If Republicans hope to break their wretched streak of disappointing presidential campaigns, they should learn crucial lessons from John McCain (of all people!), who qualifies as the only candidate in that dismal span who proved notably more popular than his party’s national brand.
Indignant conservatives may rush to object. They’ll cite the conventional wisdom that McCain’s campaign proved singularly hapless and inept, plus the undeniable fact that the Arizona senator’s opponent, Barack Obama, won a higher percentage of the popular vote, 52.9 percent, than any Democratic candidate since Lyndon Johnson.
Nevertheless, by one important measure McCain outperformed all of his party’s recent candidates and demonstrated personal appeal that far surpassed the GOP’s institutional standing with the electorate. In 2008, Republican candidates for the House of Representatives won a paltry 42.4 percent of the popular vote across the country. On the same ballot, McCain drew 45.7 percent, an advantage for the presidential nominee of 3.3 percent.
By comparison, George W. Bush led House candidates on his ticket in both his races by far less meaningful margins, just 0.6 percent in 2000 and 1.4 percent in 2004. Bob Dole in 1996 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 did much worse than the Republican House candidates on their ballots, both running at more than 7 points behind. Mitt Romney also did worse than Republican House nominees in 2012, trailing 47.3 percent to 48.1 percent.
These numbers matter because the overall vote for the House of Representatives gives the best indication of the national standing of a political party. Most voters know very little about congressional candidates in their district. The great majority of Americans can’t even name the individual who represents them in the House, polls show. Pulling the lever for one candidate or another in these fiercely fought district elections usually reflects attitudes toward the “R” or “D” after the names on the ballot more than any response to the personal qualities that play far more important roles in presidential, or even senatorial or gubernatorial, campaigns.
In 2008, the Republican banner had been soiled and tattered by the September economic collapse and the unpopular bank bailout just weeks before the election, not to mention mounting war weariness, giving Democratic House candidates a crushing 10.5 percent edge on Election Day. Nevertheless, McCain’s personal popularity allowed him to make a much closer race, despite an underfunded and poorly organized campaign, a polarizing running mate, and the general disapproval of the GOP label.
To understand why, it’s worth returning to a happier era for Republican presidential candidates. Just as GOP nominees lost the popular vote in five of six races since 1992, they won the popular vote and the presidency in five of six races between 1968 and 1988. The only Democratic win in that span was Jimmy Carter’s 50.1 percent victory over Gerald Ford in 1976.
Yet this period hardly represented an era of partisan Republican dominance. In none of those six elections did the GOP win majorities in the House of Representatives. On average, the Republican presidential nominees outperformed their congressional running mates by 4.7 percent of the popular vote.
They did so by following the model of GOP presidential success pioneered by Dwight Eisenhower in his two landslide victories in 1952 and ’56, when he ran ahead of Republican candidates for the House by an average of more than 7 points. Ike loomed as a larger-than-life figure over his era. He was a familiar celebrity with a compelling personal narrative and a non-ideological image that gave him special appeal to independents and Democrats. Reagan, and to some extent Nixon, demonstrated that same attraction, which made them far more effective vote-getters than their more partisan GOP allies. Today we may think of Reagan as an uncompromising, doctrinally pure conservative, but in his first successful presidential campaign in 1980, many Americans still knew him primarily as a veteran movie star. His support from prominent liberals, including Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver and former Democratic senator Eugene McCarthy, gave him strong bipartisan credentials. In the same way, McCain benefited from the tireless support of his Democratic friend Joe Lieberman and a justly celebrated history as a prisoner of war, allowing him partially to transcend the public’s deep distaste for his party in 2008.
The important point here isn’t that McCain and Eisenhower did better than their party’s congressional candidates because they were more moderate, or that Reagan got more votes because he was more conservative, or that Nixon outperformed the nominees for the House because he seemed more ideologically heterodox. The real lesson is that when picking a president, voters decide more on personality than on philosophical or policy considerations. Obama’s victory over Romney didn’t indicate that the electorate shared his vision of a larger, more activist government. Exit polls showed a majority preferring a smaller government that attempted to do less. At the same time, Obama beat Romney by 60 points on a question about who cared most about “people like me,” and that image as a more compassionate candidate tilted the election in his direction.
The days of clear partisan alignments and reliable ideological voting blocs disappeared after World War II. It was a profound change in American politics that many politicians and pundits only grudgingly accept. To come to terms with the depth of that change, consider that in all nine presidential elections between 1920 and 1952, the winning White House candidate represented the same party that simultaneously swept both House and Senate. The public switched from strongly Republican to strongly Democratic in the midst of that span but saw no need for divided government.
Since 1956, however, Americans have split their votes most of the time, electing majorities to at least one house of Congress that opposed the winning popular vote presidential candidate in nine of the last 13 elections. For more than 50 years, voters have reliably ignored or even disdained all talk of partisan realignment or emerging ideological majorities, choosing in more than two-thirds of presidential contests that the two elective branches of government should disagree with each other.
Republicans today would make a serious mistake to argue that the next nominee must be more conservative, or more moderate, for that matter, than Romney. The public’s not looking for a true believer to move the party to the right or a wary pragmatist who will shift toward the center. They want a fresh, formidable figure who rises above the scary, petty Washington gridlock. Many believed they had found such a president with Obama. But he seemed shrill and partisan in his first two years, lost control of Congress, and then drew 4 million fewer votes the second time he ran.
If Republicans want to win again, they need nominees who can transcend partisanship with magnetic personalities and stirring stories that trump weary policy debates. In the next four years, the GOP should go big: finding, recruiting, or developing potential candidates who look larger than either of two parties—which seem increasingly tired, shabby, and small.