan was "concerned" about some of McCain's views--he mentioned the opposition to the Bush tax cuts and his views on the environment--and told the senator that he was grateful that McCain had begun taking more conservative positions. "I guess the question I have, and that people like me in this country have, is what can you say to us to make us believe that you actually came to the right position? We want to take you to the dance, we're just concerned about who you're going to go home with."

The audience laughed, and McCain did, too. Then McCain grew serious. "I have to say, and I don't mean to disappoint you, but I haven't changed positions." He defended his vote against the Bush tax cuts and, at some length, reiterated his concerns about global warming. Later, he went out of his way to emphasize his respect for Hillary Clinton and boast about his work with Democrats Joe Lieberman, Russ Feingold, and Ted Kennedy.

This is McCain being McCain. He clearly believes that bipartisanship is among the highest virtues of political life. But it also reflects the campaign's strategic attempt to position McCain as a centrist in order to win the votes of independents and even some Democrats.

There are risks to this strategy and the enthusiasm gap is chief among them. A Washington Post/ABC News poll last month found that nearly half of the liberals surveyed are enthusiastic about supporting Barack Obama, while only 13 percent of conservatives are enthusiastic about McCain. More generally, 91 percent of self-identified Obama supporters are "enthusiastic" about their candidate; 54 percent say they are "very enthusiastic." Seventy-three percent of such McCain supporters say they are "enthusiastic" about his candidacy, but only 17 percent say they are "very enthusiastic."

A USA Today/Gallup poll reported similar findings last week. That survey shows that while 67 percent of Barack Obama's supporters are "more excited than usual about voting" for their candidate, only 31 percent of John McCain's supporters can say the same thing. More troubling for the McCain campaign is that more than half of those who identified themselves as McCain backers--54 percent--say they are "less excited than usual" about their candidate.

It is not surprising that conservatives are not warming to a candidate who likes to talk about climate change and government subsidies for displaced workers. But this coldness is increasingly alarming to some McCain backers. They believe that all of McCain's efforts to win over Democrats and independents can only pay off if he is able to get conservatives to turn out to vote for him in November.

Many supporters--both inside and outside of the campaign--believe that McCain has spent relatively little time on his strongest issue: national security. Since the general election began six weeks ago, he has focused largely on energy and the economy. Although his campaign has occasionally sought to provide a contrast with Obama when national security issues are in the news--as it did so well with the Supreme Court decision on detainees and, last week, with the Iranian missile tests--McCain's theme weeks have focused on the economy, energy, and domestic policy. (Last week was "Jobs for America" week, and this is education and opportunity week.)

The campaign's emphasis on these issues is understandable. Polls consistently show that the economy is at the top of voters' concerns. And McCain is trying to convince voters that he gets it, that he understands their circumstances and has a plan to improve them.

But national security issues cannot disappear. His experience here will do more to help McCain with independents than celebrating Hillary Clinton or pushing cap-and-trade. Fewer voters may identify themselves with the Republican party these days, but more still describe themselves as conservative than liberal.