Lost in the hubbub over whether can win over conservative Republicans this fall is the fact that the Arizona senator has struggled among independent voters in recent primary contests in Virginia and Wisconsin. Why is the "maverick" having trouble with what was assumed to be his natural base? One word: Obama.
Whether the Illinois senator will continue to appeal to these voters in November is another question. But for now, 's strength among these swing voters, especially in key battleground states like Virginia and Wisconsin, should be more troubling to Republicans than whether McCain gets Rush Limbaugh to like him.
Despite Mike Huckabee's insistence on staying in the contest until the last dog dies (or at least until McCain gets the 1,191 delegates he needs for the nomination), Republican voters seem ready to end the contest. And while McCain still hasn't been able to show much strength among evangelical or conservative Republicans in the primary contests (he's averaged just 29 percent of the vote among both), his approval rating among Republicans is very strong. This suggests that while some voters are pulling the lever for Huckabee, it's not out of dislike for McCain, but rather a stronger kinship with Huckabee.
There is also no real evidence to suggest that McCain won't be able to win among core conservatives in the general election. In pre-Super Tuesday polling [PDF] taken by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal (Jan. 20-22), McCain was the candidate supported most enthusiastically by Republicans -- ahead of Huckabee by 7 points, and leading then-candidates Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani by double digits.
McCain's also been able to show marked improvement among Republican voters, especially now that the field has been whittled down to a two-person race. In the six pre-Feb. 5 contests where exit polling was available, McCain averaged just 39 percent among Republican voters. Even as the field dwindled to just three serious candidates post-Florida, McCain still averaged just 35 percent of the vote among Republicans. And he took just 40 percent of the GOP vote in Louisiana on Feb. 9 vs. Huckabee. Since Feb. 12, however, McCain has carried Republicans in every contest, averaging 55 percent. He was supported by 52 percent of Republicans in Virginia, 56 percent in Maryland and 58 percent in Wisconsin. A strong showing among Texas Republicans would also put to rest concerns that his appeal among Southern Republicans is limited.
But has his stepped-up campaign to win over Republicans come at a cost to his strength among independents? Or is something else happening? In Virginia, McCain actually lost the independent vote to Huckabee. And in Wisconsin, he won just 47 percent of independents. Meanwhile, Obama carried independents in Virginia by almost 40 points over , and in Wisconsin, he got 64 percent. Obama has drained moderate-leaning independents from the voter pool, leaving behind a more conservative group that was open to supporting Huckabee or Ron Paul. Still, there's no evidence today that these independent voters are choosing Obama because they see McCain catering to the GOP's conservative wing.
Are these independents gone for good? Obviously, much is going to depend on Obama's ability to wear well on the campaign trail this summer and fall. Today, pitted against the younger and more charismatic Obama, McCain's "maverick" credentials look worn and dated. And all of us have encountered anecdotal evidence of Obama's appeal to jaded voters who have now enthusiastically re-engaged.
Even so, despite Obama's ability to outwit, outlast and outsmart the Clinton machine, it's important to remember that McCain has credibility among independent voters that Clinton doesn't. As such, we don't know if her attacks fell flat because voters were unmoved by their substance or because they didn't trust the messenger. McCain doesn't have those problems.
Plus, Obama's ability to cut into Clinton's base of so-called "lunch-bucket" Democrats, first seen on Tuesday in Wisconsin (and perhaps continued in Ohio and Texas on March 4), could be attributed to his campaign's intensive focus on populist themes and spending programs. Already he's been designated as the Senate's "Most Liberal" by National Journal. And there's little doubt that GOP attacks on Obama will include charges of "tax and spend" liberalism. Charges of plagiarism also threaten to undermine the very base on which his campaign is anchored: his inspirational oratory. But for an electorate that says it's tired of the same old kind of campaign, these staples of a traditional Republican offensive may no longer have the same impact.